Phrenology (from Greek: φρήν, phrēn, "mind"; and λόγος, logos, "knowledge") is a defunct field of study, once considered a science, by which the personality traits of a person were determined by "reading" bumps and fissures in the skull. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall around 1800, 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 localized, specific functions (see in particular, Brodmann's areas) or modules (see modularity of mind). 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.
In the history of personality theory, phrenology is considered to be an advance over the old medical theory of the four humours. However, it has no 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, these disciplines have claimed the ability to predict personality traits or intelligence (in fields such as anthropology/ethnology), and were sometimes posed to scientifically justify racism.
The attempt to locate faculties of personality within the head can be compared to the attempt of philosopher Aristotle of ancient Greece to localize anger in the liver. However, the first attempts to scientifically measure skull shape and its alleged relation to character were performed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), who is considered the founding father of phrenology. Gall was one of the first 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 foundation of phrenology:
Through careful observation and extensive experimentation, Gall believed he had linked aspects of character, called faculties, to precise organs in the brain. Gall's most important collaborator was Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), who successfully disseminated phrenology in the United Kingdom and the United States. He popularized the term phrenology.
Other significant authors include the Scottish brothers George Combe (1788-1858) and Andrew Combe (1797-1847), who founded 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 firm and publishing house Fowlers & Wells in New York City. Lorenzo spent much of his life in England where he set up the famous phrenological publishing house, L.N Fowler & Co., where he 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 was often taken quite seriously. Many prominent public figures such as the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (a college classmate and initial partner of Orson Fowler) actively promoted phrenology as a source of psychological insight and personal growth. British Prime Minister 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 to get advice in various matters, such as hiring personnel or finding suitable marriage partners. However, phrenology was rejected by mainstream academia, and was excluded from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The popularity of phrenology fluctuated throughout 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.
Phrenology was also very popular in the United States, where automatic devices for phrenological 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.
In the early 20th century, phrenology benefitted from revived interest, partly fueled by the studies of evolution, criminology and anthropology (as pursued by Cesare Lombroso). The most prominent British phrenologist of the 20th century was the famous 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 methodology for measuring the skull, and comparing the measurements with statistical averages.
Phrenology was practiced by some scientists promoting racist ideologies, including Nazism. They used phrenological claims, among other biological evidence, as a scientific basis for Aryan racial superiority.
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.
Prof. 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.
In the 1930's 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 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 skeptical of the claim that human character can be determined by simple, external measures.
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 analysis was used to predict the kinds of relationships and behaviors 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 utilized that particular "organ" extensively. The 27 areas were highly varied in function, from sense of color, to the likelihood of religiosity, to the potential to commit murder. Each of the 27 "brain organs" was found in a specific area of the skull. As the 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: