Jim Holt Gives Us His Measure by Jim Holt

Jim Holt

Jim Holt Gives Us His Measure


Now that President Bush has declared the Nineties to be ‘the decade of the brain’ (as Dan Quayle gnashes his teeth), it is perhaps a good time to look back at the tremendous progress that Western science has made over the last couple of millennia at understanding the nature of this organ, with its gyri, sulci, pons, medulla oblongata, and other whimsically named components. Aristotle, of course, thought the function of the brain was to cool the blood. A hundred years ago the German naturalist Karl Christoph Vogt conjectured that our grey matter ‘secretes thought as the liver secretes bile’. More recently the idea that the brain is a thinking piece of meat has given way to the realisation that its consistency is more like that of oatmeal, whose ‘glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness to disintegrate’ have been poetically remarked by Galway Kinnell.

In the 19th century it was thought that the greater the quantity of this oatmeal-like material one’s skull contained, the smarter one would be. Practitioners of ‘craniometry’ went around weighing the brains of great men at their decease to verify the proposition. For a good while the record was held

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