Sunday, 29 November 2015

What is Phrenology?

Phrenology is a pseudoscience developed by a German physician named Franz Joseph Gall in 1796. Gall believed that through his studies and experiments he had found what parts of the human brain corresponded with certain skillsets and personality traits, and that these traits could be determined by the shape of ones cranium, which corresponded with the shape of the brain. The traits in question were quite specific and defined in a way that was aimed at figuring out every possible combination of actions that a human could take. As shown on the charts at the top of the page there were a multitude of these defined traits. This method became very popular in the UK in the 19th century with the height of its popularity between 1810-1840. Gall and a devoted follower named J. K. Spurzheim toured around Europe during 1805-1807 to give lectures about his method. When it was first introduced in the UK it caught on and became steadily more and more popular. An English follower of Galls methods named Thomas Foster was the one who named it Phrenology, or alternately ‘the science of the soul’. The word phren comes from Greek and translates to mind, logos is also Greek and means knowledge. Altogether in Greek it translates to something along the lines of ‘knowledge of the mind’.

 ‘Phrenology is an exposition of the relation in which the faculties and impulses of the mind stand to certain physical phenomena. That is, it gives an account of the condition in which that portion of man’s body, without which his mind cannot exhibit its powers, must always exist under each separate condition or mode of mental activity. Phrenology also teaches what the distinct faculties of the mind are; that is, it teaches by what means we gain a knowledge of the objects in the external world, and by what means we are impelled to every variety of action’ (Synopsis of Phrenology, 6)

This is the definition of Phrenology from a synopsis of phrenology, and does describe well what phrenology is. I shall now however try to describe, in the shortest way possible, how phrenology worked. There developed a multitude of versions of Phrenology during its popularity but just to have some rough guidelines I will here focus on a particular Synopsis of Phrenology. Phrenology has been separated into three branches in this synopsis, they are all closely connected and must all be understood in unison. The first branch discusses the fact that there must be different parts of the brain that control different things, different emotions. The brain is then a collection of components, seamlessly coming together as a whole, much like the human body. The health of the different components, and thus the size and strength of them, depends on how much that component is utilized. This accounts for the difference in head shape. This is reasonable thinking that makes sense, but it is not based on facts. The second branch concerns figuring out what components corresponds to what external action. This is a subject that was disagreed upon by many phrenologists. The phrenologists had trouble deciding how many distinguished mental organs made up the human brain, ranging from 27 to over 40. They also had trouble placing them and deciding what external action the different components related to. This disagreement may be part of the reason it was discredited in 1840 as a scientifically correct method. The third branch in this particular synopsis states that the health of the mind depends on the health of the body. It is emphasised that mind and body are not the same thing, but that a healthy mind is dependent on the health of the body. Therefore it comes naturally that the health of ones body is of utmost importance.      
At the height of Phrenology’s popularity it was readily available in daily life. Pamphlets on the subject could be attained on the streets and it was mentioned in quite a bit of literature. Some of the literary pieces that show influences of phrenology include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the beagle, Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield and Great Expectations, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and a number of other works. Phrenology applied to daily life sometimes gave rather comical results, such as the illustrations below.

These comparisons are utterly comical to me. They must be massively exaggerated for I have not seen anyone with a head shaped even remotely like any of these illustrations. Admittedly I do not know how the Victorians heads were shaped, but I should imagine it was not so very different from the 21st century.
Even though phrenology was popular among the masses, it was mostly used by people with no medical training. It was a scientific way of reading people characters that people found intriguing, even though they may not have understood exactly how it worked. People may have used it as a way to seem smarter than they actually were, to seem more sophisticated than their social status may allow. The material was readily available to the public, anyone could learn and perform a phrenology reading. The fact that it was non-intrusive on the body of the subject of examination, was probably a factor in making the method so popular. You did not need to be a doctor to do it. However on the other side it was criticised and mocked by medical experts. The method had no medical proof and was seen as a speculative and unreliable method by the medical community. Phrenology is now considered a defunct field of study, or a pseudoscience. Even though it was discarded, phrenology was an important precursor to modern neuroscience and was very influential in the development of 19th century psychiatry.   
Phrenology in itself is a subject that has had a wide coverage in modern times. The interest in phrenology has been substantial even after it was discredited. The simple fact that people once studied and believed in these theories is enough to keep an interest in the subject, if only to understand the mind-set of Victorians. There are now all sorts of material available on the subject, including books, articles, and documentaries. Even a quick YouTube search will warrant results that can give a basic understanding of Phrenology, such as this clip

The Phrenology head charts have been freely adapted in later times. The new adaptions have nothing to do with the original theory of Phrenology, the art work is simply based on, and bear a striking resemblance to the phrenology charts, but with a new twist. They have been modernised and taken into the current culture, with results such as the pictures below.

Brontë, Charlotte, and Stevie Davies. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Books, 2006.
Collyer, Robert H, Physiology of the Human Brain, N. G. Burgess & Co, 1839
Darwin, Charles, and Charles Darwin. The Origin Of Species And The Voyage Of The Beagle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Dickens, Charles, and Nina Burgis. David Copperfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg. Print.
Flaubert, Gustave, and Francis Steegmuller. Madame Bovary. New York: Random House, 1957.
Smith, Joshua Toulmin, Synopsis of Phrenology, Boston, Joseph H. Francis, 1838
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Pictures and video used:


  1. This is a really interesting topic! I've never heard of phrenology before but after reading this I believe I have some understanding of it. This was well written and concise! I really appreciated the picture of Kanye West's mind. Very funny!

  2. Hi Rebekka, I really enjoyed the way your blog is written. It's got a great balance between information and entertainment, and I particularly enjoyed your use of images. The modern-day phrenology diagrams are brilliant. I was fascinated by the fact that phrenology helped lay the foundations for neuroscience and psychiatry, as my blog touched upon these sciences also. What I noticed from my research, and what your blog highlights too, is how often the Victorians looked for physically apparent answers to mysterious ailments.

  3. Hi
    Thank you both for your comments, it is really nice to get such a positive response! Phrenology was something I had not heard of before doing my research, but a topic I stumbled upon that intrigued me.
    Alastair, that is an excellent point, In this case it was taken to an extreme, and they tried to apply the qualities of the human body they understood to the brain, and not with great success I'm afraid.