baudrunner's space: The gall of Franz Joseph Gall
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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The gall of Franz Joseph Gall

Phrenology, or "cranioscopy" as it was previously known, is the brainchild of Franz Joseph Gall. It is the study of the localisation of certain traits, functions, or tasks in the brain. The term cranioscopy was what Gall called it. A contemporary and follower by the name of John Spurzheim first coined the term prhenology and he was largely responsible for its brief success among the gullible and uneducated.

Gall was born in 1758 in Baden, Germany, and earned his medical degree in Vienna, so he can be considered a pioneer of sorts of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. His ideas were rejected by both the church and by the medical and scientific communities so his attempts to find professorships there failed miserably. Instead, he took up residence in Paris, where he acquired a following in spite of like inhospitable treatment of his theories by the emperor Napoleon and the scientific establishment, represented by the Institute of France. The only positive contribution that this field of study gave to medical science is the idea that emotions are the product of the brain and not of the heart. Medical science was coming of age.

The essential premise of Gall's study lay in generalisations of character and aptitude based on the physical appearance of the skull. For example, a person with prominent eyeballs has a powerful memory. A particular shape of the cranium determines talent or aptitude in a specific field. People with small craniums are necessarily inferior, and so on.

The "science" of phrenology was widely accepted in England, and later became very popular in America from 1820 to 1850. It was largely used to justify racial and gender discrimination and therefore indirectly encouraged perpetuation of the slave trade.

Phrenology has evolved in modern times into the study of the dedication of specific areas of the brain to specific parts of the human body, and out of this has grown the odd caricature of the homunculus -- the little man behind the being. In the homunculus, the exaggerated parts of the human body represent the amount of the brain which is dedicated to function.

There is no doubt that certain areas of the brain are responsible for certain functions. Studies of patients with brain injuries point undeniably to this fact. But the evidence goes beyond the motor co-ordination deficiencies exhibited by victims of severe stroke. For example, contained in the left temporal lobe of the brain are what are known as Wernicke's and Broca's areas. Lesions in this part of the brain result in deficiencies related to language interpretation and expression. A patient with an injury in this part of the brain might be able to read perfectly but not out loud. Or, the patient might be able to write fluently but be unable to take dictation. It should be noted that this peculiarity is specific to the western language. In glyph based languages like Chinese the functions of language interpretation and expression are found in the occipital lobe, and injuries to Wernicke's and Broca's areas in the Chinese speaking individual do not express in those difficulties.

This example just points to the adaptive properties of the brain. This property explains why the brain can grow new neural networks to compensate for injury in a specific location, effectively bypassing a lesion. Therapies can work wonders.

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