The Phrenological Brain: Toward a More Functional Approach in Neuroscience

Illustration: Catherine Nacion

As humans, we love categories. Our brains function as super processors, sorting stimuli into categories and allowing us to go about our lives without needing to pause and reanalyse every object we see. It’s a matter of efficient functioning. As we get older, our categories become more sophisticated. Consider the case of a toddler who points toward a cat and mistakenly says ‘dog’, compared to your ability to identify a swivel chair despite it lacking the characteristic four-legged feature of your traditional ‘chair’ schema. Unfortunately, sophistication in categorisation ability doesn’t necessarily translate to accuracy – we need only observe racial biases to see the fallibility here.

Studying the brain has a constant air of irony. After all, how can the brain be unbiased when it studies itself? In an organ so intensely tuned toward putting information in boxes it’s no surprise that much of neuroscience research and pop culture media coverage has attempted to label various regions of the brain as being responsible for specific, clearly defined purposes. It has me tearing my hair out when I see articles titled, ‘Scientists discover brain region responsible for enjoyment of chocolate!’ – hell, if that exists hand me an electrode so I can stimulate that spot endlessly! (Or not; the brain is a fickle thing such that increased stimulation would likely result in tolerance and an increasing dependence on it.) The fact of the matter is that, like all things in life, it’s just not that simple.

When I began university, I came in wanting to know all about the brain and its regions. To me it seemed like the brain was a mystery, but one likely to be solved eventually. Of course, there was also the stereotypical undertone of many a psychology student in that I wanted to better understand my own mental anguish too.

In the early 1800’s phrenology was at its peak. It was widely believed that all manner of personality traits could be identified by the size and shape of lumps on the skull. Phrenologists followed the logic that brain regions which were used more frequently would cause the skull to protrude, resulting in bumps which could identify traits as specific as the – now clearly fictitious – ‘born-criminal’.

Phrenological theory is mentioned with a fairly incredulous and humoured tone at the beginning of every introductory psychology lecture as a measure of how far our understanding has come. Although phrenology should have served as an example for me to remain critical of ‘facts’ regarding the brain, I instead enthusiastically took on the belief that the brain was divvied up into regions controlling various activities: the occipital lobe does vision, the piriform cortex does smell, etc. Lacking from this view was the answer to the crippling diseases I and so many others suffer from. There was, disappointingly, no ‘mental illness’ brain region.

This incongruence led me into later year neuroscience subjects that began to shift my understanding from the simplistic and, dare I say, somewhat phrenological regional perspective to a more functional one. The brain operates as a whole. Its diversity in function goes far beyond the black and white lines of spatial limits and transcends into a myriad of variables – think receptors, neural networks, neurotransmitters and more – all interacting, literally modifying each other’s physiological existence in the space of milliseconds.

The brain is a fragile network. Like an ecosystem, its ongoing and successful function is dependent on so many variables, both obvious and obscure. I’m constantly learning both how little we know and how much closer we are to coming to a useful, functional view of the brain. You simply cannot be using one area of the brain independent of the rest of it – even as you read this article your whole brain is alight. An fMRI taken right now would reveal an erratic and unpredictable pattern of neural firing, dancing around both spatially and temporally across all of the squishy wrinkle blob between your ears.

Years ago, I let go of the idea that studying psychology would, in itself, heal my brain, and that turned out to be instrumental in allowing me to accept things as they were. Now I find myself with renewed excitement at the progress we are making in brain research. Without a personal dependence on answers, and with the functional brain perspective, my mind is flooded with possibilities for understanding the normal and abnormal operations of the brain. We move ever closer to accurate answers that might satisfy the mysteries of the mind. My advice is to stay tuned on this field and its findings for new approaches to the mind, and mental illness, in the coming decades.

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