During the 19th century, feeling heads became quite a parlour game (next to opium and sniffing nitroustock_0171s oxide). Francis Galton had pioneered the pseudoscience of phrenology whereby personality traits could be determined by the relative size of bumps and protrusions on the head. The idea was that mental faculties were localized in the brain and those faculties that were especially active would produce a protuberance of the skull. Hence feeling for bumps.

I actually have a massive one. It’s called an inion and is located at the back of my skull known as the occipital bone. Do I have really good vision (the corresponding brain region directly below is the primary visual processing area)? Of course not, the logic of phrenonlogy is daft as a brush. I do however, like to hear the squeals when I allow unsuspecting people to feel it. Apparently the bone growth is a genetic legacy of Nordic origin (I always knew there was a bit of Viking in me!).

All this brings me onto neophrenology. I have always been deeply sceptical of the recent fad for brain imaging in cognitive neuroscience because,

1) I seriously doubt that mental functions over and beyond motor and sensory functions are conveniently localized in a brain region

2) investigators tend to find localization where they are looking for it

3) the beautiful brain images published in the papers are a con – the output from these techniques is statistical activation and these are simply overlaid on structural brain scans to make it look as if you can seen the mind at work!

4) it’s a damned expensive technique that has been sucking up huge amounts of research grant money

5) the majority of people doing the research don’t have a clue about cognitive science and why imaging is only a tool.

images As you can see, I am not a great fan of brain imaging of mental functions –  I think  much of it is phrenology.

 So I am pleased to announce that we have just been awarded a grant from the Bial  Foundation to undertake an fMRI study of supernatural thinking at the Cardiff  University Brain Research Imaging Centre. Of course, this is not the first time that people have scanned brains during supernatural thought processes. The public got extremely excited when researchers found a “God spot” in the brain of nuns and people meditating. But really what did they expect to find. We all know thoughts go on in the brain and not your big toe! Anyway our studies are going to address one of the key predictions of SuperSense. Namely intuitive reasoning leads to supernatural beliefs that we try to suppress and this will be particularly obvious in certain individuals. It should show up as a predictable pattern of co-activation in a number of brain regions.

Anyway, I always knew that Galton guy was on to something. Ask me again in a years time when the first analyses should be complete.


Filed under Research

4 responses to “Neophrenology

  1. You know, I always wondered how brain imaging could be ‘analysed’ so incredibly simplistically. Kind of like the ubiquitous cosmetics commercials for women that claim all things like collagen supposedly ‘soaking’ into skin cells, with accomopanying ludicrous graphics. I’m pretty thick when it comes to science, and even I require more evidence than a guy in a lab coat pointing to colourful pictures.

    I’m particularly thinking of the Alan Yentob Imagine program about Oliver Sacks’ ‘Musicophelia’ – great episode but very little explanation of the science behind the MRI studies. I look forward to what you can share about the subject!

  2. Congratulations on the Grant!

  3. Anonymous

    What did you find?

  4. heather macintosh

    It was not Francis Galton who “pioneered” phrenology. It was Franz Gall. This is an egregious error

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