Phrenology: measuring the skull to study the mind

Phrenology was a pseudoscience which held that the shape of the skull gave information about the faculties and mental traits of people. This movement became popular in the 18th century at the hands of Dr Franz Gall and had a large number of followers, although it lost its relevance after a few decades.

In this article, we will describe the history of phrenology, the basic postulates of this discipline and the conception of the brain that Gall’s disciples had. Finally, we will talk about the legacy of phrenology in modern neuroanatomy.

    History of phrenology

    Phrenological hypotheses did not arise in a vacuum, but were derived from conceptions that existed before. In particular, during the 18th century physiognomy gained some popularity, which proposed that people’s physical appearance could be used as a basis for analyzing their psychology, and Charles Bonnet influenced the location of the brain.

    The German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) began giving lectures on phrenology in 1796. It was his collaborator Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, also a key figure, who spread the word “phrenology”, which Gall denied because he saw himself primarily as a physiologist and neuroanatomist .

    Like mesmerism, phrenology spread as a probable scientific truth among the lower and middle classes of 18th century Europe, very open to advances in different fields due to the influence of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. Edinburgh became the nucleus of phrenologyAnd that’s where the first phrenological society was founded.

    In the 1840s, barely 40 years after its emergence, phrenological hypotheses had been discredited by the scientific community. However, interest in these practices spread across America and Africa with European colonization, and in many places they resurfaced at specific times, especially as a tool of racial domination.

      Basic postulates of Franz Joseph Gall

      Gall published in 1819 his key work: “Anatomy and physiology of the nervous system in general, and of the brain in particular, with observations on the possibility of recognizing many intellectual and moral dispositions of man and animals for the configuration of their head”.

      In this text, Gall describes of the six basic postulates of phrenology.

      1. The brain is the organ of the mind

      For phrenologists, the mind was located in the brain; today this idea, which was not new in Gall’s day, is very popular. This approach is opposed to the conception of the spirit as a manifestation of the soul, which was more widespread in the 18th century than today.

      2. The mind is made up of faculties

      The mind is not a unitary entity, but is made up of several faculties. In phrenology, the concept of “faculty” refers to the different specializations or tendencies of the mind, Such as ambition, perseverance or benevolence. Later, we will list the faculties described by Gall.

      3. Each faculty is located in an organ

      Gall believed that since mental faculties are different and unique, they must be located in separate “organs” of the brain. This postulate makes phrenology a antecedent of localizationist theories on the functions of the central nervous system.

      4. The size of an organ indicates its power

      The relative size of each organ compared to the rest of the brain can be taken as a sign of the development of a given faculty, according to phrenology. In addition, an organ can be larger in one of the cerebral hemispheres than in the other.

      5. Organs determine the shape of the skull

      Gall claimed that during the development of the child the bones of the skull take their shape according to the size of the brain organs. These structural peculiarities, and the psychological ones that follow from them, are maintained for the rest of life after brain growth is complete.

      6. The surface of the skull reveals the spirit

      Probably this one the most famous principle of phrenology: Since the development of organs (and therefore faculties) influences the shape of the skull, the analysis of its surface makes it possible to determine a person’s personality and other mental traits.

      Rooster and most phrenologists have examined the skull with their fingers and palms for peculiarities, such as cracks or overdeveloped areas. They also used measuring tapes and sometimes a special calibrator which got the name of “craniometer”.

      Phrenological organs and mental faculties

      Gall proposed 27 faculties associated with brain organs concrete. Although his proposal is the best known in this field, there has never been a real consensus among phrenologists as to the number and characteristics of these regions.

      • 1. Pulse of propagation (reproduction)
      • 2. Parental love
      • 3. Friendly affection and loyalty
      • 4. Value and self-protection
      • 5. Murder and carnivorism
      • 6. Cunning
      • 7. Theft and sense of belonging
      • 8. Pride, arrogance and love of authority
      • 9. Ambition and vanity
      • 10. Caution
      • 11. Ability to learn and educate
      • 12. Sense of location
      • 13. Memory of persons
      • 14. Verbal service and memory
      • 15. Linguistic faculty, talent for words
      • 16. Preference for color
      • 17. Sense of sounds and musical talents
      • 18. Numerical and temporal sense
      • 19. Mechanical aptitude
      • 20. Comparative acuity
      • 21. Metaphysical acuity
      • 22. Ingenuity, sense of causation and inference
      • 23. Poetic talent
      • 24. Benevolence, compassion and moral sense
      • 25. Mime, ability to imitate
      • 26. Theosophy, religious sentiment
      • 27. Perseverance and firmness

      Phrenology today

      Although his methods are flawed, some of Gall’s claims have been confirmed over time and with scientific advancement. Thus, we know that indeed there are brain structures relevant to certain functions, And that some of them develop with use, as with the hippocampus, involved in memory.

      However, the phrenological approaches were very reductive and rigid compared to what is currently known about the distribution of brain activity around regions and pathways. Likewise, the “organs” identified by Gall do not correspond to the faculties with which he associated them.

      The exception is the region to which he attributes the faculty of language and verbal memory, located near the regions of Broca and Wernicke. These structures, located in the frontal and temporal lobes respectively, have been linked to the understanding and production of language.

      The contributions of phrenology and other localization positions on the cerebral faculties have lost their relevance today, but have enabled the extension of scientific knowledge. They are particularly well known the areas of the brain described by Korbinian Brodmann, Which can be seen as a more serious version of Gall’s proposal.

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