Friday, February 3, 2012



Could a bump on the back of your head offer a clue to your inner personality? This idea was a central theme in the pseudoscience known as phrenology, a discipline that involved linking bumps on a person's head to certain aspects of the subject's personality and character. Phrenology was developed by a German physician named Franz Joseph Gall in the late 1700s. Gall noticed that the cerebral cortex of humans was much larger than that of animals, which he believed was what made humans intellectually superior. Eventually, he became convinced that the physical features of the cortex could also be seen in the shape and size of the skull.

After examining the heads of a number of young pickpockets, Gall found that many of them had bumps on their skull just above their ears. He then suggested that the bumps, indentations and shape of the skull could be linked to different aspects of a person's personality, character and abilities. With the young pickpockets, for example, he suggested that the bump behind their ears was associated with a tendency to steal, lie or deceive. Gall sought support for his ideas by measuring the skulls of people in prisons, hospitals and asylums, especially people with odd-shaped heads. Based on what he found, Gall developed a system of 27 different "faculties" that he believed could be directly diagnosed by measuring specific parts of the head. He created a chart that showed which areas of the skull were associated with specific traits or characteristics.

The 27 "Faculties" in Phrenology
Reproductive instincts
The love of one's offspring
Affection and friendship
Self-defense, courage and fighting
Murderous instincts
Guile, acuteness, cleverness
Sense of property, the tendency to steal
Pride, arrogance, haughtiness, love of authority, loftiness
Vanity, ambition, love of glory
Circumspection, forethought
Aptitude for being educated
Sense of locality and place
Recollection of people
Verbal memory
Language ability
The sense of colors
Sense for sound and musical talent
Mathematical abilities
Mechanical abilities
Comparative sagacity
Satire and wit
Poetic talent
Kindness, compassion, sensitivity, moral sense
Imitation and mimicry
Perseverance, firmness

However, Gall's methods lacked scientific rigor and he chose to simply ignore any evidence that contradicted his ideas. Despite this, phrenology became increasingly popular from the 1800s well into the early 1900s. Gall's ideas gained many followers, but he began to attract criticism from scientists as well as from other groups. The Catholic Church believed that his suggestion of a "religion organ" was atheistic, and in 1802 his publications were added to the Index of Prohibited Books. After Gall's death in 1828, several of his followers continued to develop phrenology, taking it from Gall's attempts at science into something of a cult.

Despite phrenology's brief popularity, it eventually became viewed as a pseudoscience much like astrology, numerology and palmistry. Criticism from some of the best-known brain researchers played an important role in the reversal of popular views of phrenology. In 1843, Pierre Flourens, a French physiologist, founder of experimental brain science and a pioneer in anesthesia, found that the fundamental assumption of phrenology - that the contours of the skull corresponded to the underlying shape of the brain - was wrong. In his Elementary Treatise on Human Physiology, another physiologist, Francois Magendie, summed up his dismissal of phrenology by writing:

“Phrenology, a pseudo-science of the present day, like astrology, necromancy, and alchemy of former times, it pretends to localize in the brain the different kinds of memory. But its efforts are mere assertions, which will bear no examination for an instant. “

While phrenology has long been identified as a pseudoscience, it did help make important contributions to the field of neurology. Thanks to the focus on phrenology, researchers became more interested in the concept of cortical localization, an idea that suggested that certain mental functions were localized in particular areas of the brain. While Gall and other phrenologists incorrectly believed that bumps on the head corresponded to personality and abilities, they were correct in believing that different mental abilities were associated with different areas of the brain. Modern research methods allow scientists to use sophisticated tools such as MRI and PET scans to learn more about the localization of function within the brain.

- Jessi Guenther

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