Phrenology is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localised, specific functions
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Phrenology is a hypothesis stating that the personality traits of a person can be derived from the shape of the skull


Phrenology (from Greek: φρήν, phrēn, "mind"; and λόγος, logos, "knowledge") is a hypothesis stating that the personality traits of a person can be derived from the shape of the skull. Phrenology is now considered a pseudoscience. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, the discipline was very popular in the 19th century. In 1843, François Magendie referred to phrenology as "a pseudo-science of the present day." Phrenological thinking was, however, influential in 19th-century psychiatry and modern neuroscience.

Phrenology is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localised, specific functions or ‘modules’. Phrenologists believed that the mind has a set of different mental faculties, with each particular faculty represented in a different area of the brain. These areas were said to be proportional to a person's propensities, and the importance of the given mental faculty. It was believed that the cranial bone conformed in order to accommodate the different sizes of these particular areas of the brain in different individuals, so that a person's capacity for a given personality trait could be determined simply by measuring the area of the skull that overlies the corresponding area of the brain.

As a type of theory of personality, phrenology can be considered to be an advance over the old medical theory of the four humours. However, phrenology does not have any predictive power and is therefore dismissed as quackery by modern scientific discourse.

Phrenology, which focuses on personality and character, should be distinguished from craniometry, which is the study of skull size, weight and shape, and physiognomy, the study of facial features. However, researchers of these disciplines have claimed the ability to predict personality traits or intelligence (in fields such as anthropology/ethnology), and are alleged to have sometimes comprised a sort of scientific racism.

History of Phrenology

The attempt to locate faculties of personality within the head can be compared to the attempt of philosopher Aristotle of ancient Greece to localise anger in the liver. However, the first attempts to measure skull shape scientifically, and its alleged relation to character, were performed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), who is considered the initiator of phrenology. Gall was one of the first researchers to consider the brain to be the source of all mental activity.

In 1809 Gall began writing his greatest work "The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads". It was not published until 1819. In the introduction to this main work, Gall makes the following statement in regard to his doctrinal principles, which comprise the intellectual basis of phrenology:

  • That moral and intellectual faculties are innate
  • That their exercise or manifestation depends on organisation
  • That the brain is the organ of all the propensities, sentiments and faculties
  • That the brain is composed of as many particular organs as there are propensities, sentiments and faculties which differ essentially from each other.
  • That the form of the head or cranium represents the form of the brain, and thus reflects the relative development of the brain organs.

Through careful observation and extensive experimentation, Gall believed he had established a relationship between aspects of character, called faculties, to precise organs in the brain. Gall's most important collaborator was Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), who disseminated phrenology successfully in the United Kingdom and the United States. It was Spurzheim who popularised the term phrenology.

Other significant authors include the Scottish brothers George Combe (1788-1858) and Andrew Combe (1797-1847), who initiated the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh. George Combe was the author of some of the most popular works on phrenology and mental hygiene, e.g., The Constitution of Man and Elements of Phrenology.

The American brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896) and Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) were leading phrenologists of their time. Orson, together with associates Samuel Wells and Nelson Sizer, ran the phrenological business and publishing house Fowlers & Wells in New York City. Meanwhile, Lorenzo spent much of his life in England where he initiated the famous phrenological publishing house, L.N Fowler & Co., and gained considerable fame with his phrenology head (a china head showing the phrenological faculties), which has become a symbol of the discipline.

In the Victorian age, phrenology as a psychology was taken seriously and permeated the literature and novels of the day. Many prominent public figures such as the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (a college classmate and initial partner of Orson Fowler) promoted phrenology actively as a source of psychological insight and self-knowledge. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was known to have a keen interest in the subject, once contriving a meeting with C.P. Snow after noticing that the author had "an interestingly shaped head." Thousands of people consulted phrenologists for advice in various matters, such as hiring personnel or finding suitable marriage partners. As such, phrenology as a brain science waned but developed into the popular psychology of the 19th century and functioned in approximately the same way as psychoanalysis permeated social thought and relationships a century later. Beginning during the 1840s, phrenology in North America became part of a counter-culture movement evident in the appearance of new dress styles, communes, mesmerism, and a revival of herbal remedies. Orson Fowler himself was known for his octagonal house.

Throughout however, phrenology was rejected by mainstream academia, and was for instance excluded from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The popularity of phrenology fluctuated during the 19th century, with some researchers comparing the field to astrology, chiromancy, or merely a fairground attraction, while others wrote serious scientific articles on the subject. The last phrenology book in English to receive serious consideration by mainstream science was The Brain and Its Physiology (1846) by Daniel Noble, but his friend, William Carpenter, wrote a lengthy review article that initiated his realisation that phrenology could not be considered a serious science, and his later books reflect his acceptance of British psycho-physiology.

Phrenology was also very popular in the United States, where automatic devices for phrenology analysis were devised. One such Automatic Electric Phrenometer is displayed in the Collection of Questionable Medical Devices in the Science Museum of Minnesota in Saint Paul.

During the early 20th century, a revival of interest in phrenology occurred on the fringe, partly because of studies of evolution, criminology and anthropology (as pursued by Cesare Lombroso). The most famous British phrenologist of the 20th century was the London psychiatrist Bernard Hollander (1864-1934). His main works, The Mental Function of the Brain (1901) and Scientific Phrenology (1902) are an appraisal of Gall's phrenology teachings. Hollander introduced a quantitative approach to the phrenological diagnosis, defining a method for measuring the skull, and comparing the measurements with statistical averages.

In Belgium, Paul Bouts (1900-1999) began studying phrenology from a pedagogical background, using phrenology analysis to define an individual pedagogy. Combining phrenology with typology and graphology, he coined a global approach known as psychognomy.

Bouts, a Roman Catholic priest, became the main promoter of renewed 20th-century interest in phrenology and psychognomy in Belgium. He was also active in Brazil and Canada, where he founded institutes for characterology. His works Psychognomie and Les Grandioses Destinées individuelle et humaine dans la lumière de la Caractérologie et de l'Evolution cérébro-cranienne are considered standard works in the field. In the latter work, which examines the subject of paleoanthropology, Bouts developed a teleological and orthogenetical view on a perfecting evolution, from the paleo-encephalical skull shapes of prehistoric man, which he considered still prevalent in criminals and savages, towards a higher form of mankind. Bouts died on March 7, 1999, after which his work has been continued by the Dutch foundation PPP (Per Pulchritudinem in Pulchritudine), operated by Anette Müller, one of Bouts' students.

During the 1930s, Belgian colonial authorities in Rwanda used phrenology to explain the so-called superiority of Tutsis over Hutus.

Empirical refutation induced most scientists to abandon phrenology as a science by the early 20th century. For example, various phrenology cases were observed of clearly aggressive persons displaying a well-developed "benevolent organ", findings that contradicted the logic of the discipline. With advances in the studies of psychology and psychiatry, many scientists became sceptical of the claim that human character can be determined by simple, external measures.

On Monday, October 1, 2007 the State of Michigan began to impose a tax on phrenology services.

Phrenological Methods

Phrenology was a complex process that involved feeling the bumps in the skull to determine an individual's psychological attributes. Franz Joseph Gall first believed that the brain was made up of 27 individual 'organs' that created one's personality, with the first 19 of these 'organs' believed to exist in other animal species. Phrenologists would run their fingertips and palms over the skulls of their patients to feel for enlargements or indentations. The phrenologist would usually take measurements of the overall head size using a caliper. With this information, the phrenologist would assess the character and temperament of the patient and address each of the 27 "brain organs". This type of phrenology analysis was used to predict the kinds of relationships and behaviours to which the patient was prone. In its heyday during the 1820s-1840s, phrenology was often used to predict a child's future life, to assess prospective marriage partners and to provide background checks for job applicants.

Gall's list of the "brain organs" was lengthy and specific, as he believed that each bump or indentation in a patient's skull corresponded to his "brain map". An enlarged bump meant that the patient utilised that particular "organ" extensively. The 27 areas were varied in function, from sense of colour, to the likelihood of religiosity, to the potential to commit murder. Each of the 27 "brain organs" was located in a specific area of the skull. As a phrenologist felt the skull, he could refer to a numbered diagram showing where each functional area was believed to be located.

The 27 "brain organs" were:

  1. The instinct of reproduction (located in the cerebellum).
  2. The love of one's offspring.
  3. Affection and friendship.
  4. The instinct of self-defence and courage; the tendency to get into fights.
  5. The carnivorous instinct; the tendency to murder.
  6. Guile; acuteness; cleverness.
  7. The feeling of property; the instinct of stocking up on food (in animals); covetousness; the tendency to steal.
  8. Pride; arrogance; haughtiness; love of authority; loftiness.
  9. Vanity; ambition; love of glory (a quality "beneficent for the individual and for society").
  10. Circumspection; forethought.
  11. The memory of things; the memory of facts; educability; perfectibility.
  12. The sense of places; of space proportions.
  13. The memory of people; the sense of people.
  14. The memory of words.
  15. The sense of language; of speech.
  16. The sense of colours.
  17. The sense of sounds; the gift of music.
  18. The sense of connectedness between numbers.
  19. The sense of mechanics, of construction; the talent for architecture.
  20. Comparative sagacity.
  21. The sense of metaphysics.
  22. The sense of satire; the sense of witticism.
  23. The poetical talent.
  24. Kindness; benevolence; gentleness; compassion; sensitivity; moral sense.
  25. The faculty to imitate; the mimic.
  26. The organ of religion.
  27. The firmness of purpose; constancy; perseverance; obstinacy.

Phrenology as a pseudoscience

Phrenology has long been dismissed as a pseudoscience because of neurological advances. During the discipline's heyday, phrenologists including Gall committed many errors. In his book The Beginner's Guide to Scientific Method Stephen S. Carey explains that pseudoscience can be defined as "fallacious applications of the scientific method" by today's standards. Phrenologists made dubious inferences between bumps in people's skulls and their personalities, claiming that the bumps were the determinant of personality. Some of the more valid assumptions of phrenology (e.g., that mental processes can be localized in the brain) remain in modern neuroimaging techniques and modularity of mind theory. Through advancements in modern medicine and neuroscience, scientists have generally concluded that feeling conformations of the outer skull is not an accurate predictor of behaviour.

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