How the Brain Got Its Buttocks

Sixteenth-century anatomists couldn’t keep their minds out of the gutter.

By Jesse Bering

Thomas Willis' book "Cerebri Anatome" open showing the engravings of the human brain (left Page) and of the sheep brain (right page). Click image to expand.Images from Thomas Willis’ On the Anatomy of the Brain, published in 1664There are so many obscure specializations, subspecializations and subcortical subspecializations within the brain sciences that even the sharpest brain has scarcely enough brainpower to learn everything there is to know about itself. But if there’s one fact that the teacup-Yorkie-sized prune in your head might want to ponder, it’s that it shares a peculiar past with something considerably lower in your anatomy—your genitalia. I don’t mean that our brains and reproductive organs share some embryological or evolutionary history, but rather that they were once (and, to some extent, still are) entwined in the language of the body. What this odd story reveals is that the ancient anatomists were major dickheads. We all were, back then.

Régis Olry, of the University of Quebec, and Duane Haines, of the University of Mississippi, brought the whole sordid tale to light in an intriguing pair of articles for the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. These "historians of neuroanatomy" (yes, there is such a profession, and we should be grateful for it) reviewed a very old, circuitous medical literature and found that the human brain was once described as comprising its very own vulva, penis, testicles, buttocks, and even an anus. In fact, part of the cerebrum is still named in honor of long-forgotten whores.

In their first article from 1997, epochs ago in academic terms, Olry and Haines revealed the surprising origins of the term "fornix." For those illiterate in neuroanatomy, which I’ll assume is 99.9 percent of you, the fornix is a fibrous, arching band of nerve fibers that connects the hippocampus and the limbic system, and spans certain fluid-filled chambers of the brain known as ventricles. You’d have numerous and noticeable problems if your fornix weren’t functioning properly, including serious impairments in spatial learning and overall navigation.

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