Postcards From the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds,
by Brian Burrell. Broadway Books. 356 pages. $24.95.
After Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, the Soviet leadership decided to appoint someone to study the great man's brain. Somewhere in the folds and fissures lay the secret to Lenin's genius - a physical explanation for the qualities that enabled one human among many to change history.
Even then, there was nothing revolutionary about the idea of preserving the brain and studying it for clues to what made people smart, stupid, criminal or creative. Over the previous century, anatomists throughout Europe and America had undertaken the effort, accumulating libraries of brains whose owners were sometimes - though not always - willing donors.
The practice, as Brian Burrell documents in his frequently entertaining Postcards From the Brain Museum, flowed from the early 19th-century phrenologists, who sought to read a person's personality and intellect through the skull's physical contours. Scientists who found that practice baseless correctly reasoned that the real evidence lay not in the skull's bumps and dips but in its contents.
Postcards is a quirky tour through the myriad efforts to divine what in the brain's anatomy accounts for personal differences. Along the way, we meet earnest characters, such as a society of Philadelphia intellectuals who not only committed themselves to the study of brain specimens but also willed their own noggins to the cause. Through the foibles of scientists who groped for answers, readers gain an appreciation for the importance of scientific method - sorely lacking in most of these efforts - and the inscrutability of the brain itself, a gelatinous organ that lacked clear chambers or pathways for thought.
It is hard to know how Lenin might have felt about his brain being lifted out of his skull and sliced into thousands of sections for inspection. But we do know Oskar Vogt's reaction after he accepted the prestigious appointment as director of a Berlin neuroscience laboratory and pondered the task ahead. He was flummoxed, and, like scores of brain detectives before him, unsure how to proceed and where to look.
Pressured to find something, anything, that seemed plausible, the scientist declared that unusually large pyramid cells in the third layer of Lenin's cortex produced the intellectual equivalent of fine music. "Lenin's brain activity can be compared with a whole wave of sounds, closely interwoven, rapidly tumbling over one another, yet so combined as to produce a mighty harmony," Vogt said.
He was, of course, dead wrong. As another scientist would point out four years after Lenin's death, brain cells tend to swell as they decompose, which is exactly what happened in the 16 wasted hours between Lenin's death and his autopsy.
From beginning to end, Postcards is a chronicle of failure. Scientists who explained that Lord Byron's genius lay in the enormous weight of his brain might have been heartened that another literary giant, Ivan Turgenev, had a brain of similar proportions. How, then to explain the relatively pea-sized brains of Walt Whitman, Franz Schubert or Albert Einstein? Which brings to mind the curious tale of a New Jersey pathologist who swiped Einstein's brain, drove it on a cross-country odyssey and then submitted it to a scientist who came up with the intriguing - but ultimately discredited - finding that what set Einstein apart was a missing island of tissue between two brain fissures.
Burrell, a mathematics teacher at the University of Massachusetts, writes history with humor and a respect for the mystery that still confounds scientists equipped with high-tech scanners and molecular probes.
One major shortcoming, however, is his failure to address the fact that present-day scientists continue to bank brains in the legitimate pursuit of answers to schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder and other illnesses. Are their efforts more credible than those Burrell portrays?
Readers will have to look elsewhere for answers.
Jonathan Bor covers medicine for The Sun.