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fMRI: New Phrenology?

Is neuroscience bound to keep repeating old mistakes?  An article comparing modern brain imaging with phrenological weirdness.


In the early 1800’s, Franz Joseph Gall announced that he had

discovered an objective, biological measure human psychology.

He didn’t.

Two hundred years later,

a brain imaging technology called fMRI is making the same promise.

This time around, are we ready?

fMRI, Brain images, MRI Brain, neuroimaging, brain, psychology

Building from the technological advances of Magnetic Resonance Imaging,

scientists discovered a remarkable property of the brain (Ogawa, 1992).

To anyone working at the time,

it looked like we were on the precipice of entering a new world

where the ambiguity of psychological doctrines would be a thing of the past.


The biological correlates of love and despair,

the true nature of psychiatric disease,

the mechanics of how your brain thinks,


after millenia of hypothesizing about the nature of the mind,

scientists discovered that maybe,

an objective measure of human psychology was within our grasp.

Franz Joseph Gall: Phrenology

He was wrong,

basically on all counts.


Today, to most,

phrenology is a joke,

wikipedia declares it as a pseudoscience,

and in 2018,

nails were placed in the phrenology coffin when a group of researchers

decided to use modern imaging methods to test Gall’s claims,

and found no support for the theory (Jones, 2018).


But some people think phrenology is not to be scoffed at,


it’s a cautionary tale on what can go wrong in neuroscience.

It was a time of Napoleonic invasions,

an industrial and financial boom,

victorian tailcoats, canes, top-hats, and

Franz Joseph Gall

Gall considered himself both a physician and a naturalist.

He was a man that displayed a deep curiosity,

an insatiable appetite for knowledge,

and an unmatched collection,

of human skulls.



the idea

Galls big idea was the following:

throughout adolescence,

as the structure of our bones begins to solidify,

any peculiarities in brain anatomy

are reflected in the final form of the skull.

Psychology emerges from brain function,

which is dictated by brain anatomy,

which is reflected in skull shape.


skull shape can provide us with

an objective measure of psychology.


Vienna, Austria 1800's

Human Brains

Including the word fMRI in their description,

1,871 research projects are funded by the National Institute of Health.

Almost a billion dollars in annual government expenditures,

and in 2018,

over half a million scientific papers exist on the subject.

NIH Grant Reporter

Our federal funding agencies and many in the scientific community

have accepted the value of fMRI,

but if this research really is a new manifestation of phrenology,

we’d probably rather our government not spend a billion dollars on it, right?


It’s not,

let’s just get that out there,

fMRI research is not equivalent to what Gall and his followers did.

The research is far more rigorous,

and scientifically supported,

than anything under the umbrella of phrenology.

But doubts remain about the ultimate value of the technique,

and some of the doubts people had about phrenology

might still apply to the way we practice neuroscience today.


If we can understand what went wrong in 19th century Vienna,

and some of the fundamental limitations to fMRI,

we might take a step closer towards a true understanding of the brain.

Human Skulls: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?

Some report on what scientists report.  

We're here for the real thing.  

Independent - design heavy - science journalism.

Support us today on Patreon.

The Methods
Human Skulls: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?
Human Skull Anatomy: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?

Gall was a social man, and apparently a perceptive one.

Over tea, or after a night at the theater,

Gall would begin to pick up on his companions psychological characteristics,

and at the same time recognize a peculiar cranial anatomy.

Not completely ignorant to basic scientific practice,

or basic principles of fostering credibility

in a mostly-literate scientific and medical community,

Gall then sought to validate these findings in a larger dataset.


If Gall wasn’t performing validations on cranial dimensions

of marble busts in his friends private collection,

he was examining the set of skulls regularly delivered to him

by a range of victorian characters.

Environmental ecologists would provide animal skeletons,

the police chief generously offered those of executed criminals,

and explorers would fetch human remains from their expeditions to exotic lands.

Victorian Characters: From fMRI, a New Phrenology?

To understand Gall’s methods,

it’s useful to look at a couple examples.

Of the 27 mental faculties that Gall decided define humanity,

9 of them are unique to humans.

Here are a few:





the phenomenon

Poetry, to Gall,

encompassed all of the written arts.

Of course, this faculty is innate,

and despite what people may have thought,

poetry was not the combination of more fundamental faculties,

but instead a single coherent entity,

driven by a distinct part of the brain.


the skull

His forehead immediately above the nose,

rose perpendicularly,

then retreated and extended itself much laterally,

as if a portion had been added to each side.

It’s a bit hard to say,

but if you were a neuroscientist,

you might think he’s describing the bones

overlying the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Human Skull, phrenology seat of poetry


the discovery

At some point Gall developed a friendship with a poet.

After recognizing his friends curious skull configuration,

along with his poetic abilities,

and being the cautious, skeptical, scientist Gall claimed he was,

he announced his discovery,

but “spoke to [his] hearers with a tone of doubt”,

and decided one example was just not enough for his rigorous threshold.

So courageous, so ethical.


After giving a lecture in Berlin,

a friend invited Gall to see his private collection marble busts.

Thirty, beautifully crafted, statues of the world's most celebrated poets.

After careful inspection,

Gall found, to his great surprise,

that same prominent forehead

with the wings on the temples

in every single one of em.

Even more interesting,

there was a correlation between the skill of the poet,

and the prominence of their forehead.

Believe it, just believe it.

Famous poets: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?

Gall provides a list of poets in which the characteristic is present

Pindar, PI. xcii. Euripides, Sophocles, Heraclides, Plautus, Terence, Virgil, Tibuius, Ovid, Horace, Juvenal, Boccacio, Ariosto, Aretin, Tasso, Milton, Boileau, J. B. Rousseau, Pope, Young, Gresset, Voltaire, Gesner, Klopstock, Wieland, &c.


the phenomenon

Wit is the faculty to

consider objects from a point of view altogether peculiar,

find relations altogether peculiar,

and present them in a manner altogether peculiar”.

What does peculiar mean?

Well, Gall’s not sure, but he knows it when he sees it,

just look at Wanda Sykes, or Mitch Hedberg.


What Gall is sure about is that

the faculty of wit entails an insatiable urge to ridicule,

either others or oneself,

and it’s a habit is incurable by parental correction.


the skull

I have found the anterior superior lateral

parts of the forehead

considerably prominent,

in a segment of a sphere

a location peculiarly similar to

that of poetry.

human skull, phrenology seat of wit


the proof

In all the cases that Gall observed,

the wittiest of individuals had this same skull shape.

The peculiar twist though,

is that people who wished they were witty,

and harbored resentment against those who were funnier then them,

had a contraction in that very same region.

Believe me, it’s gonna be great, believe me.

Famous comedians: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?


a criticism

Now, not everyone was convinced by this.

A french academic named Demangeon criticized the concept

that “wit” was a discrete mental phenomena with a discrete brain origin.

To Demangeon, wit just had to be more complicated than that.

Gall responded confidently that, of course there is a

reciprocal influence, which the different [regions of the brain] exert on each other”.

But wasn't the whole point of phrenology that

discrete psychological processes arise from discrete brain regions?

This, Demangeon thought to himself

as he poured himself a glass of red wine,

rolled up a joint full of the 18th centuries finest pot,

and contemplated finding a career outside of academia,

maybe he could find something in construction.

Comparative Sagacity

the phenomenon

Roughly, comparative sagacity describes

the ability, or inclination, to use metaphors.

Which is incredibly useful, Gall figured,  

because “comparisons, parables,

spread a gentle and beneficent light,

produce the effect of conviction,

and carry along the most clownish multitude.

Unfortunately, clownishness does not make the cut for Gall’s psychology.


A philosophically minded friend of Galls

is described as being “embarrassed to prove the truth of his assertions rigorously”,

and therefore, in arguments, tended to resort to elaborate metaphors.

This tactic either effectively convinced, or confused his intellectual foe into submission.


skull description

in the external superior middle part of the frontal bone,

a great lengthened prominence, to which I had not given attention till that moment.

This prominence commenced in the anterior superior middle part of the forehead,

where it was about an inch broad, and contracting itself in the form of a cone,

reached the middle of the forehead, where it touched the organ of educability.

By today's anatomy maybe overlying

what’s called the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex.

human skull, phrenology, seat of comparative sagacity


the discovery

After observing his friends argumentation tactics,

Gall decided he should observe others who spoke similarly.

A pair of jesuit preachers,

the renowned father Barhammer,

and several other undescribed individuals

who all spoke in parable.

To Gall’s astonishment,

that same “vaulted conical eminence

was right there on their forehead.


this man is on a roll.

famous religious leaders

The writings Gall left behind are not in line with basic scientific practices,

mostly because he doesn’t provide an explicit account of his methods.

Did he explicitly quantify skull shape in any way,

if so, where did he place the calipers?

and could I see the data please?

How did he evaluate poetic ability, or wit,

was there a psychological attributes survey

he forgot to include in the supplementary material?

Who made these marble busts, and were they accurate?


But he also wasn’t entirely unscientific in his approach.

In studying skulls of those with highly developed poetic capability,

he provided a list of poets he evaluated,

and asked that history check his work.

Not so bad as far as pseudosciences go,

but not quite science.


fMRI stands for functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

Plain old MRI, without the f,

refers to a set of methods that rely on intrinsic differences

in magnetic properties between tissues.

These differences are exploited to generate pictures,

either detailing anatomy, or revealing physiological processes.

The key is the contrast,

different tissues have different magnetic properties,

or the same tissue in different conditions

may have altered magnetic properties

The functional part happens when you program the settings on the machine

to reveal the contrast between oxygenated and deoxygenated blood,

also known as the BOLD (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent) contrast.


Active brain cells are metabolically demanding.

To recharge after increased activity,

neurons must extract more oxygen from blood.

In response,

blood flow is increased in neighboring blood vessels.

However, incoming blood is highly enriched in oxygen,

more oxygen than even the most active neurons can handle.

This leads to a short lived spike in blood oxygenation,

that can be detected with fMRI.

Hydrogen atom alignment in external magnetic field in two tissue types
BOLD signal illustration, biological basis of fMRI

fMRI researchers believe that the BOLD contrast indicates brain activity,

which indicates psychology.

Implanting electrodes deep into brain tissue

allows researchers to record “large scale” brain activity,

more or less a summary of all the electrical activity in a chunk of tissue.

With these direct measurements,

you can validate the source of the BOLD signal,

and you tend to see that electrically active tissue

has an increased BOLD signal (Logothetis, 2001).

However, when using more precise methodologies

to record from individual neurons,

rather than the summary of a large area,

many neurons didn’t correlate well with the BOLD signal (Park, 2017).


The brain is more complicated than what can be measured with fMRI,

nobody denies that.

But this is a fact that it’s far too easy to ignore,

to put off to future generations.

Understanding what fMRI measures

in the context of what the brain actually is

might be the only way forward.

brains of different resolution: fMRI spatial resolution, temporal resolution
What fMRI sees,
and what a brain is

Your brain has 100,000 neurons per mm3 (Azevedo, 2009),

that’s about the size of a poppy seed.

The volume of your brain is about 1,000,000 mm3 (Lüders, 2002.),

or one million poppy seeds.

Based on some highly irresponsible back of the envelope assumptions,

that’s 100,000,000,000, or one hundred billion neurons.


The best resolution fMRI can obtain is 1 mm3,

a chunk of tissue populated by a hundred thousand cells (Schuz, 1989).  

That means from those hundred thousand cells,

you get one data point, a single number.


But that’s too complicated, too many neurons.

To help wrap our minds around it,

consider a chunk of tissue with only 25 neurons.

Neurons: from "fMRI Resolution"

fMRI works by comparing brains to each other.

A neuroscientist might compare brain activity

between groups of people,

maybe extroverts vs introverts,

or they might look within a person over time,

say while tapping a finger compared to not tapping a finger.

At any given moment,

a fraction of these 25 cells are experiencing

what’s called an action potential,

people say these cells are “firing”.

If 12 neurons are firing in extraverts,

but only 8 in introverts,

we might be able to see a difference in the BOLD signal.

Neurons spatial resolution: from "fMRI Resolution"

25 neurons,

over 5 chunks of time,

each firing or not firing

that’s 2^125 possible combinations,

there's no name I'm aware of for a number this big.


2^125 is way more stars than in the Milky Way,

more than the number of grains of sand on earth,

actually, it’s the amount of sand

on 10 quintillion earths.

but fMRI has put it’s foot down

and decided that today,

all it’s willing to tell you

is whether one group is firing more neurons than the other.

And, that’s over 25 milliseconds,

binned into 5 second chunks.

Imagine 1,000 milliseconds,

that don’t fit neatly within artificially defined time chunks?

Milky Way Galaxy

In a system with 25 neurons,

where each of these neurons has only two possibilities,

firing or not firing,

at any given moment,

there could be 34 million possible combinations.

34 million combinations in the extroverts,

34 million in the introverts,

and all fMRI is willing to tell you is

whether one group has more neurons firing than the other group.

And, that’s only 25 neurons,

imagine if it was 100,000 neurons instead.



But the brain doesn’t function in a moment,

and psychological processes don’t happen in a moment,

what matters is the sequence of neuron firing over time.


It takes a little while for the wave of voltage to travel

through the dendrites, into the cell body,

down the axon, and into the axon terminals.

At any given point in the cell,

an action potential spikes and returns to baseline

within about 5 milliseconds.


In contrast to rapid neuronal activity,

changes in blood-flow is a slow process.

The diversion of oxygen rich blood into capillaries

depends on the physical rearrangement of blood vessels,

it just can't happen as fast as action potentials do.

When blood is delivered to active neuronal tissue,

that spike in oxygenation lasts for about 5 seconds.

From the beginning to the end of blood influx,

each neuron could experience 1,000 action potentials.


But who can understand a thousand.

Let’s say we look at a 25 milliseconds,

and divide that timeframe up into five 5 millisecond time-chunks,

about the length of a single action potential.

neurons temporal resolution: from "fMRI Resolution"

The BOLD signal has coarse resolution,

it only tracks large chunks of tissue,

over relatively long timescales.

Within this time there is an enormous

amount of opportunity for a diversity of brain activity.


It could be,

that all of this complexity just isn’t important.


all that matters is the coherent throbbing of hundreds of thousands

of neighboring neurons.


But it’s also possible that

this enormous amount of complexity is important.

Right now, we’re crossing our fingers

and hoping that a signal emerges from the coarse resolution

data that we have.

And sometimes, often even, trends emerge.

The engagement in a task,

or the existence of psychological characteristic

is often found to be correlated with

the location of the BOLD signal.

On the other hand,

studies often fail to replicate original findings,

and combining data across large numbers of experiments

has in some studies  yielded no significant differences

between people with and without psychiatric disorders (Müller, 2017).

But is it really the methods fault?


In trying to understand the biological basis of psychology,

there are always two variables to study,

the biology, and the psychology.

It could be that technical limitations of fMRI

obscures our understanding of our thoughts and emotions.

On the other hand,

if the concepts we’re using to define psychology

don’t accurately represent the functions of the brain,

even the best technologies would fail to find a relationship.

Human Skulls: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?

Some report on what scientists report.  

We're here for the real thing.  

Independent - design heavy - science journalism.

Support us today on Patreon.

Human Skulls: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?

Gall’s work was about more than just the relationship between the skull and the mind.

They were about the skull and a particular conception of the mind.


Neuroscientists today have a language,

including concepts like executive function, set switching,

loss aversion, prediction error,

declarative and working memory.


But we haven’t always talked about the same brain functions,

or even the same categories of functions.

Carl Jung preferred to divide brain functionality into thinking, feeling, intuiting, and sensing.

Buddhists consider attachment, aversion, and delusion as the three central features of human suffering.

B.F. Skinner would have rather we not speculated about ambiguous brain functions at all,

instead focusing only on behavior.

Personality, behavior, cognition, emotion,

they’re huge fields,

with diverse premises on what constitutes the minds essential features.

And while there has always been disagreement between psychologists

on how we should think about the mind,

for anyone who wants to claim they’ve found the biological basis of psychology,

that have to claim an understanding of what psychology is,

or at least declare the existence of a couple measurable psychological variables,

and Gall had no issues doing so.




In his thinking, there were 27 basic faculties.  

Qualities like love of offspring, instinct to kill,

vanity, memory for things, memory for words,

sense of musical tones, and more.


A subset of these qualities are uniquely properties of the human mind

Comparative sagacity, metaphysical spirit, humor, poetry,

moral sense, mimicry, religious instinct, and obstinacy.


Why these 27 divisions?  

And what makes these 9 so unique?

Franz Gall
Franz Joseph Gall: Phrenology


The answer is, more or less, because Gall said so.

Often, Gall begins a section outlining his intention

to prove the coherent existence of a mental phenomena.

After providing a few tangential historical anecdotes,

Gall spontaneously declares his proof was successful,

despite paying little or no consideration to the point in contention.


When pressed though,

his most definitive statements on the coherence of

a psychological phenomenon

tend to be along the lines of;

everyone knows that’s true,


I’ve studied this very thoroughly, and let me tell you, it’s true, believe me.


Gall seems to prefer focusing on the methods,

the skulls, the brains,

while taking the psychology for granted.

There is no one “psychology” of fMRI.

Researchers from diverse fields with unique perspectives on the mind

use fMRI to evaluate the brain correlates of different psychological constructs.

But nonetheless, there are some trends that emerge

in all of modern psychology,

and there are some common psychological tasks

that researcher tend to use with subjects in an MRI scanner.

Here are a couple examples.




Positive and Negative Emotion

One common experimental task involves

presenting a subject with a set of “emotional pictures” (Lang, 1993).

Some are “positive”,

like a sunset in yosemite,

and some are “negative”,

there seems to be a few brown skinned children

wandering through trash dumps.

Should we assume that people are

“experiencing positive emotions” when they see positive pictures?

Emotional pictures:  from fMRI, a New Phrenology?


Because to me,

I was a bit emotional watching The Shape of Water when that woman

filled her bathroom with water and started getting sexual with that creature,

but not when I was in an MRI looking at a picture of a family of racoons.

Okay I liked that one, but most of the images just aren’t very moving.


The entertainment industry spends huge amounts of time and money

in order to squeeze the tiniest little bit of emotion out of people.

They might not have unambiguous data,

but it does seem that eliciting a sincere emotional response

is a little more challenging that providing a static image for a few seconds

without any history or context.




Response Inhibition

In the stroop test,

subjects are asked to indicate the color of the word presented,

and suppress the urge to read the word (Stroop, 1935).

Stroop task: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?

Response inhibition is supposed to measure the suppression of actions

that are no longer appropriate (Verbruggen, 2008).


Like in The Shape of Water,

when that girls neighbor decided to forego his complacent lifestyle

after he didn’t get the job he hoped for,

to help his neighbor and only friend rescue that creature,

only to be betrayed when he finds out

they flooded and did sexual stuff in his wood floored bathroom.


Was that response inhibition?  

Inhibiting career goals when it was no longer appropriate to pursue them?

What do you think his Stroop test results would be?


One of the main reasons scientists want

a biological measure of psychology

is because we don’t trust ourselves.

We don’t trust ourselves to fully understand,

or honestly share what we think and feel.


The ability to understand and predictably influence psychology

represents a one of humanity's greatest challenges.

It’s a little bigger than can be resolved in three paragraphs

and an image traced from wikipedia.

One thing that can be said though,

is that we can’t, like Gall,

take our psychology for granted.

We may not trust psychological variables,

but we’re still using them,

and we can’t keep pretending

that they’re not important to think deeply about.


Having an MRI involves

lying horizontal in a cold scanning room,

wearing earplugs and headphones,

lying completely still,

maybe trying to suppress the urge to sleep,

or suppress the urge to clear ones throat or swallow,

looking at a computer monitor that’s so old it looks like

it has fond memories of displaying the AOL dial up screen,

and responding to, often, decades old visual content,

with one of four buttons placed in a subjects hand.


There are plenty of limitations on how “real” the experience can be.

subjects can’t move,

they can’t exist in a setting in which they typically operate,

and they often aren’t performing tasks

that resemble things they do in their ordinary life.




Understanding the biological correlates of psychology

is a kind of a chicken and egg problem.

We can’t know the brain substrate of a psychological process

until we’ve accurately defined the psychology.

But we also can’t know that we’ve accurately defined the psychology

until we find a scientific validation of that psychology’s existence,

more or less, the brain substrate.


Half a century after Gall,

the author Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote


In every man’s memories there are such things as he will reveal not to everyone,

but perhaps only to friends.

There are also such as he will reveal not even to friends,

but only to himself, and that in secret.

Then, finally, there are such as a man is afraid to reveal even to himself,

and every decent man will have accumulated quite a few things of this sort.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?
Human Skulls: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?

Some report on what scientists report.  

We're here for the real thing.  

Independent - design heavy - science journalism.

Support us today on Patreon.

Human Skulls: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?
Credulity and Neuroscience

Franz Gall's lectures were cinematic events.

After purchasing their ticket,

attendees would find themselves in a candle lit auditorium.

Distributed throughout the room were Gall’s collection of human and animal skulls

alongside wax casts of variously shaped and sized brains.

Franz Gall theatrics


In the center of it all would be Gall himself,

in surgical gear,

prepared to discuss the functional anatomical specialization of the brain,

as he dissected a corpse.

One observer noted that Gall spoke with such enthusiasm and confidence

that at times, attendees couldn’t help but cheer and applaud.


In duller moments, surrounded by interested onlookers,

Gall would describe the skull in dry technical terms.

He claimed he spoke with “the most judicious reserve”,

and in his writings he constantly reminded the reader

how complex humans are,

and therefore how important it was

to study several examples

before coming to any definitive conclusions.


But dispersed throughout his proclamations of heroic skepticism

were sweeping assertions about psychology and anatomy.

Assertions derived from small, nondescript samples.


It is therefore no longer permitted to doubt,

that this talent is indicated by the organization,

which I have described.


Much of Gall’s display of scientific restraint

appeared to be build up to his emotionally charged rhetoric.

In a discussion on the superiority of white europeans,

in not quite as generous a spirit as Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel,

Gall Remarked

The history of the human heart,


the spirit of wit, the piercing shafts of satire,

all the varieties of eloquence among the ancients and the moderns,

are confined, almost without exception,

to the latitudes of the fig and the grape.”  

In the next few paragraphs,

the phrases “fiery passions”, “burning desires”, and “fires of love” figure prominently.


It’s maybe a bit unfair

that Gall has become synonymous with pseudoscience.

He did make some gestures towards the scientific method,

trying to obtain larger sample sizes,

and describing some, but definitely not all of his methods.

But it appears his priorities weren’t discovering the truth

so much as they were asserting that he had discovered the truth.

While Gall considered himself a naturalist, and a physician,

it would perhaps be more accurate to describe him as a performer (Van Whye, 2002).

Human Skulls: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?

Science is supposed to be insulated from showmanship,

researchers are supposed to care only about the facts.

However, all but the top scientists have to engage in some marketing

if they want to continue being scientists.

They need to persuade high profile journals to publish their research,

and funding bodies to continue providing resources.

Typically, scientists are selling to scientists,

so hyperbole and emotionally charged rhetoric shouldn’t matter that much.

But then again,

scientists are people too,

people who don’t always have the time,

or capability,

to thoroughly interrogate other scientists claims.


Now, not everyone in Gall’s time was so credulous,

but phrenology, lead by Franz Gall's charge,

successfully persuaded people of all walks of life,

scientists, clinicians, philosophers, government officials and more,

that skull shape is a biomarker for mental faculties.


Maybe, we’re living in an age of greater skepticism,

especially among the scientific community.

But we’re also living in an age of neuromania,

one or two blog posts from these neuroscientists

should be enough to persuade you of this:

neuroskeptic: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?
neurocritic: from fMRI, a New Phrenology?

According to the scientist and writer neuroskeptic,


both neuroscientists and the public are subject

to the same misunderstandings when trying to think about the brain”.


To blame, according to the author,

is the timeless human craving for a “hard” science of the mind,

as was evident in Gall and his followers.


Psychology is ambiguous.

Taken alone,

it will never be able to provide us

with definitive answers to the question that matters most.

To whatever scientist finds the answer,

a continuous stream of grant-funding will mean little

compared to the wealth and glory they will have achieved,

and, I guess,

the satisfaction of achieving eternal human happiness.

In the meantime,

whoever claims they've seen hard data

on what it means to live a good life,

might think they're buying themselves credibility.

Or maybe that's not what people are thinking,

but whatever is it that's driving this phenomenon,

perhaps the same force

that drove us to forgo a scientific attitude

in favor of neuro-answers

is still with us in some way.

fMRI is not phrenology.


In 1828, Franz Gall passed away.

As he desired,

and as he deserved,

his body was donated to science,

phrenological science.

His skull was measured,

brain morphology assessed,

and the data generated ended up where it belonged,

in the annals of history, not science.




Despite many decidedly pessimistic attitudes towards fMRI,

there is one widespread clinical use.

Neurosurgeons use it in tandem with other techniques

to map out the location of particular brain functions prior to resective surgery.

This is an incredibly important use of fMRI,

and for this reason alone, we can’t abandon it.


But remember why we started doing this,

and look at what the active research is on.

Most of it isn’t about improving outcomes in surgical intervention.


We don’t use fMRI in psychiatric diagnosis,

or psychotherapeutic treatment.

We can’t use fMRI to tell us what career would provide us fulfillment,

to understand whether we should continue

a relationship with a romantic partner,

or how to help our children find meaning and happiness in life.


Maybe it’s the coarse resolution of the technology,

or maybe it’s lack of creativity and applicability of the psychology we’re using.


Franz Gall didn’t improve human psychological welfare,

and fMRI has, at least so far,

not fared much better.

And after three decades of trying,

it makes one wonder whether it’s about time we try something else.

Brain:  from fMRI, a New Phrenology?


Primary Source

  1. Gall, Franz Josef. On the functions of the brain and of each of its parts: With observations on the possibility of determining the instincts, propensities, and talents, or the moral and intellectual dispositions of men and animals, by the configuration of the brain and head. Vol. 1. Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1835.


  1. Van Wyhe, John. "The authority of human nature: the Schädellehre of Franz Joseph Gall." The British journal for the history of science 35.1 (2002): 17-42.


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Do Mantras Work?

J.D. Salinger and the science of mantra meditation

Andrew Neff ~ July '19

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