How to Sell a Dissertation, Or: The Hand as a Proxy for the Brain

[I wrote this post for the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, where I spent four weeks over the summer as a recipient of the Mary Louise Nickerson Award in Neuro History. I added hyperlinks and minor changes.]

When asked about my dissertation topic as an early ABD (“all but dissertation”), I used to tell people that I work on the history of handedness research. A very common response was: “Handedness in what sense? Does it have something to do with molecules?” I usually explained that I’m researching manual preference, and that my project has nothing to do with chirality or any other fancy physical phenomenon.

After half a year of explaining what I mean by “handedness,” I came up with a more efficient strategy for answering the dissertation question. I started waving my hands in the air whenever I said “handedness.” This was somewhat effective. My conversation partners usually understood that I write a history of left- and right-handedness, but this also made them give me a look that said: “Oh my, what a boring thing to do.” Continue reading

Book Summaries: The First 3^3 Items from My Brain List

Today, I’m posting my first summarizing essay for my “History of the Skull, Mind, and Brain Sciences” list for you. I’m reading the items from this list with John Tresch, who is my main advisor. Be warned: it’s 14 single-spaced pages in Palatino Linotype 11p with 1-inch margins. Continue reading

Publication: Sex and Gender in F.J. Gall’s Organology

It took quite some time, but my article “Matters of Sex and Gender in F. J. Gall’s Organology: A Primary Approach” was finally published online in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. If your institution does not have a subscription to the Journal, simply email me, and I will give you access to one of 50 remaining free eprints.

Here is the abstract: Continue reading

M.A. Thesis: Functional Magnetic Resonance Phrenology?

In the process of revising a paper on F.J. Gall’s conception of sex/gender and the status of sexuality in his so-called organological doctrine, I reread two German articles by Frank Stahnisch (who is a great scholar and an incredibly helpful person): “Über die Natur des weiblichen Gehirns” and “Über die neuronale Natur des Weiblichen.”1 I was reminded how beautiful it is to read—and write—German texts.2 Apart from very few long emails, the last substantial thing I have written in the tongue of the umlauts is my M.A. thesis. I won’t publish it, but it seems a shame not to make it accessible. I included an English description of its argument in my very first blog post. Continue reading

Inspired Part 2: Are Imaging Technologies Enslaving because They Have Lost Their Romantic Ambiguity?

I promised to share more thoughts on Tresch’s fabulous work and Vinsel’s inspiring blog series. One topic that keeps coming up is the distinction between “tools” and “machines.” I am not sure if pursuing this road will lead to any illuminating insight, but since it keeps occupying my thoughts and is so well in line with what is happening in the realm of neuroscientific imaging technologies, I thought I’d give it some more consideration. Continue reading

Precautionary Detention of “Broken Brains”

What yesterday evening appeared to be one of the most embarrassing things I have ever done to a university teacher, turned out to be the trigger for my writing this post—in both a state of mental rage, and the deep fulfilling conviction that there is so much more to be done in the History, Philosophy, and Sociology of the Neurosciences (HPSNS), i.e., that my work is not expendable. Continue reading

Hello World

For a start of my blog (how did this weird abbreviation of “weblog” come about in the first place?), I want to share the main ideas of my Master’s thesis, which I handed in on Maundy Thursday this year. My thesis consists of roughly 80 pages German text dealing with the question whether fMRI research can legitimately be reproached for being “a new phrenology” or not. To tackle this extensive problem, I narrowed it down to the question in how far initial fMRI1 research in the late 1990s searching for sex/gender differences in human brains was similar to early phrenology dealing with the same question. Specifically, I concentrated on Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828), who put “organology,” as he himself called it, into practice. Gall and later phrenologists tried to localize mental faculties in the brain by palpating skulls, while fMRI tries to situate specific functions in several brain areas by scanning people’s heads. Continue reading