Is it possible to tell what a person’s demeanor is just by looking at their physical appearance? No, of course not! In today’s post we will be discussing the history of Phrenology- the pseudoscience that believed that personal character traits could be measured by the shape and size of various areas of the head. Obviously nobody taught those scientists not to judge a book by the cover (or a person by their head).
A classroom full of Kids:
Although Phrenology has roots all the way back to Aristotle, the Viennese physician, Franz Joseph Gall, is most commonly associated with the development of the field (Morse). The idea first came to him when he was in class one day. He noticed that the classmates which seemed to have a natural talent for memorization tended to all have large foreheads and prominent eyes (Morse). This sparked a deep curiosity regarding the link between physical and character traits. Gall referred to the field as Craniology but Johann Spurzheim, an assistant of Gall, later referred to it as Phrenology (“Phrenology”).
Joseph Gall had 21 faculties which he thought had direct relation to different locations on the head (Cherry). Busts, which gained popularity in the 19th century as learning tools, often highlighted these areas.
- Reproductive instincts
- Love of offspring
- Murderous instinct
- Sense of property/tendency to steal
- Aptitude for being educated
- Sense of locality and place
- Recollection of people
- Verbal memory
- Language ability
- Sense of colors
- Sense of sound/musical talent
- Mathematical ability
- Mechanical ability
- Poetic talent
Rise in Popularity:
By the 19th century, Gall’s ideas had spread throughout Europe and gained popularity among the general population. Phrenology, once it reached America, became so widely known that there were instances of women styling their hair to accentuate cranial features and employers advertising for particular head shapes (Morse). Imagine how damaging it could be to a person’s reputation though to have a head shape associated with negative characteristics. Parlors even opened up where people could go to get their heads evaluated and their general character traits analyzed. Also, galleries existed where busts or molds of different people’s heads were on display for educational purposes (“Phrenology”). In general, it was not uncommon for everyday people to read about Phrenology and evaluate themselves based on what household publications were saying.
Although it seems rather convenient to think that you can determine people’s aptitudes simply by evaluating the shape of their skull, it is too good to be true. By the 20th century, Phrenology was discredited by experts for its inability to show consistent results through a basis of scientific principles. Despite the fact that Phrenology became rather controversial, it is important to note the cultural impact it did have in the years of its popularity throughout both Europe and America.
Even though the general idea was pure quackery, it is true that certain areas of the brain can play a big role in an individual’s character and personality traits. The most famous example of this being true tells the story of an injured railway worker who was never quite the same after his accident. Phineas Gage was an American railroad foreman. In 1848, a sudden explosion forced an iron bar to enter his cheekbone and pierce his brain. Miraculously he lived, but he would never be the same person again. Phineas was known to be a kindhearted, gentle, and reliable before the accident. After the traumatic event his family and friends said that he had become argumentative, unreliable, and uncontrollable (Morse). Turns out that the bar severely damaged his prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that is largely responsible for personality expression and moderating social behaviors. The reason that Phineas’ personality had drastically changed was due to the damage that the iron bar did to that section of his brain.
Even though Phrenology fell from grace, there are still tons of people out there today that believe in the validity of it. What do you think? If you want to evaluate the shape of your own head it usually isn’t too difficult to find one of those busts at an antique store. Happy hunting!
If you liked this read please check out some of my other posts about mental health HERE!
Thank you to all of my readers for the constant support!
Until Next Time
- Cherry, Kendra. “Phrenology’s History and Influence.” VeryWellMinded. 13 May, 2020. Accessed 8 March, 2021. verywellminded.com/what-is-phrenology-2795251.
- Morse, Minna Scherlinder. “Facing a Bumpy History.” smithsonianmag. October, 1997. Accessed 8 March, 2021. smithsonianmag.com/history/facing-a-bumpy-history-144497373/.
- “Phrenology.” Library News: University of Missouri. 6 may, 2014. Accessed 9 March, 2021. library.missouri.edu/news/special-collections/phrenology.