What’s going on inside our skulls? Thanks to brain scanners and other hi-tech methods, we now have the technology to peer inside the brain.

History of the Future

Fascinating objects, unexpected histories

This is part of a series for BBC Radio 4 called History of the Future, which uses the fascinating objects in the Science Museum in London to chart how our understanding of ourselves and our technology has changed over time. Listen to the broadcast (19:00).

However, that wasn’t always the case. Human beings have tried to understand the workings of our mysterious grey matter in various other ways over the past few centuries.

To find out how, I spoke with experts at the Science Museum in London, to look at the objects and technologies that previous generations employed to try to understand the brain. In the videos below, museum curator Katie Dabin showcases these intriguing objects – from strange figurines to enormous machines.

I also spoke with scientists who specialise in brain-scanning for insights about where the technology might go next.

Bumpology

The story starts with a collection of dozens of tiny ceramic heads – all different shapes and sizes – kept at the Science Museum.

It was believed that the shape of a person’s skull gave insights into their personality

Dabin explains they were created by practitioners of the strange pseudoscience called phrenology, once called the “science of the mind”. In the late 18th Century, it was believed that the shape of a person’s skull gave good insights into their personality and mental state.

The idea was that by measuring the various lumps and bumps of the skull, phrenologists could get an insight into the inner workings of their patients’ minds.

“People would be able to feel and measure the outward contours of your skull and see what kind of person or what kind of mental conditions you have,” explains Dabin.

In the video clip below, Dabin talks through a set of these weird ceramic heads, each with a distinct case history:

These heads did not come to their collector, William Bally, easily. Some were picked up from individuals who wanted to know their “phrenological outlines” while others were actually obtained from plaster casts of corpses. He had access to a whole range of individuals. Bally apparently boasted that he had taken the shapes of the heads of 600 criminals, including thieves and murderers. 

Phrenology was eventually discredited as a science

By the 1840s, 50 years after its introduction, phrenology was discredited as a science. “Bumpology”, as it was sometimes called, went out of fashion, says Dabin.

Instead, scientists focused on real-life case studies of patients with impaired abilities. The idea that different parts of the brain were important for different things became apparent for early brain scientists like Paul Broca. He realised a particular part of two of his patient’s brain was causing their inability to speak.

So although phrenology had been discredited, the idea that specific brain regions could cause certain behaviours, continued.

But that wasn't getting us any closer to looking at the brain in action. It was only in the 1920s that scientists began to read the brain’s electrical signals. This gave them the first insights into the electrical activity occurring inside an actual living brain, a technique called electroencephalography (EEG).

Initially, it had some strange uses, such as assessing whether couples were compatible for marriage or looking at the brains of criminals.

But more commonly it was used to understand the activity of the brain for patients with conditions like epilepsy, to track what was happening during a seizure.

When it began, it was quite an invasive technique. Behind the scenes at the Science Museum, in their enormous storage warehouse, Dabin showed me an early EEG machine:

EEG machines were used for both reading the brain’s signals but also to stimulate the brain with electricity.

But brain signals alone do not allow us to picture the brain. We needed something new.

In an indirect way, the millions made by The Beatles helped to fund the technology

In the 1970s Godfrey Hounsfield, an engineer with the firm EMI – better known as the home of The Beatles' record label – found a way to see inside the brain with X-rays, better known as a CT scanner. So, in an indirect way, the millions made by The Beatles helped to fund the technology (although some have since argued that the British taxpayer contributed much more).

The Science Museum had one of the world’s first CT scanners. It is enormous, as you can see below:

Today, the latest technology to scan the brain is called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. I met neuroscientist Joe Devlin from University College London, where he scanned my brain to show me how it was done.

What neuroscientists like Devlin can actually see is my brain’s oxygen change in action. If a certain part of my brain is involved in a certain task, say a language or word task, that area will have an increase in blood flow as it uses energy. The fMRI scanner monitors this blood flow.

“We can see the parts of the brain that lights up as you’re doing that task,” says Devlin.

For example, when I have to actively think about what to say, versus simply counting – a monotonous task that requires little thought – different areas of my brain are active.

While this gives insights into the areas of my brain that are involved in the task of interest, that is not to say fMRI is even close to reading my mind.

fMRI scans have revolutionised our understanding of the brain

That said, scans like this have revolutionised our understanding of the brain. "Traditionally all we had were patients who had brain damage, we could see where they had brain damage and what was wrong with these patient," says Devlin.

But brain scans allow researchers to peer inside the healthy brain to note how different parts are used and how they relate to each other.

So what does the future look like for understanding the brain?

Intriguingly, EEG and CT scans are still used today, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Doctors still use CT scans in many hospitals. EEG machines, in turn, are still used in research experiments. For example, scientists are exploring how non-invasive electrical brain stimulation kits could alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease or depression.

So, will future generations view our efforts to peer into the mind as primitive as we view phrenology? Perhaps. But what’s clear is we’ll never stop trying to unlock the secrets of the grey matter inside our skulls.

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