King Richard’s Skull vs. Phineas Gage’s Brain

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m deeply skeptical of the celebrity status of ‘the brain’ and public deference to neuroscience.

They come together in the form of the case of Phineas Gage and what imagined damage to his brain is made to tell us about reason and emotion. This case has an extraordinary influence.

If the brain were not important it would not be enclosed in a skull of bone and in such close proximity to our senses. But other things are important too.

Phineas Gage had a face as well as a brain and his facial disfigurement warrants as much attention as the damage to his brain.

See Neuroscience’s psychopathic view of Phineas Gage and other entries under ‘Neuroscience‘.

Given this, let’s consider the recent discovery of the remains of King Richard III beneath a car park in Leicester, England. [Full disclosure: he and I are from the same part of England, North Yorkshire. We are distant kinsmen.]

King Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field by a blow to the back of his head from a poleaxe, on August 22, 1485. He was just 32. By all accounts, he fought bravely and was killed in the thick of battle. The victor, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, then became king. Shakespeare was the Tudor’s apologist. It’s been downhill ever since, really.

Richard’s body was stripped and slung over the back of a horse and taken along the Roman road to Leicester, 10 miles distant. There it was displayed for a few days before being shoved into an unmarked grave in the Church of the Greyfriars, a Franciscan monastic community. Like this:

UK - King Richard III Discovery

When the monasteries were ‘dissolved’ (or ‘suppressed’)  by Henry VIII after 1536 and their lands effectively stolen and sold off cheaply to the merchants and nobles who supported him, Grey Friars monastery was destroyed. Richard’s grave was forgotten and built upon. At the time of his exhumation, it was a council car park. What has also been forgotten is how many of the English gentry acquired their land.

The Guardian has some excellent articles on Richard III’s exhumation.

You’d think that a King, who died defending his realm, who’d been given a Christian burial would be granted the dignity to lay in peace. But this sentiment reckoned without Science, the new religion. The itch to always know more is not to be resisted. Never mistake more and more knowledge for wisdom. Richard III was no longer a dead king: he was now evidence. But of what? No doubt a Richard III theme park is going to tell us.

Here is a brief video showing the newly revealed remains:

Here is a video showing injuries to his skull and skeleton:

Given a skull we can recreate a face and from a face we can infer some emotional expressions:

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III

From his spine we can detect evidence of scoliosis and infer how he must have felt, even feel empathy for him.

And what of his brain? Like all brains it was 70% water and would have evaporated in next to no time.  It’s no great loss. What are thoughts compared to deeds and the bones that did them?

Never seeing our own bones we tend to imagine them as dead ones—passive and inert. But bones are living things, glistening white, integral to our being. Do we not feel things in our bones? Know in our bones?

Not for nothing do elephants pay homage to the bones of their dead.

One thought on “King Richard’s Skull vs. Phineas Gage’s Brain

  1. Carey Levinson says:

    If you’d like to read a recent report on how Phineas’ life, looks, and personality were affected by his brain damage, see this article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22616011

    There are people out there who care about the individual’s quality of life. In fact, that is the question that drives all neuroscience investigations.

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