Brain Myths

Stories we tell about the brain and mind.

500 Francs Says Language Is Housed in the Frontal Lobes!

How "the most famous bet in the history of the brain sciences" was won and lost.

In 1825, the French physician Jean-Baptiste Bouillaud published a book and a journal article documenting brain-damaged patients who had lesions in their frontal lobes and who'd lost the ability speak, often with no other obvious impairment. Twenty-three years later, after recording hundreds of similar cases, he was so convinced that the ability to speak was somehow dependent on having intact frontal lobes that he made a dramatic gesture — if anyone could present him with a patient who had frontal brain damage, but preserved speech, he'd give them a reward of 500 French Francs, a huge sum at the time.

The historical context behind Bouillaud's wager has to do with a brain myth that's been defunct for many years. It seems obvious to us today that it's the spongy, convoluted outer layers of the brain — the cerebral cortex — that is largely responsible for our uniquely human abilities. But it wasn't always so. For centuries, the world's greatest thinkers and medics believed that higher mental functions were located in the brain's hollows, known as the ventricles. The cortex (literally "the rind" or "the husk" in Latin) they thought did nothing, or that it was just filled with blood vessels. Even Leonardo Da Vinci in the sixteenth century, with all his brilliantly prescient anatomical insights, still believed that perception is located in the front-most ventricle, cognition in the middle ventricle, and memory in the rear.

Despite the dire reputation that Phrenology has today, it was actually its founder, the great skull collector Franz Joseph Gall, who, in the early nineteenth century, finally got people to think about the possibility that mental functions are located in the cerebral cortex (Emmanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic, had written extensively about this in the previous century, but no-one noticed). 

Most of Gall's specific claims about the localisation of function in the cortex were laughable, but on the point of language he was on the right track. Because a class-mate with exceptional verbal memory had bulging eyes, Gall suggested that language is supported by the frontal lobes, behind the eyes.

Today, it is of course the French anthropologist and neurologist Paul Broca who is celebrated for having located the ability for speech specifically to the third convolution of the left frontal lobe (not as far forward as Gall had suggested) — a region that came to be known as Broca's area. Broca presented his landmark case — the patient nicknamed Tan, for that is all he could utter — to the Société d’Anthropologie (which Broca had founded) and the Société Anatomique in 1861. Broca was persuasive and Tan became a defining case in the history of neuropsychology.

But though Broca is the man everyone remembers as providing the first sound evidence locating the speech faculty to the fontal lobes, it was Jean-Baptiste Bouillaud who'd got their first with his 1825 article and book, and many further case reports. His problem was that no-one would take his claims seriously. Although there was increasing interest in mainstream science in the location of functions in the cortex, Bouillaud's claims sounded too much like Phrenology, which by then was derided in such circles. It was Bouillaud's frustration at failing to persuade his peers that led him put forward such a huge prize as a gesture of confidence, a move that the historian Stanley Finger called "the most famous bet in the history of the brain sciences".

Many years passed before the prize was claimed. In discussions at the Académie de Médecine in 1865, at which all the neuro-luminaries of the day were arguing about laterality of function, a surgeon called Velpeau brought up the topic of Bouillaud's earlier challenge and said a case he'd seen in 1843 meant he was entitled to the winnings. Imagine Bouillaud's look of incredulity after so much time had passed!

You can read about Velpeau's case in the book On Aphasia, or Loss of Speech in Cerebral Disease by Sir Frederic Bateman, published in 1868, and now available on Google Books. According to Bateman, Velpeau said his case — a 60-year-old wig maker — had a tumour that had "taken the place of the two anterior [ie. Frontal] lobes" and yet ... this is the best bit ... one remarkable symptom of the patient before he'd died, was his "intolerable loquacity". In fact, Bateman tells us, "A greater chatterer never existed; and on more than one occasion complaints were made by the other patients of their talkative neighbour, who allowed them to rest neither night or day."

We'll probably never know now if Velpeau presented his case accurately, and if he did, how the patient managed to speak without any frontal lobes. What we do know is that Bouillaud lost out. According to Broca's biographer, Francis Shiller, "After a long and heated discussion, Bouillaud had to pay." 


Christian Jarrett, Ph.D is the editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and staff writer on their magazine The Psychologist.


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