Gall the Visionary

18 February 2010

 An old maid's skull phrenologised. Wellcome Images
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An old maid's skull phrenologised. Wellcome Images

Today, the brain is regarded as the seat of identity, the home of everything we are. From memory, movement and consciousness to fear, knowledge and intelligence, the 21st Century brain is a humbling evolutionary marvel. Odd then, to think there was a time when the brain was considered largely irrelevant to human functioning.

Only in the last few hundred years has the brain made this journey from near obscurity to its current prized position and one of those who helped it on its way was German neuroanatomist, Franz Joseph Gall (1758 – 1828), one of the nine lives in Wellcome Collection’s ‘Identity’ exhibition. Today, most visible evidence of Gall’s legacy is confined to the occasional piece of anatomical porcelain – bald, asexual busts with the scalp carved into numerous discrete, functional segments.

Each segment of the bust indicates a human characteristic, sense or trait (from how carnivorous one might be to how witty) that Gall believed was precisely mirrored by brain development beneath the skull. The more a person was predisposed towards, say, benevolence, the greater brain mass they would have in that specific area and the skull would, in turn, possess a larger bump to reflect this. Today, this form of neurological interpretation, or Phrenology, is considered a pseudoscience. And rightly so, as it turns out there wasn’t a shred of biological evidence to support this immensely popular theory of the time.

But it would be unfair to dismiss Gall and his thinking out of hand. Prior to Gall’s ideas during the late 18th Century, the brain was still widely perceived as a rather mysterious, grey mass. It had garnered a reputation of scientific import, largely thanks to the English physician, Thomas Willis (1621-1675) and his groundbreaking anatomical work, Cerebri Anatome (1664), but was still a largely unknown quantity with respect to precisely which bits do what. Gall had missed the mark by trying to assign specious functions to the shape of the exterior skull but he was absolutely bang on with respect to functional localization of the brain and its rippled cortex.

Following on from these ideas, other scientists were able to start biologically and functionally dissecting the brain, assigning not instincts and behaviours to specific anatomical regions but higher thought, movement, vision, hearing… The questions now surrounding the brain are less about which parts of this remarkable organ do what and more about how they achieve what they do in such a seamless, integrated manner.

Barry Gibb is a Multimedia Editor at the Wellcome Trust