Phrenology

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Podcast Transcript

In the 19th century, a new discipline swept over the medical and legal professions. 

This belief held that a person’s personality could be determined by analyzing the contours or bumps on their head. 

The belief had a surprising amount of sway among certain people, and it developed a large following before eventually being thoroughly discredited.

Learn more about the pseudoscience of phrenology, how it was developed, and why it caught on on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


It might be hard to believe today, but phrenology was once a big deal. Then again, there are still people who believe in astrology, so perhaps it isn’t that hard to believe. 

Like all pseudoscience, it had just enough vaguely sciency-looking things about it, a few nuggets of truth, and a whole lot of nonsense piled on top. 

The beginnings of phrenology can be traced back to a fact that is not controversial today but was hotly debated in ancient history…that the brain was the organ of the body that was responsible for thought. 

This was not always believed to be the case. It was originally thought that the part of the body that was responsible for thought was the heart. Aristotle was one of the ancient philosophers who thought that the heart was the center of intelligence.


Early Greek physicians such as Alcmaeon of Croton and Hippocrates challenged the theory that the heart was the center of thought and consciousness. Their belief largely came from their work performing dissections and noting the pathways of nerves, especially from the eye. 

In the second century, the Roman physician Galen again concluded that the brain was the center of human thought. 

Eventually, this belief became commonly accepted, and in the Renaissance and beyond, more physicians began conducting more in-depth studies of the brain. 

Anatomists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius began doing detailed sketches of the brain. 

In the 17th century, Thomas Willis, who is considered to be the father of neurology, did further investigation and discovered the “Circle of Willis,” which is a network of arteries that supplies blood to the brain. 

By the 18th century, it had been well established that the brain was the seat of intelligence and that different parts of the brain probably were responsible for different things. 

So far, so good. Any modern textbook will tell you that the brain is responsible for cognitive function and, without getting into too much detail, different parts of the brain are responsible for different things. 

There was another ancient belief known as Physiognomy. 

Physiognomy is the study or practice of assessing a person’s character or personality from their outer appearance, particularly the face. It was practiced in ancient Greece and China.

Physiognomy operated on the assumption that there were correlations between physical features and certain personality traits, moral character, or even destiny. This is something that many people still practice, at least informally.

Someone might say that someone looks shifty or that someone has an honest face. 

There is, of course, no correlation between personality and looks or any physical traits, but it is a belief that has held on for centuries. 

Eventually, the ideas of physiognomy were merged into the knowledge about the brain. 

The man who is credited with being the father of phrenology was the German physician Franz Joseph Gall. 

Gall believed that certain parts of the brain were responsible for certain behavioral characteristics. This was known as organology. Organology held that the brain was a collection of smaller organs, each of which was responsible for different aspects of personality. 

Again, there is a broad truth that different parts of the brain are responsible for different things, like speech. 

However, that wasn’t what Gall was saying. Gall believed that there were parts of the brain responsible for personality traits such as hope, compassion, secretiveness, acquisitiveness, combativeness, and other attributes. In total, he identified 27 different personality traits associated with parts of the brain.

Gall believed that the relative size of these organs in the brain is what gave people their personality. 

Moreover, these areas of the brain were located on the surface of the brain. 

From his belief in organology, he was then led to develop a theory he called cranioscopy. Cranioscopy held that these regions on the surface of the brain, which determine personality traits, could be reflected in the shape and texture of the skull.

One of his assistants, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, coined another term to describe this theory: phrenology. It was derived from the Greek words for mind and knowledge. 

In 1809, Gall began working on his magnum opus, which would set the foundations for phrenology.  The work was titled (and this is a mouthful) 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.

In it, Gall set forward the five main principles of phrenology: 

  1. The Brain is the organ of the mind 
  2. The brain is not a homogenous unit but an aggregate of mental organs with specific functions associated with various personality traits.
  3. The cerebral organs are in certain areas of the brain.
  4. The relative size of any particular mental organ is indicative of the power or strength of that organ 
  5. Since the skull grows over the brain during infant development, external craniological methods could be used to diagnose the internal states of mental characteristics.

Gall was more interested in developing the science of phrenology, and it was Spurzheim who became the first major advocate. 

Gall and Spurzheim had a falling out in 1812, and Spurzheim began a career giving public lectures on the subject of phrenology.

He traveled extensively through Europe over the next several years, where he found particularly receptive audiences in England and France.

However, not everyone was convinced. In 1815, Dr. John Gordon, a Scottish physician and former president of the Royal Medical Society, published a debunking of phrenology. 


Gordon, instead, publicly supported the work of Johann Christian Reil, who was a pioneer of the discipline of psychiatry.

Gordon called it “a piece of thorough quackery from beginning to end.”

Gordon did a masterful job of taking down the system created by Gall and Spurzheim. However, it seems that he did too good of a job. In the process of debunking phrenology, he provided a very concise summary of what the phrenologists believed. 

His summary was so good that phrenologists used it to spread phrenology to a wider audience.

Despite the debunking by Dr. Gordon, phrenology kept spreading, finding a receptive audience.

One of the main evangelists of phrenology was a Scotsman by the name of George Combe, who heard Spurzheim rebut Gordon’s debunking in Edinburgh in 1816.

Combe and his brother founded the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh, the first such organization dedicated to phrenology.

One of the reasons why phrenology became so popular is because it appeared to so many people to be scientific. Spurzheim had extended the 27 areas of the brain that Gall had identified.  Science and the scientific method were still being developed at this time, so the difference between legitimate science and pseudoscience wasn’t well understood. 

George Combe turbocharged the spread of phrenology by publishing short pamphlets, of which he sold over 200,000 copies. 

By 1840, there were 28 phrenology societies in London that had over 1,000 members. 

Despite the popularity in some circles, it had been largely discredited by the 1840s. One of the reasons why it was so discredited is because the phrenology practitioners couldn’t agree amongst themselves just how it was supposed to work. 

The number of brain sections ranged between 27 and 40, and what each section was supposed to represent was different. Moreover, phrenology was primarily practiced by people who engaged in public exhibitions for money, not by actual researchers. 

Furthermore, the French physiologist Jean Pierre Flourens did experiments with the brains of animals, which disproved almost all of phrenology. He was able to remove parts of the brains of pigeons, and the pigeons either didn’t lose function or did so in a way not predicted by phrenology. 

Despite being discredited in serious medical circles, it still didn’t disappear. It ended up getting attached to other theories and beliefs. 

The British heart and lung specialist, John Elliotson, became a devoted phrenologist and married it to mesmerism, or what we would today call hypnosis. 

However, the thing that gave phrenology a second life was Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection. 

Phrenology and natural selection put a scientific veneer on those who believed in the superiority of people based on race, sex, or social class. 

Phrenologists claimed that the skulls of African Americans and other non-European ethnic groups exhibited features that indicated inferior intellectual capacities and personality traits. Such pseudoscientific assertions were used to justify slavery and racial segregation. 

Phrenology was also used to reinforce gender stereotypes and justify the subjugation of women. Phrenologists posited that women had smaller skulls than men, suggesting this was evidence of women’s inferior intellectual abilities and their predisposition towards nurturing roles rather than intellectual or leadership positions.

Phrenologists often linked certain skull shapes to criminal tendencies, suggesting that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to have these features and, thus, were more predisposed to criminal behavior. This led to discriminatory practices in law enforcement and the justice system, where individuals could be judged based on their physical appearance rather than their actions.

All of these arguments barely even used the original phrenology developed by Gall and Spurzheim. They just used different physical differences to justify what they already believed. 

Many of the phrenologists who adopted these views were also some of the first advocates of eugenics.

By the late 19th century, phrenology had fallen out of fashion, even as a pseudoscience. 

Developments in psychiatry and neurology have conclusively debunked most of the claims of phrenology. 

If you remember back to my episode on Phineas Gage, he was a railroad construction worker who had a three-foot iron rod blown through his skull in an explosion…..and survived. 

Gage, by all accounts, had all of his facilities, and doctors considered him fully recovered four years after the accident.

It was considered by physicians to be a rare and freak occurrence that conclusively disproved phrenology. 

Of course, the case was also used by practitioners of phrenology to support their theories as well.

Phrenology had a brief resurgence in the early 20th century. The biggest proponent was a British psychologist named Bernard Hollander. He tried to take a statistical approach to measuring the skull, but his data proved nothing. 

Believe it or not, there are still some people who believe in phrenology in the 21st century, although the number is incredibly small. 

Despite the complete lack of evidence for phrenology and the lack of a coherent system that all phrenologists could agree on, no one ever bothered to do a comprehensive neurological test of phrenology…..until 2018. 

A team of researchers from Oxford University actually went and looked for a statistical correlation between 23 different personality traits and the contours of the skull. They found nothing. 

Moreover, based on magnetic resonance imaging of the human brain and skull, they found no connection between the curvature of the brain and the contours of the skull.

This, of course, makes perfect sense. The brain is soft, and your skull is made out of bone. Your brain isn’t pressing against your skull, causing it to deform. Whatever contours your skull might have been due to bone growth, skin, hair, and maybe bumps you might have taken. 

Phrenology is a classic example of a pseudoscience. It had many of the trappings of science with grand theories, explanations for observed behavior, and measurements, but in the end, there was nothing there. 

Not only could it not predict human behavior, but it was used to justify some of the worst behaviors and beliefs held by humans. 


The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

I have a couple of short reviews for you today. The first review comes from listener Margaret CA, over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write: 

Love ??

This is one of my favorite podcasts. Short sweet and to the point while being entertaining and informative.

The next review comes from 91 miles who writes:

Wonderful

Very informative, keep it coming great job!!

Thanks, Margaret and 91 miles, I’m glad you are both enjoying the show and thanks for the reviews.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.