Postcards from the Brain Museum

Postcards from the Brain Museum : The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds

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What makes one man a genius and another a criminal? Is there a physical explanation for these differences? For hundreds of years, scientists have been fascinated by this question.
In Postcards from the Brain Museum, Brian Burrell relates the story of the first scientific attempts to locate the sources of both genius and depravity in the physical anatomy of the human brain. It describes the men who studied and collected special brains, the men who gave them up, and the sometimes cruel fate of the brains themselves.
The fascination with elite brains was an aspect of the scientific mania for measurement that gripped the Western world in the mid-nineteenth century, along with a passionate interest in the biological basis of genius or exceptional talent. Many leading intellectuals and artists willed their brains to science, and the brains of notorious criminals were also collected by eager anatomists ghoulishly waiting in the execution chamber with a bag full of sharp metal tools.
Focusing on the posthumous sagas of brains belonging to Byron, Whitman, Lenin, Einstein, the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, and many others, Burrell describes how the brains of famous men were first collected—by means both fair and foul—and then weighed, measured, dissected, and compared; exhaustive studies analyzed their fissural complexity and cell or neuron size.
In various cities in Europe, Russia, and the United States, brain collections were painstakingly assembled and studied. A veritable who’s who of literary, artistic, musical, scientific, and political achievement waited in Formalin-filled jars for their secrets to be unlocked.
The men who built the brain collections were colorful and eccentric figures like Rudolph Wagner, whose study of the brain of Carl Friedrich Gauss led to one of the great scientific debates of the nineteenth century. In America, the Fowler brothers brought phrenology to the United States and made a convert of Walt Whitman, whose brain was donated to science and disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Eventually, this project was abandoned, and with the discovery of new technologies the study of the brain has moved on to a higher plane. But the collections themselves still exist, and today, in Paris, London, Stockholm, Philadelphia, Moscow, and even Tokyo, the brains of nineteenth century geniuses sit idle, gathering dust in their jars. Brian Burrell has visited these collections and looked into the original intentions and purposes of their creators. In the process, he unearths a forgotten byway in the history of science—a tale of colorful eccentrics bent on laying bare the secrets of the human mind.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 384 pages
  • United States
  • English
  • Reprint
  • illustrations
  • 0767906772
  • 9780767906777

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53 ratings
3.47 out of 5 stars
5 11% (6)
4 43% (23)
3 32% (17)
2 8% (4)
1 6% (3)
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