How a Phrenology Head Was Traditionally Used

Phrenology head
Myron / Getty Images

Phrenology was a pseudoscience that linked bumps on a person's head to certain aspects of the individual's personality and character. Phrenology heads or busts were used by phrenologists to perform "skull readings" that supposedly revealed information about a person's character and tendencies.

The practice was based on the idea that certain functions were located in specific areas of the brain. Phrenologists suggested that the brain was composed of muscles that, like other areas of the body, grew bigger when they were used more often. As a result, phrenologists proposed, bumps were produced in those areas on the skull.

This article discusses the history of phrenology and how it was used. It also explores the impact of this pseudoscience, including its perpetuation of scientific racism.

A Brief History of Phrenology

Phrenology was developed by a German physician named Franz Joseph Gall in the late 1700s. His observations suggested that differences in the outward shape and appearance of the head were associated with certain traits and characteristics.

While this is now viewed entirely as pseudoscience, phrenology actually became quite popular for a time. Phrenology readings became quite popular.

Regions of the Phrenology Head

A phrenology head or bust has a number of different regions of the brain linked to different personality characteristics. Gall himself only recognized 27 faculties. Yet in most classic examples of phrenology busts, there were 35 different regions of the head, which were linked to the faculties listed below:

  1. Amativeness, or sexual desire
  2. Philoprogenitiveness
  3. Inhabitiveness
  4. Adhesiveness
  5. Combativeness
  6. Destructiveness
  7. Secretiveness
  8. Acquisitiveness
  9. Constructiveness
  10. Self-esteem
  11. Love of Approbation
  12. Cautiousness
  13. Benevolence
  14. Reverence
  15. Firmness
  16. Conscientiousness
  17. Hope
  18. Marvelousness
  19. Ideality
  20. Mirthfulness
  21. Imitation
  22. Individuality
  23. Configuration
  24. Size
  25. Weight
  26. Coloring
  27. Locality
  28. Calculation
  29. Order
  30. Eventuality
  31. Time
  32. Tune
  33. Language
  34. Comparison
  35. Causality

How a Phrenology Reading Traditionally Worked

During a skull reading, a phrenologist would carefully feel the individual's head and make note of bumps and indentations. The phrenologist would compare these findings to that of a phrenology bust in order to determine what the surface of the skull had to say about the individual's natural aptitudes, character, and tendencies.

Scientists discredited phrenology by the mid-1800s, although phrenology readings continued to have moments of popularity during the late 1800s and early 1900s. While phrenology was eventually shown to be pseudoscience, the idea that certain abilities might be linked to specific areas of the brain did have an influence on the field of neurology and the study of the localization of brain functions.

Phrenology is regarded as a pseudoscience along the same lines as palm reading and astrology.

Phrenology and Scientific Racism

While phrenology is often presented today as nothing more than a quirky pseudoscience of the past, it is important to recognize its place as part of the scientific racism of the 19th century. It was frequently used as a way to justify slavery and racial inequality, with proponents of the pseudoscience suggesting that it "proved" the biological superiority of white people. 

It is also important to notes that while phrenology has been dismissed as a pseudoscience, other forms of scientific racism persist today. Studies suggesting that differences in arrest rates and IQ scores are due to inherent differences in racial groups and not a reflection of systemic racism are more modern examples of scientific racism.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Parker Jones O, Alfaro-Almagro F, Jbabdi S. An empirical, 21st century evaluation of phrenologyCortex. 2018;106:26–35. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2018.04.011

  2. Eling P, Finger S. Franz Joseph Gall's non‐cortical faculties and their organs. The History of the Behavioral Sciences. 2019;56(1):7-19. doi:10.1002/jhbs.21994

  3. Hints about PhrenologyLadies Magazine. 1833;6.

  4. Harvard Library. Scientific racism.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."