We have great big bodies. We got great big heads.
June 5, 2012 12:43 AM   Subscribe

Americans' Heads Getting Bigger In Size, Changing Shape, Anthropologists Say
posted by twoleftfeet (74 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh God, I hope my Phrenologist has not been basing his calculations on outdated information...
posted by furiousxgeorge at 1:05 AM on June 5, 2012 [27 favorites]


No, I won't. Too easy.
posted by Decani at 1:06 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Umm, does this mean all my steam punk friends aren't wearing real Victorian bowler hats?
posted by jeffburdges at 1:13 AM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Everybody outside the US already knew it was a nation of swelled heads.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:13 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


What's a little megacephaly between friends?
posted by Abiezer at 1:35 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are no big secrets. Don't believe what you read.
posted by pracowity at 1:37 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now we can refer to Obama as the Big Giant Head. And/or make William Shatner our leader.
posted by XMLicious at 1:41 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow, that's Amazing, Inspiring, Funny, Scary, Hot, Crazy, Important and Weird.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:42 AM on June 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


You know who had a BIG MUHFUGGIN HEAD, right? Uh-huh. Lenin.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:45 AM on June 5, 2012


Quirky science or not, I am embracing this news as to why hats never fit my head.
posted by redheadedstepchild at 1:56 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, I won't. Too easy.

Count your blessings. The other bar had a duck.
posted by Smart Dalek at 1:58 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bigger in Size

As distinct from what, exactly?
posted by But tomorrow is another day... at 2:04 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


>>Bigger in Size

>As distinct from what, exactly?

As distinct from pedantry.
posted by surenoproblem at 2:15 AM on June 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


From the article, I really like the photos of the recreations of primate head evolution. The facial expressions are really fascinating. It would would be fun to kill time to figure out what they were 'thinking'.
posted by JiffyQ at 2:25 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like the picture the French Tribune website used to illustrate this story.
posted by dgaicun at 2:50 AM on June 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


No, I won't. Too easy.

You don't have to. The article did, at least twice.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:00 AM on June 5, 2012


In my dreams, we will all someday look like The Leader from the Hulk comics. The original tall head look.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:10 AM on June 5, 2012


Vindication!
posted by fairmettle at 3:11 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, this article gains something if you sing Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" to yourself while reading it.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:13 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I prefer a little head.
posted by bardic at 3:20 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I choose to view my gigantic skull as merely a head of its time.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:42 AM on June 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's better to have some extra room up there for the symbiote to wriggle around.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:57 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


It likely results from... a breakdown of former ethnic barriers to marriage.

Come again?
posted by nathancaswell at 4:13 AM on June 5, 2012


I blame the Brain and Nerve Tonic Industry for this development.

We should not be inviting everybody to this party.

This big head party.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:49 AM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


As distinct from pedantry.

Oh sure, today it's "Bigger in size". Tomorrow it's "pizza is a vegetable" and "leverage our hyperknowledge to outperform on core competencies".

And you know where that leads.

Delaware. That's where.
posted by But tomorrow is another day... at 4:55 AM on June 5, 2012


Yes. We're giants, puny humans.
posted by crunchland at 5:17 AM on June 5, 2012


Surprised they didn't mention the link between head shape and cesarean births.
posted by SansPoint at 5:39 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


See what happens when you wear your baseball cap backwards?
posted by Splunge at 5:40 AM on June 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's because we Americans are mental organisms, designed only for killing.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 5:42 AM on June 5, 2012


Americans' Heads Asses Getting Bigger In Size, Changing Shape, Anthropologists Say

Fixed.
posted by Fizz at 5:43 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Phrenology was dismissed as quackery over 160 years ago!
posted by entropone at 5:45 AM on June 5, 2012


I like the picture the French Tribune website used to illustrate this story.

I can envision the evolutionary sequence illustration, from neanderthal to the smaller/rounder headed chap of the 19th century, to the actress in the Tribune photo, to something that looks more like a Geiger drawing for Aliens.
posted by Forktine at 5:50 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Somewhere, enshrined in an acid free box (or a landfill, whichever) is a wax plate with a 22 year old Kid Charlemagne's teeth marks and a whole slew of my skull is THIS BIG data. I don't know how my ratios compared to everyone else's, but I was told that I was pretty much the prize winning catch.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:03 AM on June 5, 2012


Ok, then explain the Pep Boys, SCIENCE.
posted by orme at 6:04 AM on June 5, 2012


Surprised they didn't mention the link between head shape and cesarean births.

What's the link?
posted by BinGregory at 6:05 AM on June 5, 2012


Stuart Mackenzie: Look at the size of that boy's heed.
Tony Giardino: Shhh!
Stuart Mackenzie: I'm not kidding, it's like an orange on a toothpick.
Tony Giardino: Shhh, you're going to give the boy a complex.
Stuart Mackenzie: Well, that's a huge noggin. That's a virtual planetoid.
Tony Giardino: Shh!
Stuart Mackenzie: Has it's own weather system.
Tony Giardino: Sh, sh, shh.
Stuart Mackenzie: HEAD! MOVE!

Stuart Mackenzie: I'm not kidding, that boy's head is like Sputnik; spherical but quite pointy at parts! Now that was offside, wasn't it? He'll be crying himself to sleep tonight, on his huge pillow.
posted by zardoz at 6:22 AM on June 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


If trends continue ...
posted by King Sky Prawn at 6:38 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I sell motorcycle helmets for a living. One company, Arai, makes three different fits in addition to the standard size run. You can buy a helmet to fit a long-oval, intermediate-oval or round head shape.

Arai staff have told me that the long-oval fit accounts for something like 80% of their sales in their homeland of Japan, while round and intermediate-oval helmets outsell long-ovals here in the States. Apparently skull shape is one of those things that varies in a population by region.
posted by workerant at 6:40 AM on June 5, 2012


Why is this freaking me out so much???
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:41 AM on June 5, 2012


Phrenology was dismissed as quackery over 160 years ago!
It's not phrenology to take measurements of different points on a crania and notice that there are changes in shape and size over time. It'd be phrenology if they were saying, "Yes - the distance between the bregma and the infraorbital foramen has gotten larger, which means Americans are more disposed towards thievery than they were 100 years ago." In fact, what they're saying (from the abstract, on page 174 of the program from the American Association of Physical Anthropology meetings, pdf) is that, between 1850 and 1980, American skulls developed higher cranial vaults, and longer and narrower bases.

The link between childbirth and brain size is my favorite example of natural selection acting on human ancestors. As human ancestors became bipedal, our pelvis became squatter and wider, but the actual pelvic outlet changed shape. This was occurring at the same time that natural selection was selecting for increased brain size in human ancestors. Soon, our babies' heads were almost too big to fit out of women's pelvic outlet. So we have a complicated birth with lots of shifts in position, actual loosening of all the joints in women's pelvis, and squishy-headed babies. All the same, being bipedal has limited the potential growth in our brains. This awesome picture shows the relationship between baby brains and pelvic outlets in chimps (lots of space - look at how easy childbirth is for a chimp!), australopithecines, and modern humans.

Anyway, once you have lots of babies born by caesarian section, the size of the pelvic outlet no longer limits baby's brain sizes. I don't think that C-sections have been a force in human evolution for nearly long enough for enough of the population to release the selective pressure of pelvises on brain size, but maybe in a thousand or 10,000 years...
posted by ChuraChura at 6:43 AM on June 5, 2012 [17 favorites]


Sort of interesting, I guess, but the framing of this thing is pretty dumb. They only studied white Americans "because they provided the largest sample size" but there's no reason to presume that the change is unique to Americans or white people.

Specifically, the researchers found skull size in white men has grown by 200 cubic centimeters, which is about the volume of a tennis ball. Skull height, from the base to the top of men’s heads, has increased by 8 millimeters--so about 0.3 inches.

An extra tennis-ball's worth of volume is not a hell of a lot to add if you spread it out across the entire skull, and 8 millimeters is a difference that would obviously be lost among the normal variations to any kind of casual observation (if you could somehow visually compare without bias a bunch of pictures of people across the last hundred years its unlikely you could pick out denizens of the early 20th century because "whoa look at their tiny heads!")

Surprised they didn't mention the link between head shape and cesarean births.

This was where my thoughts went first as well but who knows if it is really a causative factor. They don't really talk about whether any insight is to be gained from the distribution of the data, like if this is about a general increase in size all across the spectrum or about a higher incidence on the huge head end of the spectrum bumping up the average... it also makes me wonder, you know, how representative can you assert the sample to be? "Skull available to science" being the primary criteria, and not necessarily a neutral one. It seems like confidently asserting any sort of causative factor is pretty tough, there is only so much information that can possibly be gotten out of the skulls themselves - in many cases I assume they won't tell you much about the lifestyles, circumstances of birth, etc. etc. of the individuals they came from.
posted by nanojath at 7:12 AM on June 5, 2012


Giada de Laurentiis is winning the game of evolution!
posted by baconaut at 7:31 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


The reason they only did this study on White Americans is because, as you yourself mention, these are the skulls available to science. Unfortunately, the reality of doing science on skeletal collections means that you are limited to the skeletal collections that are available. There are lots of White American skulls available to study, and fewer Black Americans, which is important because there are measurable differences that you can use to generally ascribe skulls to different ancestry groups. The measurements relating skull shape or size to sex, or femur length to stature, for example, are specific to African ancestry group, European ancestry groups, Asian ancestry groups, etc.

The researchers aren't the ones extrapolating their results to talk about all Americans - that's all press. My suspicion is that this was part of a broader study on somatic changes over the short term and they submitted this interesting finding for a poster presentation at the AAPAs and then the press exploded all over it because people want to ascribe deep meanings to changes in skull shape. As they state in their abstract,
An explanation of why these changes take place cannot yet be offered, but their timing offers a place to begin the search for correspondence with changes in quality of life.
It may not be a huge change, but they only reported the measurements that had a significant difference. It's not like the researchers are the ones blowing this out of proportion.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:38 AM on June 5, 2012


There are no big secrets. Don't believe what you read.
Oops! David, you've been quoted. Sadly, you were wrong then and you are wrong now.
posted by uraniumwilly at 7:41 AM on June 5, 2012


An explanation of why these changes take place cannot yet be offered

I can fix that. I offer the explanation that the force of gravity was stronger back then and this compressed their heads.
posted by storybored at 7:44 AM on June 5, 2012


♪WHO'S THAT GUY WITH THE BIG HEAD, BIG HEAD ...?♫

... why it's Allen Tate, poet, essayist, Southern Agrarian, and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress! Know who else had a big head? Hugh McDiarmid, Scots poet and polemicist! His Second hymn to Lenin is an ode to the revolutionary power of big heads!
posted by octobersurprise at 7:47 AM on June 5, 2012


New York will now outlaw XL sized hats in an effort to curb this trend of head obesity.
posted by arcticseal at 7:47 AM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


South Korea surrenders to creationist demands
posted by jeffburdges at 7:48 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Finally, a serious answer to the old set-up line: "Why the long face, pardner?"

More importantly, Americans are not only getting fatter (we read about this in the paper just about every single day) but shorter. Meanwhile, the average Dutch man is about 6' 1''.
posted by kozad at 7:59 AM on June 5, 2012


More importantly, Americans are not only getting fatter (we read about this in the paper just about every single day) but shorter. Meanwhile, the average Dutch man is about 6' 1''.

That's immigration, not evolution. The USA's fastest-growing ethnic group is not tall.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:23 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Clearly, we need to start serving steak to babies starting now.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:28 AM on June 5, 2012


The mailman's nightmare
posted by flabdablet at 8:56 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kirth Gerson: "No, I won't. Too easy.

You don't have to. The article did, at least twice.
"

And then had a cigarette afterwards.
posted by symbioid at 9:05 AM on June 5, 2012


We knew this guy, we used to call him BHD. Big Head Dan. He was kinda like that older brother on Wonder Years.
posted by symbioid at 9:06 AM on June 5, 2012


Actually, you know what? Do skulls stop growing after puberty? I'm thinking not so much. (Example: Ted Kennedy.)

So maybe an increase in average skull size is all about an increase in average age of the skulls they're measuring? Have they accounted for that?

Also: Hats. Less of them. Maybe?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:10 AM on June 5, 2012


ChuraChura: "I don't think that C-sections have been a force in human evolution for nearly long enough for enough of the population to release the selective pressure of pelvises on brain size, but maybe in a thousand or 10,000 years..."

Isn't there increasing evidence that certain kinds of human evolution have occurred much more quickly than previously thought? There's mounting evidence that the proliferation of lactose tolerance occurred very rapidly in some geographic areas, where the natural climate turned a sort-of-common gene into a nearly-universal one.

This one almost seems like an even more obvious and rapid evolution. Babies with big skulls would previously die during childbirth, often also killing the mother in the process. Now, babies with genetic markers that encourage the development of larger skulls survive at a rate of nearly 100%, and have children of their own.

Given the shockingly-high statistics on infant mortality prior to the development of modern medicine, it shouldn't be any surprise that the 5-10% of babies who previously wouldn't have survived are now exerting significant influence on the human gene pool, proliferating markers that are not conducive to natural childbirth (not to mention bringing up the average skull size themselves).
posted by schmod at 9:11 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the relative ease and frequency of C-sections also removes the limitations on a sexual selection pressure here? Women tend to prefer taller mates, but the question of "how would I bear his huge babies" used to be a serious survival risk to consider, not a sitcom joke.

I'm actually personally concerned about the opposite trend at the moment. My daughter inherited my slender frame and 99.9th percentile head size, so I was confident I could relate to and assist with her eventual athletic challenges, from "how to learn to walk while balancing a watermelon on your neck" onwards. But her younger brother was just born with a merely above-average head and a body that's nearly proportional, so now what the hell do I do when he grows up? Are there any organizations that will discreetly teach a grown man how to throw a ball?
posted by roystgnr at 9:34 AM on June 5, 2012


Mom: "Billy! Why are you crying?"
Billy: "All the kids at school tease me about my big head!"
Mom (making outlandishly large & circular comforting head rubbing motion): "There, there Billy, you don't have a big head."
posted by chavenet at 9:45 AM on June 5, 2012


As human ancestors became bipedal, our pelvis became squatter and wider, but the actual pelvic outlet changed shape. This was occurring at the same time that natural selection was selecting for increased brain size in human ancestors. Soon, our babies' heads were almost too big to fit out of women's pelvic outlet. ... pelvic outlet ... pelvic outlet

This is MetaFilter. It's OK to say vagina here.

Who knew Storm Large was at the forefront of human evolution?
posted by psoas at 9:51 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Today we are all Barry Bonds.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:01 AM on June 5, 2012


It's literally the bony part of the pelvis - the pelvic outlet - that I was talking about, because that's the part that fossilizes that can then be compared when we look across the human lineage. Not the muscles and tissues in the vagina.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:01 AM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


women's pelvic outlet.

Two prong or three prong?
posted by dirigibleman at 10:03 AM on June 5, 2012


It's an outlet, and it only accepts one prong.
posted by Jestocost at 10:12 AM on June 5, 2012


Are you sure it's just not Keith Olbermann throwing off the curve?
posted by MegoSteve at 10:31 AM on June 5, 2012


Ahhhhhhhh, crap. This means if I have children then when they inherit the genes for my massive bison head they will be even bigger? This will make post-toddlerism a nightmare!

(Seriously, it sucks when you have to custom order your Cub Scout cap because no one in San Diego has one your size...)
posted by Samizdata at 10:34 AM on June 5, 2012


I have a huge head and I'm not American. My mother always said she was damned glad I wasn't her first child. Of course, in Grimsby in the fifties they didn't do Caesarians. They just gave 'em a lump of driftwood to bite on. Soaked in scotch, if you came from a well-to-do family. When I finally squipped out my mum asked the doc if she could belt me instead of him. It kind of set the town for our relationship.

Sorry, I'm rambling. Got hit in the head too often as a child. Didn't make it any smaller.
posted by Decani at 10:51 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Set the town? Tone. TONE. See, it did have an effect, all that battering.
posted by Decani at 10:51 AM on June 5, 2012


Are you sure it's just not Keith Olbermann throwing off the curve?

I'm doing my part also. Me and my XXXL hats.
posted by the jam at 12:06 PM on June 5, 2012


I heard this discussed on the SGU the other day, and they made note of saying that the American part of this is just because the sample size was only Americans, and that it's likely that this is not an American-specific phenomenon.
posted by lazaruslong at 1:12 PM on June 5, 2012


Every night I and a team of highly trained researchers have been creeping up on sleeping Americans and putting their heads in various sized boxes. It has been over 40 years of unceasing endeavour, at times the challenge just seemed too huge to contemplate, but now we are starting to see the fruition of our labours. It makes me proud and humble.
posted by fallingbadgers at 1:55 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm totally throwing the curve off, me and my giant Irish blockhead.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 3:14 PM on June 5, 2012


When y'all started talking about c-sections, I assumed you were talking about the way that babies' heads get squeezed when they come through the birth canal. That's gotta have some effect on how it fuses together later.
posted by designbot at 3:23 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's what I was thinking too, because the one child of mine born C-section definitely has a much rounder and smoother head than the rest of his sibs. Do C-sec babies have larger head volumes as adults?
posted by BinGregory at 6:35 PM on June 5, 2012


baconaut: "Giada de Laurentiis is winning the game of evolution!"

Actually not. And may I say, I created this image. I first posted it on the Hyperbole and a Half forum.

And here it is, my creation, Giada or Raptor?
posted by Splunge at 7:18 PM on June 5, 2012


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