are you domesticated?

Without doubt the best thing about this whole blogging thing is the dialogue it enables. Under its first name of “needled”, I started this blog ten years ago, and over the past decade I’ve met some of my best friends and colleagues through this online space. Many of you correspond with me, and though it can take me a wee while to respond to emails and other enquiries, I do read – and really appreciate – every single one of your comments (and particularly when you are sharing your own experiences). Thank you!

Occasionally, one of you will send me something that really strikes a chord, and that was the case today when the postie dropped a card through my letterbox depicting a crazy phrenological head.

Reproduced courtesy of Wellcome Images (L0060935)

The head is part of an advertisement for Hudson’s Extract of Soap, was produced around 1910, and was sent to me by Anna, who was reminded of it after reading my reference to phrenological heads in a recent blog post.

Reproduced Courtesy of Wellcome Images (L0060934)

This advertisement is really completely, wonderfully whacko. It of course suggests the popular currency of the dangerously nut-job pseudo-scientific language of phrenology in the early years of the last century, but its use here as a marketing strategy also seems, in this particular context, spectacularly weird. Reading the bumps on the Edwardian housewife’s head reveals a brain emptied of everything but Hudson’s inane repertoire of slogans and jingles: “LANGUAGE is quite inadequate to describe the multitudinous uses of Hudson’s Extract of soap” “MIRTH – nothing to do but laugh at the wash-tub with Hudson’s extract of soap in it.” The inference that Hudson’s soap – and, by extension, domesticity itself – constitutes a form of brainwashing seems pretty unavoidable.


Thanks so much, Anna, for this postcard – I laughed out loud when I retrieved it from the doormat, and I’m now going to stick it to the pinboard behind my desk, to watch over me as I write about brain-related things. What Anna couldn’t have known (nor do any of you know) is that, as a child, I found phrenological heads, anatomical drawings of the brain, and basic brain biology completely and utterly fascinating. What really sparked my fascination was this book, which my dad had randomly inherited, and which sat on a bookshelf in the front room of my childhood home.

Many of you may also own, or have come across this popular household manual. As young children, my sister and I would lift this heavy tome down from the shelf and pore over its pages for hours. The pages which fascinated us most were those which included the fold-out anatomical human figures.

How I loved to look under the figure’s skin and skeleton to reveal its heart, spleen and intestines! In the accompanying text, I discovered many lurid “facts” about the human body and its dissection which both fascinated and horrified me: a healthy lung, taken from a corpse, would crackle softly when pressed, and float (if required) on water. Who knew?

Even better than the torso were the head-shaped pages, by which I was completely mesmerised.

Following the veins and arteries and musculature of the face were cross-sections of grey matter which looked like nothing I’d seen before – some of the stuff vaguely resembled vegetables, but I recall the feeling of having no real frame of reference for the weird substances and objects my head apparently contained.

The final page showed the mind divided into irregular, pastel-shaded phrenological areas with strange labels such as “amativeness” or “conscientiousness.”

There was something about the coupling of the legible human features of eyes and ears with these mysteriously labelled categories that really grabbed my attention.

What did it all mean? In the book I learned that, despite these labels, which were associated with something called phrenology, the brain was really an unknown landscape, whose powers and functions were very little understood. About the brain, the book said, there was much yet to discover. I felt I had to know more about it.

At my local library you could take out other books that were meant for older children about medicine and biology. I rolled the exotic Latin words around my mouth: pons, hippocampus, medulla oblongata. I discovered that each brain was protected by three layers, one thick and spongy (dura mater), one named after its spiders-web-like appearance (arachnoid mater) and a final light and delicate layer, whose religious-sounding name of pia mater suggested its purpose as the mind’s protecting veil. After a visit to London, during which I’d learned about evolution, I wrote to the Natural History Museum with queries about human brain development and a nice man replied, with textbook photocopies of essays about primate research that I didn’t really understand. A year or so later I created a school science project —The Brain and its Functions— which I illustrated myself with anatomical drawings whose tangible colours and textures really pleased me.

I wish I could now show you a photo of The Brain and its Functions (which I produced at age eleven) but I think it is either at my parents house, or otherwise lost in time.

Anyway, I have thought of my childish brain obsession many times over the past few years. As things often do in retrospect, it seemed mildly curious that I’d been so fascinated and bothered by my brain, and then, a quarter of a century later, had to deal with the implications of owning a damaged one. Looking back, I can see that an obvious childish narcissism lay at the root of my investigations: I was primarily interested in the substance of myself, in my own agency, and the relationship of my mind and will to the world around me. I’m motivated by rather different questions now, but am still as gripped and fascinated as ever by the mysterious materiality of the brain.