The next time you say, “so and so should have her head examined,” remember that this was literally done in the 19th century.
Phrenology, as it became known, is the study of brain function. Specifically, phrenologists believed that different parts of the brain were responsible for different emotional and intellectual functions. Furthermore, they felt that these functions could be ascertained by measuring the bumps and indentations in your skull. That is, the shape of your skull revealed your character and talents.
Viennese doctor and anatomist Franz Josef Gall originated phrenology, though he called it cranioscopy. He was correct in saying that brain function was localized (this was a novel idea at the time), but unfortunately, he got everything else wrong.
When Gall was young, he noticed a relationship between people’s attributes and behaviors and the shape of their heads. For instance, he observed that his classmates who had better memories had protruding eyes. This inspired him to start forming his theories and collecting anecdotal evidence. It’s this type of evidence that is the foundation of phrenology.
The problem? Phrenologists would simply dismiss cases that didn’t support their principles, or just revise their explanation to fit any example.
Johann Spurzheim collaborated with Gall on his brain research, and he is the one who actually coined the term phrenology. He eventually went out on his own. He believed that there were 21 emotional faculties (the term for abilities or attributes) and 14 intellectual faculties.
Phrenology had five main principles, which Spurzheim laid out in Outlines of Phrenology (Goodwin, 1999):
- “The brain is the organ of the mind.”
- The mind consists of about three dozen faculties, which are either intellectual or emotional.
- Each faculty has its own brain location.
- People have different amounts of these faculties. A person that has more of a certain faculty will have more brain tissue at that location.
- Because the shape of the skull is similar to the shape of your brain, it’s possible to measure the skull to assess these faculties (known as the “doctrine of the skull”).
In this text, Spurzheim featured highly detailed descriptions of the faculties and their locations.
Spurzheim popularized phrenology in the U.S. While he was on a lecture tour in America, he passed away. Former attorney turned phrenologist George Combe took over Spurzheim’s work and kept his categories.
Phrenology was particularly popular in the U.S. because it fit so well with the idea of the American dream–the notion that we can accomplish our goals despite a humble heritage.
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.
Brothers Lorenzo and Orson Fowler (who, as an Amherst college student, actually charged students two cents a head) became phrenology marketing gurus. They opened up phrenology clinics, sold supplies to other phrenologists and even started the American Phrenological Journal in 1838. (Its last issue was published in 1911.)
The Fowler brothers sold pamphlets on a variety of subjects. A few of the titles: The Indications of Character, Wedlock and Choice of Pursuits. They also gave lectures and offered classes to phrenologists and the public.
They even created a faculties manual that a person would take home after being examined by a phrenologist. The phrenologist would indicate the strength of a faculty from two to seven and then check either the box that said “cultivate” or “restrain.” Then, the person would refer to the necessary sections of the 175-paged book.
While much of the public was fascinated by phrenology, the scientific community wasn’t impressed. By the 1830s, it was already considered pseudoscience.
Pierre Flourens, a French physiologist and surgeon, questioned the movement and discredited it by performing experimental studies. He experimented on a variety of animals by observing what happened when he’d remove specific sections of their brains.
But science didn’t cause phrenology to fall out of favor. Psychology professionals offering new methods did.
Phrenology’s Influence on Psychology
If you’ve ever read an introductory psychology book, you might remember that phrenology was depicted as basically a fraud. It was viewed “as a bizarre scientific dead end in which charlatans read character by looking at the bumps on someone’s head,” wrote C. James Goodwin in A History of Modern Psychology.
But as Goodwin said in his book, that’s a simplistic explanation. In fact, phrenology helped move American psychology forward in various ways. (And while there were charlatans, there were phrenologists who truly wanted to help.)
For instance, the basis of phrenology was individual faculties, and thereby individual differences. Phrenologists were interested in analyzing and measuring individual differences, like psychologists do today.
As mentioned above, phrenology also proposed that one’s DNA didn’t predetermine their life. The environment, including education, played a big role, too. You could improve upon your skills and talents.
You — not your genes — had control over your future, and that was a hopeful and exciting notion. It still is!
Benjamin, L.T., & Baker, D.B. (2004). The beginnings of psychological practice: Having your head examined: Phrenology. From Séance to Science: A History of the Profession of Psychology in America (pp.3-8). California: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Goodwin, C.J. (1999). The neurophysiology context: Localization of brain function. A History of Modern Psychology (pp. 66-70). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Photo by Looking Glass, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.