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The Man Behind the Head

Thursday 10th September 2015 by Anna Tuffs

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Who is the man behind the head? What head I hear you ask…the phrenology head! And to answer, a little history lesson is needed.

What is Phrenology?

Phrenology was a popular 19th century theory stating that intelligence, personality and character traits are revealed by the location of various contours, or bumps, in the skull (Fodor, 1983). This so called “science” came from the theories of Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) whose basic tenets were:

Image of Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828)

Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828)

  1. The brain is the organ of the mind
  2. The mind is composed of multiple, distinct, innate faculties
  3. Because they are distinct, each faculty must have a separate seat or “organ” in the brain
  4. The size of an organ, other things being equal, is a measure of its power
  5. The shape of the brain is determined by the development of the various organs
  6. As the skull takes its shape from the brain, the surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies

So it was believed that by examining the shape and unevenness of a head or skull, one could discover the development of the particular cerebral “organs” responsible for different intellectual aptitudes and character traits. For example, a prominent protuberance in the forehead at the position attributed to the organ of Benevolence was meant to indicate that the individual had a “well developed” organ of Benevolence and would therefore be expected to exhibit benevolent behaviour.

Image of Classic example of L.N.Fowler phrenology head.

Classic example of L.N.Fowler phrenology head.

Not surprisingly, phrenology attracted many critics and the “science” died away in Britain by the early 1850s. Yet, the American Fowler brothers bought phrenology back to life and the new movement was re-introduced to Britain in the 1860’s. Less scientifically pretentious and more overtly entrepreneurial, the Fowler’s swept through Britain, establishing various phrenological institutions, societies and publishing concerns. Indeed, it was this movement which was largely responsible for the head reading craze of the latter 19th century. Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-96) was particularly interested in the casting of plaster phrenological busts and these are still around today. Indeed, a phrenological bust in an antique shop today will almost invariably bear the label “L.N. Fowler”, and they are quite the collector’s item.

The Phrenology Head

The heads were clearly labelled in simple language so that people could become self-taught phrenologists whether for scientific experiment, education or pure entertainment. Why don’t you have a go yourself?

  1. Run your bare finger tips or palms of your hands over a head to distinguish any elevations or indentations.
  2. For those who have calipers or measuring tapes, why not throw these into the mix too – measure the entire head size or the area of elevation that you come across.
  3. Look at the picture below to match the various lumps and bumps to a specific “organ”.

Of course, a skilled phrenologist knew not just the cartographic layout of the head according to the latest phrenological chart, but also the personalities and pros and cons, of each of the 35 odd organs. So don’t think you’re an expert just yet!

What has been proved and disproved?

History aside, what really became of phrenology? Was there any sense to it, or was it all nonsense?

First for the good points:

  1. The principle that many functions are localised in the brain is now commonplace. Similarly, areas of the brain that are more frequently used may become enlarged with use, as shown by a study on London taxi drivers (Maguire, 2000) who had larger hippocampus areas (an area associated with navigation) compared with other people. This is exactly what phrenologists asserted.
  2. Some personality or speech disorders correlate to specific atrophied regions of the brain. From this we conclude that the affected part of the brain was either necessary for or simply was that bit of the personality or ability. Modern brain imaging techniques such as fMRI scans make the localisations of functions demonstrable beyond doubt.
  3. Palaeontologists make endocasts from the skulls of early hominids to determine the shapes of their brains and have suggested that an enlarged node at Broca’s region is evidence of language use. This is essentially phrenology in a new guise. Size is taken as evidence for power and functions are believed to reside in specifically bounded regions.

Therefore, phrenology can be understood to have been diffused and absorbed into a host of other practices and as such, many of its components do live on.

But as you might imagine, phrenology itself is now regarded as obsolete, due, in part, to the reasons outlined below:

  1. Any evidence which seemed to confirm the science was readily accepted as “proof” of phrenology, but at the same time, contradictory findings were always explained away. This was often done by claiming that the activity of other organs counteracted this well-developed organ. Admitting that the activity of a particular faculty could be independent of the size of its organ undermined the most fundamental assumptions of the science and therefore rendered all of its conclusions inconsistent and meaningless.
  2. Phrenologists were never able to agree on either the location of the organs or the number of basic mental organs, with numbers ranging from 27 to over 40 (Staum, 2003).
  3. Experiments on the brains of pigeons (Flourens, 1825) indicated that the loss of parts of the brain either caused no loss of function, or the loss of a completely different function than what had been attributed to it by phrenology. These experiments seemed to indicate that Gall’s supposed organs were imaginary (Lyons, 2009).
  4. Some people used phrenology as justification for European superiority over other “lesser” races. By comparing skulls of different ethnic groups it supposedly allowed for ranking of races from least to most evolved. Broussais, a disciple of Gall, proclaimed that the Caucasians were the “most beautiful”, while people like theAustralian Aboriginal would never become civilized since they had no cerebral organ for producing great artists (Staum, 2003).


So there you have it, history lesson completed. Ultimately, most of phrenology’s basic premises have been vindicated, though the particulars of reading character from the skull have not. Which stance do you take?Untitled6

Personally, countless University lectures on the true nature of science have made me sceptical of such ideas. Think of all the factors that could contribute to a bump on the head – an accident, genetics, parents dropping you on your head at birth (I wouldn’t rate your parents if this was the case). Is that a bump behind my ear I just felt? Destructiveness you say, an organ supposedly prominent in the various murderers of our world – sincerely hope this isn’t the case!