Top Brain, Bottom Brain, Part 1 – Since Time Immemorial

It will come as no news to those with an interest in neuroscience and psychology that misconceptions and myths about the brain have proliferated since time immemorial (and persist in the modern era, as we will discuss in Part 2). The ancient Egyptians thought so little of the brain that they discarded it when mummifying the body in preparation for eternal life. Aristotle believed the brain existed only to cool the blood. Hippocrates got a bit further — but only a bit — with his general observation in “On the Sacred Disease” that the brain is the seat of emotion, pain and anxiety.

Of course, social conventions and the limits of early science restricted those ancient thinkers. By the European Renaissance, prohibitions against cadaver dissection were loosening and the study of mind and brain gained momentum. The 17th-century Dutch anatomist Franciscus Sylvius described an anatomical division of the brain — into its top and bottom parts — that would profoundly interest certain modern scientists. Sylvius’s contemporary Thomas Willis proposed that different large regions of the brain were responsible for different functions. In the 1860s, the Parisian neuroanatomist Pierre Paul Broca provided compelling evidence for the concept of “localization of function,” which holds that different parts of the brain do different things, with his studies of his famous patients “Lelo” and “Tan.”

But this credible science put little dent in pop-psychology’s first fad, phrenology, at least not for years after it took root in the early 1800s. The invention of German physician Franz Joseph Gall, phrenology held that the brain consists of some two dozen or more mental “organs,” each with an individual function — including faculties such as “philoprogenitiveness,” “hope,” “firmness,” “secretiveness” and “individuality.”

The larger the size of the relevant brain area, the more developed was the corresponding function. But more than that, the phrenologists asserted that the bumps in the skull overlying each “organ” could be used to assess the efficacy of the underlying faculty. By examining the head with their fingers and various instruments, practitioners claimed to be able to divine aspects of personality and behavior — typically with the goal of self-improvement. Phrenologists charged a fee, of course. Motivated by the timeless quest for happiness, people seeking guidance in relationships, jobs and everyday life readily paid. Thus a template was born.

How popular was phrenology? So popular that Mark Twain included a phrenologist, “the celebrated Dr. Armand de Montalban of Paris,” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s phrenologist was a charlatan. Writer Ambrose Bierce also saw through this 19th-century pseudoscience, lampooning phrenology in his satirical book The Devil’s Dictionary as the “science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists of locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.” Skeptics notwithstanding, the fad case a powerful spell. Even today, one can find phrenology charts and busts for sale online and in antique stores — and the state of Michigan not long ago extended its sales tax to include phrenology, along with palm reading and numerology. Someone still maintains the website “Phrenology is a true science, which is there to benefit humanity,” the site declares.

Phrenology was never accepted inside credible scientific circles because many of its key assumptions are fundamentally incorrect. Specifically: the functions were not described correctly (e.g., “hope” is not localized to a single part of the brain), the size of a brain area does not necessarily reflect its efficacy, and bumps on the skull do not reflect properties of the underlying brain areas. (However, phrenology did have value in helping to reaffirm the concept that functions of the mind are anatomically localized in the brain.) Why, then, did so many lay people embrace it? The answer apparently lies in the timeless yearning we have to understand ourselves and our world. Ancient thinker, contemporary neuroscientist or ordinary person, we seem as a species to be hardwired to attempt to make sense of events and objects that we encounter, even something as complex as the brain. We create narratives, simplifying when necessary. This is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as the narratives are simplified correctly — characterizing core ideas and not introducing misconceptions

In Part 2, we will explore a contemporary parallel to phrenology that persists for much the same reason: our innate desire for meaning.


Finger, Stanley. Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations into Brain Function. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Gall, F. J., and J. G. Spurzheim, Anatomie et physionomie du système nerveux en général et du cerveau en particulier. Premier volume. Paris, F. Schoell, 1810; F. J. Gall and J. G. Spurzheim, vol. 2, 1812; F. J. Gall, vol. 3, 1818; F. J. Gall, vol. 4, 1819.

Gross, Charles G. “Early History of Neuroscience.” In Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, edited by George Adelman. Cambridge, MA: Birkhäuser Boston, 1987.

Gross, Charles G. “Aristotle on the Brain.” The Neuroscientist 1 (1995): 245–50.

Molnar, Zoltán. “Thomas Willis (1621–1675), the Founder of Clinical Neuroscience.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5 (2004): 329–35.

O’Connor, James P. B. “Thomas Willis and the Background to Cerebri Anatome.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 96 (2003): 139–53.

Image via AMC Photography / Shutterstock.

G. Wayne Miller and Stephen M. Kosslyn, PhD

G. Wayne Miller is an author, filmmaker and Providence (R.I.) Journal staff writer. Visit him at Stephen M. Kosslyn, PhD, is a cognitive neuroscientist and was professor of psychology at Harvard University for over 30 years; he now serves as the founding dean of the Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute.
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