An 1883 phrenology chart


Graphic credit: From People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883). Transferred from en.wikipedia Original uploader was Whbonney at en.wikipedia, Public Domain,


Phrenology is a pseudo medicine primarily focused on measurements of the human skull, based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules. Although both of those ideas have a basis in reality, phrenology extrapolated beyond empirical knowledge in a way that departed from science. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, the discipline was very popular in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 until 1840. The principal British center for phrenology was Edinburgh, where the Edinburgh Phrenological Society was established in 1820. Although now regarded as an obsolete amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy with moral philosophy, phrenological thinking was influential in 19th-century psychiatry. Gall’s assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific parts of the brain is considered an important historical advance toward neuropsychology.


Phrenologists believe that the human mind has a set of various mental faculties, each one represented in a different area of the brain. For example, the faculty of “philoprogenitiveness“, from the Greek for “love of offspring“, was located centrally at the back of the head (see illustration of the chart from Webster’s Academic Dictionary).

These areas were said to be proportional to a person’s propensities. The importance of an organ was derived from relative size compared to other organs. It was believed that the cranial skull – like a glove on the hand -accommodates to the different sizes of these areas of the brain, 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. Phrenology, which focuses on personality and character, is distinct from craniometry, which is the study of skull size, weight and shape, and physiognomy, the study of facial features. Phrenology is a process that involves observing and/or feeling the skull to determine an individual’s psychological attributes. Franz Joseph Gall believed that the brain was made up of 27 individual organs that determined personality, the first 19 of these ?organs’ he 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 often take measurements with a tape measure of the overall head size and more rarely employ a craniometer, a special version of a caliper. In general, instruments to measure sizes of cranium continued to be used after the mainstream phrenology had ended. The phrenologists put emphasis on using drawings of individuals with particular traits, to determine the character of the person and thus many phrenology books show pictures of subjects. From absolute and relative sizes of the skull the phrenologist would assess the character and temperament of the patient.


Gall’s list of the “brain organs“ was specific. An enlarged organ meant that the patient used that particular “organ“ extensively. The number – and more detailed meanings – of organs were added later by other phrenologists. The 27 areas varied in function, from sense of color, to religiosity, to being combative or destructive. Each of the 27 “brain organs“ was located under a specific area of the skull. As a phrenologist felt the skull, he would use his knowledge of the shapes of heads and organ positions to determine the overall natural strengths and weaknesses of an individual. Phrenologists believed the head revealed natural tendencies but not absolute limitations or strengths of character. The first phrenological chart gave the names of the organs described by Gall; it was a single sheet, and sold for a cent. Later charts were more expansive.


Historically, among the first to identify the brain as the major controlling center for the body were Hippocrates and his followers, inaugurating a major change in thinking from Egyptian, biblical and early Greek views, which based bodily primacy of control on the heart. This belief was supported by the Greek physician Galen, who concluded that mental activity occurred in the brain rather than the heart, contending that the brain, a cold, moist organ formed of sperm, was the seat of the animal soul – one of three “souls“ found in the body, each associated with a principal organ. The Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) introduced the idea that physiognomy related to the specific character traits of individuals, rather than general types, in his Physiognomische Fragmente, published between 1775 and 1778. His work was translated into English and published in 1832 as The Pocket Lavater, or, The Science of Physiognomy. He believed that thoughts of the mind and passions of the soul were connected with an individual’s external frame. Of the forehead, When the forehead is perfectly perpendicular, from the hair to the eyebrows, it denotes an utter deficiency of understanding.


In 1796 the German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) began lecturing on organology: the isolation of mental faculties and later cranioscopy which involved reading the skull’s shape as it pertained to the individual. It was Gall’s collaborator Johann Gaspar Spurzheim who would popularize the term “phrenology“. In 1809 Gall began writing his principal 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:


The Brain is the organ of the mind


1. The brain is not a homogenous unity, but an aggregate of mental organs with specific functions

2. The cerebral organs are topographically localized

3. Other things being equal, the relative size of any particular mental organ is indicative of the power or strength of that organ

4. Since the skull ossifies over the brain during infant development, external craniological means could be used to diagnose the internal states of the mental characters


Through careful observation and extensive experimentation, Gall believed he had established a relationship between aspects of character, called faculties, with precise organs in the brain. Johann Spurzheim was Gall’s most important collaborator. He worked as Gall’s anatomist until 1813 when for unknown reasons they had a permanent falling out. Publishing under his own name Spurzheim successfully disseminated phrenology throughout the United Kingdom during his lecture tours through 1814 and 1815 and the United States in 1832 where he would eventually die. Gall was more concerned with creating a physical science, so it was through Spurzheim that phrenology was first spread throughout Europe and America. Phrenology, while not universally accepted, was hardly a fringe phenomenon of the era. George Combe would become the chief promoter of phrenology throughout the English-speaking world after he viewed a brain dissection by Spurzheim, convincing him of phrenology’s merits.


The popularization of phrenology in the middle and working classes was due in part to the idea that scientific knowledge was important and an indication of sophistication and modernity. Cheap and plentiful pamphlets, as well as the growing popularity of scientific lectures as entertainment, also helped spread phrenology to the masses. Combe created a system of philosophy of the human mind that became popular with the masses because of its simplified principles and wide range of social applications that were in harmony with the liberal Victorian world view. George Combe’s book On the Constitution of Man and its Relationship to External Objects sold over 200, 000 copies through nine editions. Combe also devoted a large portion of his book to reconciling religion and phrenology, which had long been a sticking point. Another reason for its popularity was that phrenology balanced between free will and determinism. A person’s inherent faculties were clear, and no faculty was viewed as evil, though the abuse of a faculty was. Phrenology allowed for self-improvement and upward mobility, while providing fodder for attacks on aristocratic privilege. Phrenology also had wide appeal because of its being a reformist philosophy not a radical one. Phrenology was not limited to the common people, and both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited George Combe to read the heads of their children.


Phrenology came about at a time when scientific procedures and standards for acceptable evidence were still being codified. In the context of Victorian society, phrenology was a respectable scientific theory. The Phrenological Society of Edinburgh founded by George and Andrew Combe was an example of the credibility of phrenology at the time and included a number of extremely influential social reformers and intellectuals, including the publisher Robert Chambers, the astronomer John Pringle Nichol, the evolutionary environmentalist Hewett Cottrell Watson, and asylum reformer William A.F. Browne. In 1826, out of the 120 members of the Edinburgh society an estimated one third were from a medical background. By the 1840s there were more than 28 phrenological societies in London with over 1000 members. Another important scholar was Luigi Ferrarese, the leading Italian phrenologist. He advocated that governments should embrace phrenology as a scientific means of conquering many social ills, and his Memorie Risguardanti La Dottrina Frenologica (1836), is considered “one of the fundamental 19th century works in the field“.


Traditionally the mind had been studied through introspection. Phrenology provided an attractive, biological alternative that attempted to unite all mental phenomena using consistent biological terminology. Gall’s approach prepared the way for studying the mind that would lead to the downfall of his own theories. Phrenology contributed to development of physical anthropology, forensic medicine, knowledge of the nervous system and brain anatomy as well as contributing to applied psychology. John Elliotson was a brilliant but erratic heart specialist who became a phrenologist in the 1840s. He was also a mesmerist and combined the two into something he called phrenomesmerism or phrenomagnatism. Changing behavior through mesmerism eventually won out in Elliotson’s hospital, putting phrenology in a subordinate role. Others amalgamated phrenology and mesmerism as well, such as the practical phrenologists Collyer and Joseph R. Buchanan. The benefits of combining mesmerism and phrenology was that the trance the patient was placed in was supposed to allow for the manipulation of his/her penchants and qualities. For example, if the organ of self-esteem was touched, the subject would take on a haughty expression.


Phrenology has been psychology’s great faux pas. – J.C. Flugel (1933)


Phrenology was mostly discredited as a scientific theory by the 1840s. This was due only in part to a growing amount of evidence against phrenology. Phrenologists had never been able to agree on the most basic mental organ numbers, going from 27 to over 40, and had difficulty locating the mental organs. Phrenologists relied on cranioscopic readings of the skull to find organ locations. Jean Pierre Flourens’ experiments on the brains of pigeons indicated that the loss of parts of the brain either caused no loss of function, or the loss of a completely different function than what had been attributed to it by phrenology. Flourens’ experiment, while not perfect, seemed to indicate that Gall’s supposed organs were imaginary. Scientists had also become disillusioned with phrenology since its exploitation with the middle and working classes by entrepreneurs. The popularization had resulted in the simplification of phrenology and mixing in it of principles of physiognomy, which had from the start been rejected by Gall as an indicator of personality. Phrenology from its inception was tainted by accusations of promoting materialism and atheism, and being destructive of morality. These were all factors which led to the downfall of phrenology . Recent studies, using modern day technology like Magnetic Resonance Imaging have further disproven phrenology claims.


During the early 20th century, a revival of interest in phrenology occurred, 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 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 the phrenological 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 Destinees individuelle et humaine dans la lumiere de la Caracterologie et de l’Evolution cerebro-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, thus perpetuating phrenology’s problematic racializing of the human frame. Bouts died on March 7, 1999. His work has been continued by the Dutch foundation PPP (Per Pulchritudinem in Pulchritudine), operated by Anette Muller, one of Bouts’ students. During the 1930’s Belgian colonial authorities in Rwanda used phrenology to explain the so-called superiority of Tutsis over Hutus.



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