I came upon this cartoon on Phrenology at Stripped Science

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there are still adherents to this thoroughly debunked pseudo-science.

To understand phrenology, we must begin with the central debate of neurological scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries. The question concerned the organization of the brain. One school believed that the brain was relatively homogenous, the entire brain worked together as a whole to produce all mental and motor functions. One particular function, therefore, such as humor, aggression, the ability to control the right hand, or recognize the scent of a rose, could not be localized to any piece of the brain. Trying to identify what any one part of the brain did, therefore, was useless.

The other school believed the exact opposite, that the brain was exquisitely compartmentalized. Every function that can be attributed to the brain could, they argued, be localized to a particular part of the brain, which was dedicated to that single function alone. To this latter school, understanding the brain would come through identifying which pieces were responsible for which functions. This hypothesis was initially proposed and championed in 1796 by Austrian physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), as part of his new theory of phrenology.

Neurologists were correct in that many functions are localized to certain brain sections and some characteristics are essentially ‘hard wired’. However, their reasoning to get to these points do not stand up to modern scrutiny.

For example, this is the brain map used by phrenologists.

Modern neuroscientists have a more complex view of the brain. One that has been developed using imaging technology.

MRI sequence

Phrenology was based upon the concept that higher brain functions and personality traits could be identified and isolated through external characteristics. In the beginning was Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828).

At a comparatively early period he formed the generalization that in the human subject at least a powerful memory is invariably associated with prominent eyes; and further observation enabled him, as he thought, also to define the external characteristics indicative of special talents for painting, music and the mechanical arts. Following out these researches, be gradually reached the strong conviction, not only that the talents and dispositions of men are dependent upon the functions of the brain, but also that they maybe inferred with perfect exactitude and precision from the external appearances of the skull.

Gall identified 42 Phrenological Faculties (others varied somewaht in defining these faculties) which have remained largely unchanged to this day. These include:

    • The Area of the Intellect (Causality Comparison Human Nature Constructiveness Locality  Individuality Eventuality)
    • The Energetical Faculties  (Firmness Self-esteem Approbativeness Destructiveness Cautiousness )
    • The Moral Faculties (Veneration Spirituality Benevolence Ideality Conscientiousness)
    • The Area of Love (Affection Acquisitiveness Secretiveness Amativeness)

Each of these could be identified by external appearance. For example, Benevolence can be seen in a well-developed forehead:

Strong and weak benevolence

Benevolence is located in the upper part of the forehead. This part is very convex when Benevolence is strong; a slanted forehead often comes with a negative Benevolence.

In the early 1800s, phrenology reached great popularity, especially in the US where it was spread by co-founder Johann Spurzheim.

Spurzheim believed that the brain was like a muscle that could be exercised. Like weights for your biceps, a good education could strengthen your intellectual faculties.

Plus, phrenology promised to improve the public’s everyday lives with simple solutions.

Soon, phrenology became big business and spread to various areas of life. Phrenologists would test couples for compatibility, potential suitors for marriage, and job applicants for different positions.

In addition to education, following a phrenologists examination, a client would be advised which characteristics to develop and which to restrain. While mostly out of favour long before the 20th century, some phrenologists persisted.

In the 1930s, Lavery and White developed an automated


phrenological machine called the Psycograph, which provided a numeric printout of a skull’s shape. They built 33 such devices, which were leased to American entrepreneurs for “clinical” use. The Psycograph had 1,954 parts and rated 32 mental faculties. It looked at each faculty on a five-point scale by way of 32 probes with five head contact points arrayed in an elaborate headpiece. In 1934, two businessmen set up shop near the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and earned more than $200,000 from a public eager to have their heads read.

Phrenology had many flaws and many critics and eventually it fell by the wayside, just as so many pseudo-sciences do.  Unlike most quacks, phrenologists actually aided in the development of modern neuroscience.

Gall is credited with discovering that the nervous system was uneven and the cervical and lumbar spinal enlargements. He also described the origins of the second, third, fifth and sixth cranial nerves. In addition, through his dissections, Gall was able to describe the differences between gray and white brain matter. He correlated the prefrontal lobes with language, and maybe most importantly, his theories and discoveries established the fact that the brain as an organ did not function as a whole, but instead had many parts that had unique functions.

Psychologists also worked forward from the phrenological concept that personality traits are not fixed, but can be influenced by our own actions and endeavours.

Science is often a messy enterprise with many false starts and detours. The study of Phrenology can be considered a lesson in just such a circuitous route. What began with observations led to hypotheses, which, in turn led to further study. The work then progressed on three main fronts: developing diagnostic tools, developing psychological methods, and developing a deeper understanding of neuro-anatomy and function. The first, based upon faulty premises disappeared; newer psychological tools replaced the second; but the third flourished. Researchers have used brain injuries, diseases, and imaging tools to refine the basic concept of a mostly compartmentalized brain.  The end result doesn’t look very much like Gall’s original map, but then, the universe doesn’t look very much like it had been envisioned by Galileo or Copernicus.

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