Phrenology's History and Influence

Profile view of a phrenology head.
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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.

History of Phrenology

Phrenology originated in the late 1700s in Vienna as German physician Franz Joseph Gall's theory of "organology." It was later popularized as phrenology by Gall's assistant, a German physician named Johann Gaspar Spurzheim.

Gall noticed that the cerebral cortex of humans was much larger than that of animals, which he believed was what made humans intellectually superior. Eventually, he became convinced that the physical features of the cortex could also be seen in the shape and size of the skull.

Gall believed that bumps on the surface of the brain could be detected by feeling the bumps on the surface of an individual's head. He suggested that the bumps, indentations, and overall shape of the skull could be linked to different aspects of a person's personality, character, and abilities.

After examining the heads of young pickpockets, Gall found that many had bumps on their skull just above their ears. He suggested that these bumps were associated with "acquisitiveness," or a tendency to steal, hoard, or exhibit greed.

In his book on phrenology, Gall suggested that moral and intellectual faculties were innate. In other words, people were born with their moral character and intelligence. If you were a thief, it was because you were born with a predisposition to deceitfulness.

Gall believed that the brain was composed of many different organs that each controlled different faculties, propensities, and sentiments. The form of the skull represented and reflected the form and development of the brain's organs.

Recap

Phrenology was based on the belief that specific tendencies were tied to particular areas of the brain. The phrenologists also believed that these abilities were tied to the size of that region of the brain, which was then reflected by the bumps on the outside of the skull.

The 35 "Faculties" in Phrenology

Gall sought support for his ideas by measuring the skulls of people in prisons, hospitals, and asylums, especially those with odd-shaped heads. Based on what he found, Gall developed a system of 27 different "faculties," each of which he believed corresponded to a particular region of the head.

  1. Amatativeness (reproductive instincts; sexual desires)
  2. Philoprogenitiveness (the love of one's offspring)
  3. Concentrativeness (ideas and emotions)
  4. Adhesiveness (affection and friendship)
  5. Combativeness (self-defense; courage; fighting)
  6. Destructiveness (murderous instincts)
  7. Secretiveness (tendency to conceal; duplicity; deceit)
  8. Acquisitiveness (sense of property; the tendency to steal)
  9. Constructiveness (desire to build and create)
  10. Self-esteem (personal regard; self-interest; selfishness)
  11. Love of approbation (need for esteem; love of praise)
  12. Cautiousness (fear; timidity)
  13. Benevolence (kindness; compassion; desire to make others happy)
  14. Veneration (respect for others, institutions, or customs)
  15. Firmness (determination; tenacity; stubbornness)
  16. Conscientiousness (justice; respect; love of truth)
  17. Hope (expectations of future good)
  18. Wonder (desire for novelty; appreciation for the world)
  19. Ideality (love for excellence and beauty)
  20. Wit (guile; acuteness; cleverness
  21. Imitation (copying the appearance or manners of others)
  22. Individuality (awareness of facts and existence)
  23. Form (observant of physical form)
  24. Size (understanding of dimensions and distance)
  25. Weight (perception of weight and momentum)
  26. Coloring (visual perception and appreciation)
  27. Locality (the idea of relative position)
  28. Number (ability to perform calculations)
  29. Order (enjoyment of physical arrangement; mechanical abilities)
  30. Eventuality (understanding of the sequence of events)
  31. Time (perception of time and duration)
  32. Tune (musical sense)
  33. Language (faculty for language and verbal or written expression)
  34. Comparison (ability to understand differences and make analogies)
  35. Causality (understanding of cause and effect)

Recap

While Gall originally suggested that there were 27 faculties, more were eventually added. Phrenology heads or charts typically show 35 different faculties, tendencies, and propensities.

How a Phrenology Reading 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. Today, phrenology is regarded as a pseudoscience along the same lines as palm reading and astrology.

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.

Criticism of Gall's Phrenology

Gall's methods lacked scientific rigor and his ideas were also criticized by others during his own time. However, he chose to ignore any evidence that contradicted his ideas.

Despite this, phrenology became increasingly popular from the 1800s well into the early 1900s. Having your head examined by a phrenologist was a popular activity during the Victorian era, and it remained fairly popular even after scientific evidence began to mount against Gall's ideas.

Gall's ideas gained many followers, but also attracted considerable criticism from scientists as well as other groups. The Catholic church believed that his suggestion of a "religion organ" was atheistic, and by 1802, he was forbidden from lecturing in his home.

After Gall's death in 1828, some of his followers continued to develop phrenology, and references of the theory began seeping into mainstream popular culture. Despite phrenology's brief popularity, it eventually became viewed as a pseudoscience in the same vein as astrology, numerology, and palmistry.

Criticism from well-known brain researchers played an important role in this reversal of popular views of phrenology.

During the early- to mid-1800s, the renowned French physician Marie Jean Pierre Flourens, a pioneer in brain studies and cerebral localization, found that the fundamental assumption of phrenology—that the contours of the skull corresponded to the underlying shape of the brain—was wrong.

In 1844, the French physiologist Francois Magendie summed up his dismissal: "Phrenology, a pseudo-science of the present day; like astrology, necromancy, and alchemy of former times, pretends to localize in the brain the different kinds of memory. But its efforts are mere assertions, which will not bear examination for an instant."

Recap

While phrenology was popular in Victorian circles for a time, it was eventually dismissed by brain researchers who pointed out the flaws in Gall's assumptions.

Influence of Phrenology

While phrenology has long been identified as a pseudoscience, it did make some contributions to the field of neurology. It helped researchers become more interested in the concept of cortical localization, an idea that suggested that certain mental functions were localized in particular areas of the brain.

While Gall and other phrenologists incorrectly believed that bumps on the head corresponded to personality and abilities, they were correct in believing that different mental abilities were associated with different areas of the brain.

Modern research methods allow scientists to use sophisticated tools such as MRI and PET scans to learn more about the localization of functions within the brain.

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.

Summary

Phrenology was a pseudoscience that proposed that the bumps on a person's head could be used to determine their traits and character. Briefly popular during the Victorian era, phrenology heads or busts were often used to "read" a person's personality. 

While brain researchers eventually demonstrated that phrenology was incorrect, it did help inspire research on the localization of brain function, which played an important part in the development of neurology. Phrenology also represented a form of scientific racism, since it was used to support racist beliefs and practices.

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