Sunday, December 31, 2006

Heads and hands.

Whenever any supernatural story, fictional or true, involves body parts, it's always a skull, or a mummified head or hand. We never hear of the 'Phantom Pelvis' or 'Evil Elbow'. Always a head or a hand. Where is the 'Foot of Fear' or the 'Tibia of Terror'? Whatever happened to the 'Duodenum of Despair'?

No, always a head or a hand. So there must be logical reason for this, surely?

Yes, there is. Starting in 1940, Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield mapped the parts of the brain that deal with various sensory and motor functions of the body. From there, he constructed a diagram, later made into models, of 'Penfield's Homunculus'.

This is a representation of how the brain 'sees' the body. Obviously, the sensory organs around the face are highly represented. Most of the body is ignored by the brain, but it is notable that the hands are enormous.

The whole of the trunk, the lungs, heart, intestines etc play only a small part in the brain's 'body map'. It is mostly concerned with the sensory apparatus of the head, and those useful appendages, the hands.

In that case, a disembodied consciousness is unlikely to pay much attention to its ex-ribcage, but might be deeply concerned about those parts it regarded as important while brain-bound, in life.

There is also the alternative explanation, that we, the living, set more store by those parts of the body and are therefore more likely to consider them the important parts of the corpse. For writers, the decision to use a head or a hand in their story might be an unconscious reflection of their own brain's body image. That works to explain the fiction aspect.

There remains the real-life reports of screaming skulls, and the preoccupation of both the occult and religion with hands, for example here and here. The Lancashire witches used to collect skulls and fingers from corpses, and the hand of a hanged man was allegedly used in witchcraft to create the Hand of Glory. These are hardly scratching the surface of possible examples where, throughout history, heads and hands have been elevated in importance above all other body parts.

It's always been about heads and hands, throughout history. Perhaps Penfield's Homunculus represents more than simply a neurological map.

Perhaps heads and hands are even more important than we think.


Southern Writer said...

The homonculus (what's the plural of that?) are funny looking little buggers aren't they? I couldn't help but notice a certain male body part also tends to be rather on the large side, almost reaching his knees. No surprise there.

You know the most interesting ghost info, Rom.

Romulus Crowe said...

I wondered who'd be first to mention that. Yes, it's true, the male brain certainly expends a lot of effort thinking about the danglies. That's why there are so many tall buildings and spires in the world.

I assume the female brain is similarly wired. Perhaps there's no equivalent female model because the legs kept falling off? ;)

However, those bits don't have bones so they don't last long after death. Even if, in life, it really does reach the knee.

Southern Writer said...

The danglies. There went my keyboard. Thanks a lot.

Southern Writer said...

Stopped by quickly to wish you a happy new year. Hope it will be the one you prove to the world that an afterlife exists. Did I remember to tell you I'm reading a book called The Afterlife Experiments?

Romulus Crowe said...

Is that about the Scole experiments? They ran for six years and produced an enormous amount of evidence, which sceptics ignored (surprise) even though none of it was disproved.

Happy New Year to you too. I stayed sober but it wasn't worth it. Outside is dark, wet, cold and very windy. Inside I had to endure the New Year TV programmes sober. They really are dreadful. The programmers must assume the entire country is partaking in the Night of the Pickled Brains.

Never again.

Southern Writer said...

I haven't come across the name "Scole," yet. Here's a link to a review:

and if you scroll down just a bit, on the right there are links to "the best ghost pictures," quite a few of which I've never seen before.

TV is really bad here, too. It used to be that all the new shows began in September, and there were about six months of new episodes, and then reruns in the summer. Now new shows start all the time, disappear in a few weeks, or only have about six new episodes before they start rerunning them. If they have one that works, like Medium, they change writers or screw around with it until they wreck it. The computer is so much more interesting. Hope your weather improves. That reminds me, I need to go out to the herb garden and cover my parsley.

Romulus Crowe said...

Scole is the name of a place in the UK. There must be a website somewhere that covers it. I'll see what I can dig up.

Good luck with the parsley. I admit I take the easy way out and plant fresh each year.

Southern Writer said...

I'm sure I will replant, too, but I love having it in the winter. Can't find it in the stores here anymore. For some reason, they've quit selling it. Even if they did, I don't want to buy a pound to get a couple tablespoons.

Somehow, I can't quite see you gardening. What an incongruous image is in my head now.

Romulus Crowe said...

Perhaps you haven't quite formed the right image. Don't think kneeling pads, gardening gloves and little pruning shears. Think power tools.

Gardening takes less time using the Genghis Khan approach.

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