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Phrenology (from Greek: φρήν, phrēn, "mind"; and λόγος, logos, "knowledge") is a theory which claims to be able to determine character, personality traits, and criminality on the basis of the shape of the head (reading "bumps"). Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall around 1800, and very popular in the 19th century, it is now discredited as a pseudoscience. Phrenology has however received credit as a protoscience for having contributed to medical science the ideas that the brain is the organ of the mind and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions.
Its principles were that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that mind has a set of different mental faculties, each particular faculty being represented in a different part or organ of the brain. These areas were said to be proportional to a given individual's propensities and importance of a mental faculty, and the overlying skull bone to reflect these differences.
Phrenology, which focuses on personality and character, is to be distinguished from craniometry, which is the study of skull size, weight and shape, and physiognomy, the study of facial features. However, these fields have all claimed the ability to predict traits or intelligence. They were once intensively practised in anthropology/ethnology and sometimes utilized to "scientifically" justify racism. While some principles of phrenology are well-established today, the basic premise that personality is determined by skull shape is almost universally considered to be false.
The attempt to locate faculties of personality within the head can be traced back to the philosopher Aristotle of ancient Greece. 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 as the home of all mental activities.
In the introduction to his main work The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, Gall makes the following statement in regard to the principles on which he based his doctrine:
- 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 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.
These statements can be considered as the basic laws on which phrenology was built. Through careful observation and extensive experimental measurements, Gall believed he had linked aspects of character, called faculties, to precise organs in the brain. The most important collaborator of Gall was Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), who successfully disseminated phrenology in the United Kingdom and the United States. Spurzheim popularized the term phrenology.
Other significant authors on the subject include the Scottish brothers George Combe (1788-1858) and Andrew Combe (1797-1847). George Combe was the author of some of the most popular works on phrenology and the hygiene of the mind, like The Constitution of Man or Elements of Phrenology.
The American brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896) and Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) were the leading phrenologists of their time. Orson, together with his 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 of L.N Fowler & Co; he acquired fame with his phrenology head, a china head on which the phrenological faculties were indicated. This item has become the symbol of phrenology.In the Victorian period, 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 an early form of psychological insight and personal growth. Thousands of people consulted a phrenologist to get advice in matters like hiring personnel or finding a marriage partner. However, phrenology was rejected by mainstream academia; the discipline was excluded from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The popularity of phrenology varied throughout the 19th century, with some considering the field similar to astrology, chiromancy or merely a fairground attraction, while others published scientific books and journals 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 on display in the Collection of Questionable Medical Devices in the Science Museum of Minnesota in Saint Paul.
In the early 20th century however, phrenology benefited of a new interest, particularly in the viewpoint of evolutionism on one hand and of criminology and anthropology (as studied by Cesare Lombroso) on the other hand. The most important British phrenologist of this 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 the teachings of Gall. Hollander also introduced a quantitative approach to the phrenological diagnosis, defining a methodology for measuring the skull and comparing the measurements with statistical averages.
Phrenology was also practiced by some scientists promoting racist ideologies, including Nazism. They used (often self-contradictory) phrenological claims, among other biological "evidence", as a "scientific" basis for race superiority.
In Belgium, Paul Bouts (1900-1999) started working on 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 called Psychognomy.
Prof. Bouts, a Roman Catholic priest, became the main promoter of the renewed 20th-century interest in phrenology and psychognomy in Belgium. He was also active in Brazil, and in 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 treats 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 future perfection.
However, empirical refutation caused most scientists to abandon phrenology as a science by the early 20th century. For example, cases were observed of clearly aggressive persons displaying a well-developed "benevolent organ". Many other contradictory cases were encountered. Furthermore, with the advent of psychology, many scientists were skeptical of the claim that human character can be determined by simple external measures.
- History of Phrenology on the Web by John van Wyhe, PhD. The most extensive source of phrenological texts available on the web.
- The Phrenology Pages, a Belgian site advocating phrenology.
- Phrenology. The History of Cerebral Localization. Article by Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD in Brain & Mind online article.
- Examples of phrenological tools can be seen in The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
- Joseph Vimont: Traité de phrénologie humaine et comparée. (Paris, 1832-1835). Selected pages scanned from the original work. Historical Anatomies on the Web. US National Library of Medicine.
- Phrenology: History of a Classic Pseudoscience - by Steven Novella MD
- Historical Deadwood Newspaper accounts of C. R. Broadbent well known speaker on Phrenology and Physiology visit Deadwood SD 1878
Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. Doubleday, 2006. Picture of Fowler Phrenology Head: Fowler Phrenology Head
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