Monday, December 8, 2008


Phrenology was a 19th-century fad that passed itself off as science. It is now long discredited; the relic of an era when real scientific advances and wonders were manifesting themselves and the public were still credulous enough to believe anything so long as it was dressed up as science. It was also an era before medicine had gotten a firm scientific footing, so it was not surprising that charlatans flourished in the then-empty intersection between science and medicine.

Phrenologists claimed to be able to determine personality traits, indeed, a patient's whole life story from the lumps on his skull. One man might be found to have the low, sloping brow of a congenital idiot and be deemed unfit for anything other than a lifetime of supervised toil under the watchful eyes of his betters.

So it is that when I see doctors, especially neurosurgeons, gently feeling Max's skull and making very carefully worded statements about his future prospects I can't seem to shake the image of a 19th century phrenologist at work.

Calling the neuro service "phrenologists" is just a little good-natured ribbing, maybe a defense mechanism. At best, it's a gentle reminder that while medicine has indeed made huge strides in the past century, there's still a lot about the human body, especially the human brain, that eludes therepeutic understanding.

I just learnt that the main character the movie Pi (a favorite) was a believer in phrenology; a fact that had escaped me the first time watching the movie. The main character's name, of course, was Max.