Updated: Jan 20
By Ken Ismert
When we consider the vast breadth of human experience, from wallowing ignorance to lofty enlightenment, groveling servitude to autocratic fiat, dry-mouthed poverty to sybaritic excess, abject suffering to full-beamed health, one final question lingers unanswered, tantalizing and cloying: why are our heads so big?
Ah, the head. The old macaroni bowl, the gummy worm nest, the cheese ball. One of the truisms of toting a noggin around is that most people really don't have a conception of the size of their brain bucket. This is in spite of everybody constantly gazing at their heads in a mirror, and seeing countless others around them all the time, coughing and sniffling and oozing earwax.
Consider this painting by 16th century Spanish artist El Greco, St. Joseph and the Christ Child (left). On first look, it seems ordinary. But really look at it. El Greco has pinned a tiny head of St. Joseph onto an enormous, broad body. I mean really, a brain that small could hardly power a cat, let alone such an exaggerated torso.Classical artists have a proportional rule of thumb that makes the head size one-tenth the body height. El Greco's St. Joseph has a head to height ratio of about 1 to 12. Hmmm. As an aside, babies start out with more like a 1 to 4 ratio.
Getting the head too small is a common mistake that beginning portrait artists make. As we've seen, even great artists get these proportions wrong too. It's fun to give Old El Greco a hard time, but in his defense, I'm sure that he (at least intuitively) chose his proportions for mystical, artistic reasons. Or maybe he was making a charity painting in support of a Renaissance campaign to end microcephaly. I don't know.
In contrast to St. Joseph, here is a real live example: comedian Ali Wong's head (right). A veritable kugel fountain of mirth. Ali's head to height ratio is around 1 to 6.2. This is a very common proportion. See more big heads below.
Take a look at the noodle pot simmering on talk show host Stephen Colbert's smoking hot shoulders (left):
I hope you agree that Ali and Stephen are lugging around some monster cottage cheese crates! And they are completely in the range of normal.
But as soon as we finish processing this visual revelation, we bump into our next perceptual obstacle: the shoulders. Shoulders tend to skew our perception of the head.
Shoulders also bias our judgement of the person. Big shoulders suggest athleticism. Very big shoulders imply heroism. But beyond a certain point, excessive shoulder width enters the preserve of the absurd.
Taking shoulder width to the extreme, get a load of Henry VIII's getup in Holbein's Henry VIII (left). The Eighties has nothing on him! Henry never missed a chance to show dominance, and he understood that ba-ba-ba-big shoulders convey a sense of robustness and physical intimidation.
Holbien seems spot on on his head proportions. But he loses all sense of realistic human anatomy when it comes to Henry's shoulders. When I guess at where the upper arms might join the shoulder under Henry's expansively wide coat, it seems Holbien has exaggerated the monarch's shoulders into the realm of the epic.
Now, Holbien was an exacting realist, and could easily have depicted Henry's form with concinnity. But I tend to think Holbien, wishing to avoid the tickle of the executioner's axe, wisely chose flattery in the pursuit of longer life.
Henry's fashion folly, when looked at through the lens of today, places him firmly in the comic realm inhabited by the likes of Transformers and Autobots, such as our pal Bumblebee (right). And I'm not even mentioning his silly cod piece.
Just to show you how pliable our perception of head/shoulder ratio is, here is perhaps the most beautiful object ever made: the bust of Nefertiti (left). Here, the head size is exaggerated by a large crown, and the shoulders are trimmed to fit the bust format. But she still looks normal. As normal as a woman so spectacularly elegant can look.
So why are our heads so big? Part of the reason is that there is so much is going on there: brain, five senses, eating, breathing, speaking, our emotional signalling apparatus, and the facility to make really resonant burps. I'm just glad that evolution did not chance us by putting the reproductive and excretory functions in our heads as well. That would greatly complicate Hat design.
At this point, you can be forgiven for thinking that your noggin is grotesquely large. But you would be mistaken. Instead, imagine Nefertiti's knowing, nodding namaste. And carry your head with grace. And throw away those stupid shoulder pads.