Phrenology's History and Influence

Profile view of a phrenology head.
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Could a bump on the back of your head offer a clue to your inner personality? This idea was a central theme in phrenology, a pseudoscience that involved linking bumps on a person's skull to certain aspects of the individual's personality and character.

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. He 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 controlled all propensities, sentiments, and faculties, and that the brain was composed of as many organs as there are different faculties, propensities, and sentiments. The form of the skull represented and reflected the form and development of the brain's organs.

The 27 "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. Reproductive instincts
  2. The love of one's offspring
  3. Affection and friendship
  4. Self-defense, courage, and fighting
  5. Carnivorous or murderous instincts
  6. Guile, acuteness; cleverness
  7. Sense of property; the tendency to steal
  8. Pride, arrogance, haughtiness, love of authority, loftiness
  9. Vanity, ambition, love of glory
  10. Circumspection, forethought
  11. Aptitude for being educated
  12. Sense of locality and place
  13. Recollection of people
  14. Verbal memory
  15. Language ability
  16. The sense of colors
  17. Sense for sound and musical talent
  18. Mathematical abilities
  19. Mechanical abilities
  20. Sagacity
  21. Metaphysics
  22. Satire and wit
  23. Poetic talent
  24. Kindness; compassion; sensitivity; moral sense
  25. Imitation and mimicry
  26. Religiosity
  27. Perseverance, firmness of purpose

Criticism of Gall's Phrenology

However, Gall's methods lacked scientific rigor, and he chose to simply 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 pseudoscience like 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."

Influence of Phrenology

While phrenology has long been identified as a pseudoscience, it did help make important contributions to the field of neurology. Thanks to the focus on phrenology, researchers became 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.

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