Franz Gall noticed that people who were good at memorisation had a certain eye-shape. The eyes bulged more than usual, as though they couldn’t believe what they were seeing, as though they had the capacity to draw in everything they saw and lock it away. From there, Gall mapped the landscape of the brain, the rivers and mountains, the lines of alps, the sea monsters. He said the brain was a mass of 27 organs, and the dips and peaks of the skull mirrored the enlarged or undeveloped sections of the brain.
The top of the brain holds the capacity for hope and belief in God, which seem so much like each other. Care for offspring is centred in the back of the head with wonder on either side, like Wonder Bread. The back of the brain is a children sandwich. Sense of time rests above the eyes: the part of me that seizes and throbs when I feel time running out and I have too much to do. Cautiousness is a small wedge in the temples, that part that feels softer than the rest, already concave, as if waiting for its moment to break.
I can picture Gall sitting in his office, surrounded by the skulls of humans, dogs, birds, and imagine him getting stuck one day, putting a hand to his own skull in frustration and finding in it the answer he was looking for. Not a falling apple, but a falling head into a pair of hands.
The higher classes used phrenology to justify their superiority and formed a language from the planes of their scalp. They called themselves ‘high-brow’ for the smooth, sloping forehead that revealed a capacity for science and literature. They were ‘well-rounded’. They had developed the right brain organs. The lower classes were happy to find that the organs could be exercised. They could improve themselves and rise through the ranks, reach higher than their station. Phrenology provided aspiration. It was used to justify slavery because someone glazed their hand across the skull of a black person and decided the over-developed organs were caution and veneration, showing a tendency to need a master.
I wonder about the people who paid for this service. Phrenology could provide an answer to a question, but not a solution, like taking a Buzzfeed quiz; we feed in information about ourselves and are amazed when the same information comes back in a simpler form, like it’s cracked our code. The complexity of our existence is reduced to one of four options, and we walk lighter because we know which variety of pickle we are. The self is known. We look to categories to tell us who we are. We always have, since zodiacs, since humors. Are you black bile or yellow bile? Blood or phlegm?
I picture a 19th century woman slipping into a tent at the fair and wonder what she wants to know about herself. What makes her leave her house with the money in her pocket? Maybe she wants to know what kind of person she should marry, or whether she’ll be able to love her children, or what she might be capable of if she were allowed a different life. Maybe she just wants someone to pull the pins out of her hair, hold the weight of her head in their hand, and run their fingers softly over her scalp.
I’ve looked at the sections of the brain and I can’t see where love sits. Should there be a part of my skull that beats like a heart, or flutters like a breeze at the curtains? Sand and soil, matters of the earth, aren’t counted on a map, so perhaps love is the matter of the brain; the pink squishiness that might break if squeezed. Or maybe love is the fluid that holds the brain in suspension and cushions it against knocks. That care, that’s a kind of love. When I was twelve I broke my head. Blood and brain fluid spilled over the rocks I’d landed on. When I tried to get up, it slid down my neck. Perhaps I lost too much; too much of that love, and my body couldn’t produce more.
If I rested my head in your hands, if you moved my hair out of the way, and fit callipers around my skull, would you be able to see whether or not I loved you? I know I said I did. I ended conversations with ‘love you, bye,’ and you aren’t supposed to say that unless you mean it. But you were so easy to let go of. I felt like I could finally take a deep breath.
We’ve developed a language from locating things in the body. The ancient Hebrews believed love was felt in the bowels: ‘I love you with all my bowel.’ People spoke about the heart before they knew its function, so I’ve wondered if they weren’t referring to an organ but to the centre of a person. More like the heart of an artichoke than the heart of the body. People said I should stick with you because you had such a big heart. By which they meant the symmetrical cartoon heart that I used to draw in my maths book, with wings on each side and a halo. Not the gory, wet, kicking thing. You once placed my hand over your heart so I could feel how it was racing, and it was so corny I wanted to leave you right then, though you were only trying to say that you loved me. I imagine you swollen with heart, suffocating me with your heart, holding it over my face and smothering me with it. I got so tired of carrying it around like it was a sparrow that had crashed into my window. I think I wanted to hurt you.
There was that time in IKEA when you had done nothing wrong, nothing annoying. You hadn’t tried to impress me with your taekwondo moves, or repeated a joke, but I looked at you and felt nothing. If you had stayed or left my body wouldn’t change, neither heart nor bowel.
Maybe I loved you like a brother and missed you like an amputated limb; every now and then I go to lean on it and find it gone.
Unlike the heart, we can’t look at a brain and see how it works. We don’t see thoughts running along a production line before being pumped around the body. But maybe I could slip into a tent and have someone measure my head and tell me about my life. Perhaps they’ll make a chart so I can see, with little static images inside the skull: me engaged in different activities with varying levels of ability. The phrenologist might pull at his beard, and poke a stick at the chart, showing me which sections to exercise, and maybe the surface of my skull will shift and change, that fluid flooding back in. But for now, we walk away from each other and I can barely make you out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alie Benge is a Wellington-based nonfiction writer. Her essays have been published in Takahē, Scum Mag, Mimicry, and others. She was joint winner of the 2017 Landfall Essay Competition.