“Culturedness” defined by phrenology

Interesting look back at the origins of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” — phrenology. It appears I was destined to stick to “lowbrow” culture.



A phrenological chart, mapping the different zones of the human brain. “Destructiveness” is near the ear; “Individuality” is right above the nose.

Why do we talk about foreheads when discussing culture? The word “highbrow” first appeared in the 1880s; “lowbrow” came into use right after the turn of the century. They came from phrenology, a nineteenth-century pseudoscience based on the (entirely false) idea that the shape of a person’s skull revealed something fundamental about their character. The creative, intellectual parts of the brain were located behind the forehead: thus Anglo-Saxons were superior to other, darker races because of their higher foreheads, or “brows.” Italians, Irishmen, Africans, Asians couldn’t create art on the level of Shakespeare or Milton because their brains simply weren’t built for it. They belonged to the “lowbrow,” on account of their lower foreheads.

Check out Perry Meisel’s The Myth of Popular Culture from Dante to Dylan for more on this.


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