Category: Non-fiction

Michael Hagner
Geniale Gehirne. Zur Geschichte der Elitegehirnforschung
[The brains of geniuses. On the history of elite brain research]



Writing as an historian of science, Michael Hagner has published a book about research conducted on the brains of illustrious personalities. The author has produced a richly detailed and at the same time easily accessible study of a topic which has been virulent for centuries. More than merely outlining the way such research developed, clearly his intention is to demonstrate the connections between scientific research and its related socio-political objectives.

In this suspensefully written book Michael Hagner does not in any way question that the scientists of various epochs pursued their research out of a genuine desire for scientific knowledge. He succeeds in pointing out how the findings of their research were not infrequently corrupted and served as the scientific basis for discriminatory theories of race and gender – even though most of the methods discussed and the conclusions drawn from them appear largely wrong from a contemporary perspective. What kind of research was advanced during which historical period, and to what end, are the true questions underlying this book.

An explicit interest in the brain emerged at the end of the 18th century, an age during which science began to explore in greater detail the connection between the brain and intelligence. Without delving too much into scientific detail and thereby risking that non-medical readers might lay the book aside, Hagner presents comprehensive descriptions of the various research approaches since that period. He never loses sight of the respective social context, and rather than restricting himself to Germany alone he also includes other European nations.

When at first research focused primarily on the cranium itself and less on what it contained, the reason lay above all in the ethical taboo against opening the skulls of the deceased and dissecting their brains. Additionally, people at that time were convinced that the brain already expressed itself clearly in the internal and external shape of the head. They believed that taking exact measurements of the skull and creating faithfully scaled representations would enable them to prove that individual external features, such as the circumference of the skull or the width or height of the forehead, were indications of special intelligence or even genius.

The discipline of phrenology went a step farther and presented a whole list of mental attributes and abilities, suggesting that their individual manifestations could be read from the formation of certain areas of the skull. Numbering among such traits were “sex drive” in the neck area, a “factual sense” located behind the forehead, or “deferential” ability centered exactly on the top of the skull.

During the second half of the 19th century, however, interest shifted more and more toward the examination of the brain itself. Yet the desire for medical knowledge was still severely limited, because dissecting the brains of scholars continued to prove somewhat problematical from an ethical standpoint. It was indeed permissible to examine and also dissect brains in cases of mental illness or suicide, but the heads of renowned personalities were to be buried intact. In order to overcome this obstacle scientists in France founded a research association to which they donated their own brains for medical study after death. They gave the league the somewhat misleading name of “autopsie mutuelle,” or mutual autopsy.

Based on precise mapping of brain convolutions, and with the assistance of comparative studies, an attempt was mounted to isolate features which supposedly enabled one to identify genius, insanity, and also a particular inclination toward criminal behavior. Oftentimes, all three traits were associated with one another as well. Criminal anthropology as founded by the Italian Cesare Lombroso was based not only on the premise that the above mentioned characteristics could be “read” unambiguously from a brain, but also that certain human “races” could be classified according to specific characteristic traits. It is not without amusement that Hagner points to the post mortem examination of Lombroso’s own brain. According to his own theories it exhibited the very characteristics which marked him as a serious criminal.

The examination of the cerebral cortex with its differing structures, cell densities, etc. was the next major step undertaken in the hope of being able to decode the brain and its functioning. If the brain of an exceptional human being matched the expectations of the researchers, they considered it proof of their theories. If this was not the case, then this genius was simply one of the famous exceptions to the rule or was even viewed as a degenerated form of normality.

Until the first half of the 20th century the predominant approach to brain research was “organicistic,” as Hagner calls it. Subsequently, between the 1940s and the 1980s, this was replaced by a “technicistic” approach. Now the newly discovered computer stood as a model for the functioning of the brain, and human thoughts were depicted in circuit-like schematics. Followed to its logical conclusion this model leads to the question of whether humans are self-determining beings or whether, like computers, they receive their impulses from an external source.

As the author ultimately sums up, we must proceed from the assumption that no single “brain preserved in glass” will hold the answer “when it comes to localizing the cause of a special ability within a specific area of the brain.” And even the most advanced technological tools currently available to the neuro-sciences cannot prove why especially productive brains work particularly well. Today, computer tomography allows us to localize increased brain activity during the performance of various tasks. In principle, though, all it means is that we know where the brain is active at a certain moment. We still don’t know how it works. Even if this form of “cyber-phrenology” appears to be highly suspenseful and informative, we must not overlook the crucial question: what is the goal of such research?
Heike Friesel

By Heike Friesel, 19.08.2005

Translated by Philip Schmitz