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You should have your head examined

Tease: You should have your head examined.


Intro: Welcome to “Dumb Ideas that Changed the World.” The views expressed are solely those of the host and do not reflect the opinions of this station or its funders.


Your brain’s one-hundred-billion neurons are always firing, often producing smart ideas. But they’re also capable of immense folly. One, which concerns that very brain of ours, is phrenology.


German doctor Franz Gall revolutionized brain dissection at a time when doctors were still ignorantly bleeding their patients. (He should have stopped there.) Then in 1800 Gall developed phrenology as the science of assigning mental traits to the contours of the head. Gall said the brain contains 27 organs controlling things like affection, courage, and speech. The majority of physicians at the time endorsed his theory.


Does phrenology sound like pseudo-science? Boston doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior used that exact term, saying “all positive evidence … is admitted, and all negative evidence… is excluded.” Holmes wrote scathing essays and gave lectures on what he called “bumpology.” --It turns out that the brain’s internal structure is not visible from the outside.


Franz Gall died just before the medical establishment turned on him. But that didn’t stop the fad. Grifters were happy to take peoples’ money and tell them what they wanted to hear. According to Dr. Stanley Finger, Mark Twain famously had his head examined twice, once anonymously, the next revealing his famous identity. Of course, the two scores were vastly different.


When “reading heads,” phrenologists were naturally influenced by race. It reassured plantation owners to hear that their slaves were of inferior intelligence and that they were superior, not knowing or caring that the whole enterprise was bogus. Later, German Nazis took scientific racism to an extreme conclusion, leading to the Holocaust.


Phrenology was clearly a dumb idea. On the bright side, laboratory research debunking it drove critical advances in neuroscience and psychology. Sooner or later, those hundred-billion neurons get it right.


I’m Jeff Gentry


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Best reference:

Finger, S. (2020). Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes on phrenology: Debunking a fad. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 29(4), 385–398. https://doi.org/10.1080/0964704X.2020.1733909


Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2024 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.

Host of Dumb Ideas the Changed the World
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  • Join ENMU’s Jeff Gentry each week on "Dumb Ideas that Changed the World" as he uncovers some of the most important brain cramps of all time. "Dumb Ideas that Changed the World" airs on Wednesdays at about 12:45 p.m. MT on KENW-FM.This program is also available online by clicking the title of an individual episode listed below. Please send any comments or show ideas in an email to Por.Dumbideas@enmu.edu.Explore the fascinating and often surprising blunders made by influential people who should have known better. Tune in to "Dumb Ideas that Changed the World" and feel a little better about your personal cognitive function!
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