Language in the eye

I’ve had a busy few weeks so sorry for the lack of posts. I spent a weekend in London and while I was there I saw an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection called An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition. It had a small display based on every letter of the alphabet (A for Acts of faith, B for Birth, etc.) related to what makes us human. It wasn’t the best exhibition I’ve seen at the Wellcome Collection (I LOVED the exhibition Brain: Mind as Matter a few years ago) but it had some interesting artefacts.

One that draw my attention was a poster called the symbolical head and phrenological chart. In the past, it was thought that different areas of the brain dealt with different faculties and that the faculties could be measured by feeling lumps or indentations in the skull. A lump or large area meant that part of the brain was used frequently. Phrenological charts were popular in the early 19th century and showed the various faculties (such as secretiveness, hope, sense of time, or self-esteem) that were associated with parts of the brain. Feeling and measuring the skull was used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of an individual.

Image from the Wellcome Library, London.

What I thought was odd was that the faculty of language “the ability to talk; to communicate ideas; to use appropriate language; versatility of expression; memory of words” was attributed to the eyeball. Around the eye there are attributes I can understand as seeming eye related (e.g. colour, size, form, etc). However I was surprised to see language as the eyeball. Perhaps it’s related to reading, picking up body language and conveying expression, but surely near the ear would make more sense?

According to this site Franz Gall, the pioneer of phrenology, was at school with two pupils who were good at memorising Latin and also had noticeably large eyes. Later in his career he associated large eyes with strong language abilities.

The whole idea of being able to tell traits from lumps on the head is so bizarre now (thankfully), but it was interesting to see what part of the brain they thought were related to different faculties.


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