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The skull beneath the skin.

THE novel Gorky Park written by Martin Cruz Smith contains a passage that sheds light on the way the human brain makes contact with the world through the orifices of the skull. |The head,' he wrote, |is a machine for nervous response, seeing, eating, hearing and smelling -- in that order. It is a machine with proportionally larger bones and less flesh than a hand. The face is only a thin mask of the skull.'

This observation brings to mind the limited attention devoted to the importance of the skull in human evolution. When human evolution is discussed, the hand receives much more attention than the brain case. Yet the skull is the most truly distinctive bone structure of the human body. It is the skull that enables us to identify with skeletons from thousands of years past. Skulls speak to us as to the humanity represented by the structures of bone. Leg, arm and chest bones don't have any psychological impact on us, but the skull 'testifies to the reality of a former life'. The skull is the base upon which the face is built and the face may be said to be the bow of the human personality, the instrument through which the human personality is projected.

Indeed, there is a power and authenticity in the human skull. It exists long after -- sometimes millennia after -- the inert mass or dead flesh returns to its constituent elements. The skull encloses the brain, protects it and makes it possible for the brain to deal with the surrounding world.

The brain and the brain case, which is a different structure, had to undergo simultaneous evolution, for the brain could not operate without its protective shell. It is interesting to consider that reproductive organs, for all their importance, are not shielded as the brain is shielded, and are vulnerable. The brain's wiring and blood vessels have been uniquely safeguarded by nature. The skull provides partial armoured protection for vision, hearing and smell, though not all mechanisms of speech.

Scientific studies sometimes proceed in strange ways. Enormous attention has been devoted to the movements of early peoples and to the tools developed. Yet relatively scanty attention has been paid to the bony structure that ensures the safety of neural and vascular components of the brain. To be sure, pondering the evolution of the brain and its protective shell is far more demanding than collecting and classifying bits of flint.

To date, science can't seem to address the question of why the Neanderthal brain had greater capacity than the brain of modern man. Everything in the human being arises from necessity. Then why did Neanderthal man develop a larger brain case? Was the protected brain within greater in cognitive capacity? It doesn't logically follow that the disappearance of Neanderthal man indicates a lesser breed, a non-competitive humanoid type. It may be that the Neanderthal groups became subject to a plague that swept them away or reduced their numbers to the point where the population could not be sustained. And why was the heavy protective ridge above the eyes discarded in the evolutionary process? There's nothing in the life experience of Homo Sapiens to suggest that the need for such protection, such bodily armour, diminished as Homo Sapiens emerged. Physical combat is a constant of Homo Sapiens' life experience down to our own day, with on-going brutalization in human contacts. Another question, albeit a much more basic one, is why the eye sockets of females are much larger than those of males? A larger eye socket suggests a much more powerful mechanism of vision.

Some of the questions regarding the human structure are at least quasi-metaphysical in character. For example, how did the skull come into being? Did the evolving brain will the skull and cause the constituent elements to fuse into a protective shell? That is a question as much for philosophers as scientists. It strikes this writer as inconceivable that the brain and its supporting structures and chemistry were the result of an accident. Not everyone agrees, of course. Drs. Robert Omstein and David Sobel, in an otherwise illuminating book, The Healing Brain, say that the brain is comparable to a crazily built old house'. I don't believe that one can downgrade in that way the most extraordinary structure in the universe. Indeed, the brain within its case constitutes a mini-universe. The brain is not only capable of regulating all the bodily structures, processes and chemical and psychological reactions, but it devises and organizes relationships with other human beings and other species. It masters the entire human environment and grasps the largest pieces of reality -- galaxies, for instance, as well as microbes and sub-atomic particles. One has to be humbled by the capacity of the brain to comprehend and grasp all of reality, the depth of time and space and what is beyond time and space, namely eternity. The jump from the brain of other creatures to the human brain is colossal -- indeed far beyond what that word suggests. As the brain is a mini-universe, it is hard to believe that its capabilities could have evolved in a mere two or three million years, why only one creature was endowed with extraordinary powers and why other creatures were cut off at a lower level of development.

We ought to focus more attention on the mini-universe within. Consider one feature of the capability of the brain, the ability of the human being to have relations of one sort or another with thousands of people in a lifetime, though the contacts may be momentary. One passes another individual in an automobile and, in a fragment of a second, arrives at an appraisal of that individual. And even in a state of sleep, the mind continues to roam, reaching to take in new worlds of experience through complex situations and relationships.

As we ponder the human mind, questions arise, one after another. What is human grief? And what is its function, if any? Why are certain human beings regarded as beloved human beings, set apart from other humans who look and sound alike, who have almost parallel characteristics? The human mind draws this distinction, treats individuals as exceptional, and holds to fidelity even after the death of a loved one. This is another extraordinary feature of the human personality.

Another metaphysical question: why are the powers of the human mind so enormous when the bodily structure lasts for such a short time and dissolves into its constituent elements? For all our ability to comprehend the wide universe, our internal universe is destined to disappear after an instant in time, leaving only the brain case as a reminder of our existence. That is a riddle that cannot be dealt with by other than philosophical means. We are fearfully and wonderfully made but we are mere specks of matter, nonetheless.

Back to the human skull and the face built upon it by muscles and layers of fat. The face and the skull beneath have long fascinated human beings. In the Middle Ages and later, religion reminded people of the skull. Depictions of the skull and the entire human skeleton were on countless tombstones as reminders of our mortality. In the modern world, depictions of the skeleton are virtually taboo. Death and the messy results of death are hidden away. Our lusts are public, but death is concealed--a contemporary form of prudishness and refusal to face the full reality of human existence.

The face of the living human being has fascinated people in all but a few cultures. The exceptions are those whose art was largely geometric in character; depictions of human beings were not encouraged or allowed. In the western world, the face always has been compelling -- again, as the bow of human personality, pushing its way into the orbit of human experience. In art and architecture, sculpture and film, the face is the constant -- in turn ascetic, aesthetic, sensual, twisted, demonic, and everything else that constitutes an aspect of human personality. We look at a face as a sign of the skull beneath. We look for beauty in high cheekbones, weakness in receding chins, brutality in heavy jaws. Psychological identity is rooted in the shape of the skull and the qualities that the skull imparts to the fleshed out human face. Except in polyglot America, one's nationhood is very much felt in terms of the way one looks, the way one's head and face are shaped. The Anglo-saxon look is a world away from the look of the Slav. And beauty in a given culture is very much related to the shape of skull -- round or long -- or length of jaw. Arnold Toynbee, writing in Experiences (1969), made the point (page 139) that: |the psychic aspect of life cannot be properly understood if this is artificially isolated from the physical aspect'.

We should ask ourselves what is so compelling about the face? The totality of the face, the bone structure beneath the muscles and fat, commands our attention. The eyes are often described as the windows of the soul, but other elements of the face shape our impressions of a human being. The shape of the jaw and the heaviness of the brow ridge are part of the total image. The face is expressive of health and sickness, strength and weakness, though this is the result of the layers on the skull. So it is with other facial manifestations that produce what we regard as the sensual face or the face of the disciplined individual.

It is noteworthy that when we describe the condition of anonymity, we employ the term |faceless'. The skull itself, when exposed after years, centuries or millennia, always commands a kind of respect. It is seen as the hard, enduring substance of a human being, an individual who once walked this earth. The skull always appears strong -- even when cracked. The skull is the setting in which the jewel of life is placed. We admire what endures, and the skull endures more than any other part of us, endures and gives the human body its distinctive signature.

The skull also is a reminder of how we are armed against threats which have been a constant in human life over the long path of evolutionary development. The skull always leads one to consider anew the extraordinary character of the organ within the case.

From the earliest times, men knew that the matter inside the skull was of over-riding importance. The skull had a central place in the earliest burial rites. The brain was removed from the skull in certain pre-historic rites that reflected pre-historic peoples' understanding of the centrality of the skull's contents.

One of the great mysteries of mankind is what determines changes in the human skull. Were the changes in the past abrupt or gradual? What triggered them and why? What was the demand in nature for a re-shaped skull?

Patricia Phillips, writing in The Pre-History of Europe (1980), said that |the differences in shape between Neanderthal and Upper Paleolithic (Cro-Magnon) skulls include greater height and reduced brow ridges in the latter'. Dr. Phillips quoted D. Ferenbach as saying that modern man probably appeared at different times and places because of a dominant mutation of the brain including the remodelling of the brain case. She asserted that change can take place relatively rapidly and noted that G. Billy accounts for the change by profound genetic transformations' conditioned by environmental influence. The actual mechanism, however, is shrouded in mystery and approached only through educated guesswork. Also unclear is whether the change took place through the mixing of stocks or whether the mutation took place in a single human group. Dr. Phillips also noted that Neanderthal populations |had a range of skull types with examples of both more primitive and more advanced characteristics'. The evidence consists of about 200 Neanderthal skeletons in Europe, located because of the practice of burial of the dead.

The belief in swift changes in the period just before the arrival of fully modern man in Europe around 55,000 B.C. has to be viewed alongside other views. Colin Renfrew, the distinguished British archaeologist, writes in Archaeology and Language that there is now growing evidence for the very much earlier emergence of modern man in southern Africa, perhaps as far back as 90,000 years ago. What does this mean? Would the modern skull develop in one area 90,000 years ago and, then, surface elsewhere more than 50,000 years later? Obviously, something has to be reconciled in this connection.

The changes in the human skull over millennia are of major interest. They surely have a bearing on what the skull houses. The skull of truly modern man must have a particular utility that we cannot fathom, for, as far as we know, modem man could get on very nicely with the skull of the Neanderthal with his sturdier frame and stronger musculature. Intricate and effective as is the human body in all its infinite complexity, one cannot believe that skeletal changes are merely some freak change without major significance.

What we cannot gauge, except in the most crude manner, is the onset of reasoning and conceptualization in human beings. Certainly it has to go very far back, for we know that as long ago as 70,000 B.C. people were living in huts in Siberia and obtaining skins and furs for shelter and clothing.

The most striking example of symbolization in the more recent past is the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic discovered in France and Spain. The art of Lascaux and the other caves is symbolic representation of the highest order, the equal of painting of the Renaissance. The cave dwellers visualized the animal world in the most detailed, accurate and lifelike way, more so than painters were able to do in the advanced classical world and later. This testifies to early man's ability to conceptualize. While figures of human beings are not numerous, there are sufficient numbers of them, especially at La Marche in France, to make clear that they could depict fellow human beings in the most individual way, with a variety of expressions. The more we learn about early peoples, the deeper the roots we discover of reasoning and communication.

This still leaves the question of why the people who could conceptualize in this way did not advance rapidly in other areas, why their tool kits remained static over thousands of years. To be sure, this kind of question can be asked with respect to people in classical antiquity. The ancient Greeks, with their mastery of mathematics and ability to develop grand concepts, could not envision any practical use for the force of steam, which they knew about as it was employed in a toy. This suggests that the human mind, for all its enormous powers from millennia past, has huge blind spots.

Touching the human skull is an extraordinary experience. It enables us to reach beyond the grave to the most material of human remains. As we stare into empty eye sockets, we experience the feeling of penetrating to the brain once housed within the structure of bone--to the mind that developed from the maze of blood vessels and nerves. We may wonder why nature elected to build an overall protective shell for the brain, instead of armouring the individual cell in which mental functions take place. Tn going with the overall shell, nature ordained that the highest form of life would be fragile, vulnerabe and possessed of a short span. But who can argue with nature?

Considering the character of the skull helps us to comprehend the brain within the case better. Drs. Omstein and Sobel stated that |there is an archaeology as well as an architecture to the brain . . . It is a compendium of circuits piled one atop another, most of the circuits developed to serve a short-term purpose in millennia past'. They add that the brain's structure may be |co-opted, remodelled and put to different use. . . The same head, the same neurons, and the same blood supply'. Injuries to the brain, and the way people adjust to them, underline the truth of this statement. People who have been injured in an accident or combat, and people who have suffered strokes, often discover that alternative pathways are available in the brain to help regain at least part of normal functions. Much of the brain seems to be underutilized under normal conditions. Certainly there is a vast amount that moderns don't know about the brain. Many recent discoveries are surprising. For instance, people who have been locked away, isolated and in distorted mental states, sometimes respond to therapy based on music.

One of the areas that may yield great progress within decades is that of memory. There seems to be no reason why one should be able to retrieve only a small part of one's life experience. An organ that can conceptualize everything from the state of a marriage to the state of galaxies should not have to limp along, retaining only bits and pieces of one's experience over 50 or more years. The chemical substances developed in the late 20th century should provide a tool to jog the memory part of the brain, jog it as never before in the history of humankind. Moderns also have learned an immense amount about the regulatory role of the brain, the wonderfully intricate relationship between states of feeling and the chemistry of the blood.

The skull is a good place to begin all studies of human beings. In a sense, the skull may be regarded as the principal monument of a human being, the material part that remains for millennia after the internal organs dissolve. The skull also is the bodily structure whose openings make possible the entry of all the information that comes into the body and that is sought by the brain. It is both the entry and exit port for the brain. As such, it should be of special interest to all who study human beings. The skull enables the brain within to translate its judgements and decisions into communications with the surrounding world. The skull makes it possible to manifest personality, to breathe the fire of life.
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Author:Harrigan, Anthony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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