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Why Was Phrenology All the Rage in Victorian Times?

phrenology booth
A phrenology booth does business at a fair in London, Ohio, 1938. By then phrenology was lumped with astrology, numerology and palmistry. © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Could an examination of the lumps and valleys on your head guide you to the right lover, give clues to the kind of parent you'd be or help determine your career path? Phrenologists in the 19th century thought so, and they convinced hordes of people to pay to have their heads examined.

Phrenology, as the practice became known, was a movement during the Victorian era, popularized and sensationalized to the point that phrenology parlors and "automated phrenology machines" popped up across Europe and America. Live events were considered both educational and entertaining, with speakers often conducting onstage head examinations.

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Phrenology intrigued people from all walks of life. The middle and working classes were consumed with the idea of that this kind of scientific knowledge was power. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were curious enough to have the heads of their children read.

But as popular and entertaining as phrenology was, its heyday was short-lived. By the early 1900s, the so-called science behind phrenology was debunked. Today, it is considered a pseudoscience barely mentioned in "Intro to Psychology" classes. But is there any redeeming value to phrenology?

Well, sort of.

Where Did Phrenology Come From?

The idea that one's skull could give hints to someone's intelligence and personality first popped into the mind of German physician Franz Joseph Gall in the late 1700s, when he was a medical student. Gall noticed that classmates with larger eyes and more expansive foreheads seemed more adept at memorizing long passages. This, he surmised, suggested that one's emotional characteristics were not dictated by the heart, as was assumed at the time, but from somewhere in the head.

Franz Joseph Gall
Franz Joseph Gall, German physician and founder of phrenology. Phrenology never achieved the status of an accredited science, although the principle that many functions are localized in the brain is now widely accepted.
Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By the 1790s, Gall began to study the localization of mental functions in the brain, believing that certain areas were responsible for psychological activity. Gall further believed that the shape of the skull reflected personality traits and mental abilities that corresponded to the topography of the brain. He called this "science of the head" craniology and, later, after believing the brain to be not one organ but a group of organs, changed the name of his study to organology.

In 1800, Gall teamed up with Johann Christoph Spurzheim to further research this theory. The two worked together for a dozen years before having a falling out. Spurzheim became intrigued with the psychosocial potential of this new science, believing it could empower people to improve themselves. He renamed the practice "phrenology," defined it as "the science of the mind," and set out on a lecture tour to preach the wondrous new concept throughout Britain. It caught on like wildfire, igniting interest in Scottish lawyer George Combe, who in 1820 would establish the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, the first and foremost phrenology group in Great Britain.

In 1832, Spurzheim landed on American soil with the same plan of spreading interest in phrenology, but three months later literally worked himself to death. It proved to be plenty of time to gin up the support of the entrepreneurial Fowler brothers (Orson Squire and Lorenzo Niles Fowler) and their business associate Samuel Roberts Wells.

The Fowlers, including Lorenzo's wife Lydia, became notable phrenologists in the U.S. They toured the country to share the "truth about phrenology." In 1838, the Fowlers opened an office in Philadelphia called the Phrenological Museum, where they began publishing the American Phrenological Journal. The Fowler's New York office was known as the Phrenological Cabinet and became one of the most visited sites in town.

By the mid-1800s, interest in phrenology was at an all-time high. People scrambled to attend phrenology lectures, have their heads read and even style their hair in order to show off their most pronounced head bumps. Practical applications grew to include using phrenology readings to defend or treat convicted criminals, discern one's love of children and determine the compatibility of two people in marriage.

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phrenology diagram and heads
A phrenological head, developed by the American brothers Lorenzo and Orson Fowler, assisted in the reading of a subject's skull. A case of small heads made in 1831 by William Bally of Dublin, Ireland, illustrated the theories of phrenology. SSPL/Getty Images

Gall, the father of phrenology, believed that pressure from the brain caused ridges or depressions on the outside of a person's skull, and that the location of these bumps and valleys corresponded with 27 different behaviors and traits which he referred to as "faculties." (Spurzheim later added more faculties to this list.)

By palpating and measuring these regions of the brain with hands or tools like tape measures or calipers, Gall believed he could "diagnose" someone with particular personality traits.

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He came up with this mapping system for the faculties by measuring the heads of people from all walks of life — prisoners, the infirm, even those in mental institutions. He particularly liked to measure odd-shaped heads. From this, he determined similarities. For example, after examining the heads of young pickpockets, Gall discovered that many had bumps just above their ears. He took this to mean that people with prominent bumps in this region of the head had abundant "acquisitiveness," in other words, a propensity to steal, hoard or be greedy.

These fundamental faculties are mapped out on drawings and three-dimensional ball-headed busts that have become the iconic image for phrenology. Each faculty corresponded with a particular part of the brain. Here is just a sample of the traits mapped out by phrenology (you can see the entire list here).

1. Amativeness (strongly moved by love, especially sexual love)

2. Philoprogenitiveness (desire to watch over offspring; parental love)

3. Inhabitiveness (propensity to remain in the same place)

4. Adhesiveness (wanting to develop strong bonds with others, friendship)

5. Combativeness (disposition to fight)

6. Destructiveness (wanting to destroy)

7. Secretiveness (propensity to conceal)

8. Acquisitiveness (desire to get things)

9. Constructiveness (wanting to construct something)

10. Self-esteem

11. Love of approbation (desire for fame and praise)

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phrenologist "reading bumps"
A phrenologist demonstrates techniques used to "read" the bumps on a person's head to determine their character, 1937. Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Despite the interest it generated, phrenology got pushback from scientists and religious groups who found the method promoted materialism and atheism and was destructive to morality.

Another issue were the numerous inconsistencies. Phrenologists disagreed on the basic number of facilities, at one time listing as many as 39, and had difficulty agreeing where these faculties were actually located. With little scientific merit to stand on, phrenology became lumped into the same pseudoscience category as astrology, numerology and palmistry.

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Phrenology was effectively debunked in the early- to mid-1800s by renowned French physician Marie Jean Pierre Flourens, who rejected that there was a correlation between lumps on the skull and the underlying shape of the brain. He also found that the brain worked as whole unit rather than parts — if one part of the brain was damaged, another part of the brain might take over that function. Still, phrenology lingered into the early 1900s, although it was misapplied to other fields like psychology and even used by eugenicists and Nazis to promote their racist views.

As if more proof were needed to discredit phrenology, Oxford researcher Oiwi Parker Jones and colleagues published findings from a study in the April 2018 issue of the journal Cortex in which they took a modern-day approach to testing this pseudoscience. They used MRI scans to see if scalp bumps correlated with lifestyle and cognitive variables, and then mapped them against Gall's 27 mental faculties. "The present study sought to test in the most exhaustive way currently possible the fundamental claim of phrenology: that measuring the contour of the head provides a reliable method for inferring mental capacities. We found no evidence for this claim," the authors concluded.

Is Phrenology Still Used Today?

There's a phrenology head in psychologist Colin G. DeYoung's office at the University of Minnesota. "It was given to me as a joke," he says. "It's amusing that people connect it to what we do."

Phrenology is something DeYoung calls "interesting from a historical perspective," but in practice, it's riddled with problems. "First, the idea that the shape of the outside of the skull has anything to do with the shape of the brain, well it doesn't," he says. "Beyond that, their map of what the different parts of the brain are doing, that's all made up. There's nothing meaningful to it."

Where Gall was on the right track was his assumption that character, thoughts and emotions are related to specific regions of the brain. Today, researchers, like DeYoung, are using modern technology to better understand the functions of the different parts of the brain and how they relate to one's personality.

Instead of phrenology charts, DeYoung's research in the emerging field of "personality neuroscience" uses neuroimaging and molecular genetics to map personality traits onto functions the brain. By doing this, he aims to understand how these individual differences in brain function produce individual differences in personality.

While this information may not help someone find their life partner as phrenology promised, it could one day be used to help treat people with mental health problems, he says.

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