Franz Joseph Gall was the creator of phrenology, A pseudoscientific discipline that linked the behavior and personality of individuals to the morphology of different areas of their brain, and therefore also of the skull. Despite the inaccuracy of his assumptions, Gall is a key figure in the history of the anatomical study of the brain.
In this article, we’ll review Gall’s biography, work, and contributions. We will focus on the most relevant aspects of phrenology, a term Gall himself opposed, considering that it moved his proposals away from the fields of anatomy and physiology.
Biography of Franz Joseph Gall
Franz Joseph Gall was born in Tiefenbronn, Germany, in 1758. His parents were nobles of Lombard origin and devout Catholics; Gall was the second of his twelve children, so they tried to get him to become a priest. However, he was more interested in human behavior and anatomy than religion, so he studied medicine in Strasbourg.
Gall moved to Vienna, Austria to complete his studies. There he was the pupil of two medical personalities of the 18th century: Maximilian Stoll and Johann Hermann. He majored in neuroanatomy, although he paid more attention to the brain than to the rest of the nervous system.
His first job was in a mental hospital, where he observed inmates. Soon after, he opened his own clinic, also in the city of Vienna, and began to make himself known through his writings and lectures; this earned him to offer him the post of chief medical officer of the Austrian court, which Gall refused.
In 1796, Gall began to lecture on his hypothesis that the size and shape of different areas of the brain can be determined by inspecting the skull, and that this information reveals personality and intellectual capacity. His collaborator Johann Gaspar Spurzheim called the discipline “phrenology”, although Gall considered it neuroanatomy.
After working in Vienna, Gall also worked in Berlin and Paris; died in Montrouge, near the French capital, in 1828. The two fundamental works of Gall are entitled “The functions of the brain and each of its parts” and “Anatomy and physiology of the nervous system in general and of the brain in particular”.
What is phrenology?
Generally speaking, Franz Joseph Gall asserted that a each area of the brain corresponds to a certain mental function, And that the association between anatomy and behavior can be studied by analyzing the shape of the part of the skull which covers a particular region of the brain.
More specifically, the method of Gall and his followers was to examine irregularities, bumps and cracks in the outer part of the skull using his fingers, as well as instruments such as tape measures and the famous craniometer. , a calibrator created specifically to assess the morphology of the skull. .
Phrenology was popular during the first half of the 19th century. Gall’s ideas spread throughout Europe from his heart of Edinburgh, and from the old continent came to America and Africa to coincide in time with the colonization and conquest of these territories by European countries. .
However, and although Gall has inspired a large number of scholars and theorists and continues to influence certain approaches punctually today, the strong opposition of the scientific community to phrenology has led to this pseudoscience being discredited some 40 years after Gall was founded. started to propagate his assumptions.
The legacy of Franz Joseph Gall
While it is undeniable that certain areas of the brain are crucial in certain mental processes, such as the hippocampus and memory consolidation or the amygdala and emotional learning, today approaches similar to those of Gall are being considered in general rule as reductionist and erroneous from high ground.
However, Gall’s phrenology was an important step in the development of neuroanatomy as it solidified the idea. the localization of mental functions in specific areas of the brain. Discoveries such as those by Broca and Wernicke on brain regions associated with language roughly followed Gall’s line of research.
At the present time, neuropsychological explanations of a locational nature have lost their validity due to the increase in knowledge about the actual functioning of cerebral pathways and the rise in perspective of neural networks, both in neuroanatomy and in cognitive psychology. .
On the other hand, Gall’s neuroanatomical work promoted progress in dissection techniques because he helped popularize the method of separating brain fibers one by one instead of cutting portions of tissue arbitrarily. It also inspired Cesare Lombroso’s disturbing assumptions about the influence of anatomy on crime.