The weirdest thing that ever happened to me occurred on the last night of a Caribbean cruise 30 years ago.

A  slender Japanese woman sitting next to me at the farewell dinner must have been over 90 years old. She had  parchment thin skin and delicate hands laced with blue veins.  Traveling by herself, she hadn’t said a word the entire week She’d faded into the background, invisible as the floral pattern on the walls.

But, as I turned away from her to talk to another passenger, I felt the woman’s touch on my forehead. She ran her fingers lightly from my receding hairline to my eyebrows and back again

Very large forehead,” she said in clear, barely accented English. “Must  be very smart.”

For the first time in my life, I was speechless (I talk a lot).

Sensing my befuddlement, the woman smiled. “I was General Douglas Mac Arthur’s maid when he was governor of Japan,” she explained. “And your forehead reminds me of his.”

When I just blinked she continued, “ He was very smart”

Finally, I understood. Somehow, discredited notions about intelligencecorrelating with  forehead size, dating  from nineteenth century phrenology, had made their way to Japan  The woman must have read about them, perhaps in a Sherlock Holmes story. (Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, a physician, gave both Holmes and arch villain Moriarty high foreheads, in keeping with the faddish belief that high brows went with high intelligence).

I forgot about the encounter with Mac Arthur’s maid, until fifteen years later when I was reading the latest MRI studies on brain morphometry (measures of brain volume). I was surprised to learn that there was a correlation between frontal lobe size and IQ. Not exactly the same as forehead size (frontal lobes are behind the forehead) but sort of close.

Although forehead size by itself may not be as meaningful as some believe, it turns out that common wisdom has known things about the brain long before Neuroscience did. Here are a few examples.

  • Car rental companies would only rent to drivers over 25 decades before we knew that the brain—particularly the frontal lobes that govern judgment—don’t finish wiring up until the age of 25. Car insurance companies start lowering their rates after 25. Oh, and the framers of the constitution required candidates to be at least 25 before being eligible to run for Congress

  • Idioms dating back hundreds of year reflect the latest discoveries in Psychoneuroimmunology linking mental well being with physical well being.

    • You’re giving me a headache (stress can, trigger muscle tension vasospasms, and vasodilation that promote headache)

    • That makes me sick. (stress depresses immune function)

    • Oh my aching back (chronic over-secretion of adrenaline from stress can promote muscle spasms)

    • She’s heartbroken (depression and anxiety are associated with increased cardiovascular disease)

Other age-old idioms reveal common understandings that Neuroscience has validated

  • He’s really quick (fast reaction time correlates with general intelligence)

  • He’s really slow (ditto above)

  • I have a gut feeling (the enteric nervous system, with 500,000,000 neurons, innervating the gastrointestinal tract, does process complex information and is probably involved in memory formation and “intuition.”)

The intriguing thing to me is that figures of speech, idioms and common  sense almost certainly contain wisdom about the brain that we haven’t yet discovered.

Could brainstorm, brain freeze, mind meld, cool head, hot head, nervous breakdown, or cold hearted, have undiscovered neurophysiological correlates?


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