Skulls from the Morton collection at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Photography by Jonah Rosenberg and Lyndon French

Our Skulls Are Out-Evolving Us

A motley crew of scientists argue that our ever-shrinking skulls are wreaking havoc on our well-being

Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Published in
16 min readSep 19, 2019

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LLindsey Hanes burst into tears at the wheel of her black Dodge Caravan. Ugly crying. Heaving sobs. Through raindrops on her car window, she glanced back at the medical building she’d just exited. That therapist had been her last hope to address her son Micah’s sleep and breathing problems. Her sweet, cheerful baby had transformed into a withdrawn, ornery, uncooperative 5 year old. As a registered nurse, Hanes felt convinced that sleep deprivation lay at the root of his problems. He snored, tossed and turned at night, and woke up with bags under his eyes.

At age 4, Micah underwent a sleep study and received a diagnosis of apnea — intermittent waking due to a blocked airway. A surgeon removed Micah’s tonsils and adenoids, and the operation seemed to work: Fluid no longer collected in his ears, previously a recurring problem. But a year later, he still snored — a possible sign of continued airway obstruction. It was back to the ear-nose-throat doctor, who ruled out apnea after a second sleep study.

The ENT offered no other ideas. Desperate, Hanes tracked down the only myofunctional therapist in southern Illinois trained in teaching tongue and lip exercises that might reshape Micah’s mouth muscles. Maybe that would facilitate better breathing and sleep.

Over the last 250 years, our skulls have morphed in dangerous and troubling ways.

Micah behaved wildly in the appointment, jumping all over the chair and hiding behind Hanes. He refused to let the therapist look in his mouth, no matter how she coaxed or tried to engage his interest. By the end of the appointment, Hanes felt sweaty and exhausted, a familiar experience. She apologized profusely to the therapist, who declined to charge the family. Hanes trudged back to her car with Micah, where she dissolved into sobs.

The Hanes family felt they had reached the limits of established medical practice and found no cure to Micah’s sleep and breathing problems. So Hanes did what any modern parent would: she turned to Google. There, she discovered a whole community of researchers and…

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Katherine Reynolds Lewis
OneZero

Journalist writing about science, children, mental health, race, gender, disability, education and related topics. Author of The Good News About Bad Behavior.