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Postcards from the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds

Burrell, Brian

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What makes one man a genius and another a criminal? Is there a physical explanation for these differences? For hundreds of years, scientists have been fascinated by this question.

In Postcards from the Brain Museum, Brian Burrell relates the story of the first scientific attempts to locate the sources of both genius and depravity in the physical anatomy of the human brain. It describes the men who studied and collected special brains, the men who gave them up, and the sometimes cruel fate of the brains themselves.

The fascination with elite brains was an aspect of the scientific mania for measurement that gripped the Western world in the mid-nineteenth century, along with a passionate interest in the biological basis of genius or exceptional talent. Many leading intellectuals and artists willed their brains to science, and the brains of notorious criminals were also collected by eager anatomists ghoulishly waiting in the execution chamber with a bag full of sharp metal tools.

Focusing on the posthumous sagas of brains belonging to Byron, Whitman, Lenin, Einstein, the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, and many others, Burrell describes how the brains of famous men were first collected—by means both fair and foul—and then weighed, measured, dissected, and compared; exhaustive studies analyzed their fissural complexity and cell or neuron size.

In various cities in Europe, Russia, and the United States, brain collections were painstakingly assembled and studied. A veritable who’s who of literary, artistic, musical, scientific, and political achievement waited in Formalin-filled jars for their secrets to be unlocked. The men who built the brain collections were colorful and eccentric figures like Rudolph Wagner, whose study of the brain of Carl Friedrich Gauss led to one of the great scientific debates of the nineteenth century. In America, the Fowler brothers brought phrenology to the United States and made a convert of Walt Whitman, whose brain was donated to science and disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Eventually, this misconceived phrenological project was abandoned, and with the discovery of new technologies the study of the brain has moved on to a higher plane. But the collections themselves still exist, and today, in Paris, London, Stockholm, Philadelphia, Moscow, and even Tokyo, the brains of nineteenth century geniuses sit idle, gathering dust in their jars. Brian Burrell has visited these collections and looked into the original intentions and purposes of their creators. In the process, he unearths a forgotten byway in the history of science—a tale of colorful eccentrics bent on laying bare the secrets of the human mind.

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Phrenology was long ago discredited as pseudoscience, but its basic premise--that the key to people's personalities can be found by examining their brains--remains the subject of heated debate even now. In Postcards from the Brain Museum, a globetrotting tour of brain collections from Turin, Italy, to Paris to Moscow, Brian Burrell explores the long history of scientists' attempts to explain the brain's function by examining its form. Since antiquity, scientists have attempted to explain intellectual and personality traits by prodding, poking, dissecting, and examining the structures of the brain. Almost invariably, their theories have been misguided, colored by prejudice, or just plain wrong. Lord Byron's enormous brain, which weighed in at a whopping 6 pounds, was used as fodder for theories relating brain size to genius until the relatively tiny brains of Walt Whitman and Albert Einstein led later scientists to abandon that notion. From Franz Josef Gall, who first theorized that bumps on the skull corresponded to functions of the brain itself, to Cesare Lombrosio, who believed that born criminals could be identified by their "animalistic" features, the scientists Burrell introduces in Postcards are hindered by their preconceptions even as they lay the groundwork for modern neuroscience. Postcards, an articulate, thoughtful, and often hilarious history of scientists' early efforts to study the human brain, cleverly demonstrates how far the science of brain anatomy has come--and how much we have left to learn. --Erica C. Barnett

From the Inside Flap:

The human brain may be the single most complex object in the universe, and one of the most difficult to access. But in the nineteenth century, ever-curious men of science set out to penetrate the dark mysteries of the mind, searching for answers to the question: What makes one man a genius and another a criminal? In short time, their search became a magnificent obsession.

In Postcards from the Brain Museum, author Brian Burrell traces the history of this fascination as he tells the incredible true story of science?s attempt to locate the anatomical signs of brilliance, madness, and cruelty. In elegant prose, Burrell focuses on the posthumous sagas of brains belonging to notorious criminals and to such luminary leaders and thinkers as Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman, and Vladimir Lenin, revealing the peculiar mania of the scientists who dissected the specimens and the sometimes cruel fates of the brains themselves.

As Burrell follows this quixotic trail of geniuses and madmen, traveling around the globe to visit the collections of brains now gathering dust in their jars, he struggles to locate the point at which science begins and obsession leaves off. In the process, he unearths a forgotten byway in the history of science?a mesmerizing tale of colorful eccentrics bent on laying bare the secrets of the human mind. The final result is an enlightening account that is sometimes ghoulish, often bizarre, and thoroughly compelling.

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