Phrenology and Psychology

Phrenology, an outmoded scientific discipline, predicted individual traits and characteristics in humans by analyzing the shape of the skull. Franz Joseph Gall, a Viennese physician practicing in the late 18th century, held that the brain shaped the skull, and the resulting bumps and ridges could be used to predict human behaviors, aptitudes, and tendencies. Gall originally hypothesized 27 phrenological “organs.” For example, the region above the right eye was used to predict perceptive intellect, and therefore someone with a large protuberance in this area was thought to demonstrate keener insight than those who either lacked a bump or possessed a lesser one.

If Gall was the father of phrenology, J. G. Spurzheim was its first son. Together, their research, publications, and lectures expanded phrenology in Europe. In Great Britain, George Combe became an important advocate and wrote prolifically on the topic. Phrenology left the relative obscurity of the medical literature, and mainstream phrenological societies were formed across Europe. The movement made its way to the United States upon the establishment of the Philadelphia Phrenological Society in 1822. This success and growth was to be short lived, however. By the mid 1800s, phrenology was losing ground and being dismissed as mere divination.

However, phrenology made lasting contributions to science and set the stage for linking psychology and neurology to create a study of the different functions and utilities of the brain. Additionally, psychology and medicine were moved toward a monistic theory of mind and body. In other words, the mind and body came to be viewed as one entity in opposition to the prevailing dualistic theory that the mind and body were inherently separate.

To the modern student, the basis of phrenological theory might appear archaic. Although phrenology is now abandoned as a scientific method, some of its presuppositions remain paramount. For example, the idea that different parts of the brain account for varying functions of behavior and character remains routine in present neurology and psychology.

The localized psychological and cognitive processes of the brain are still only partially defined. The current neurological mechanisms used to understand this potential localization remain less than accurate. In its time, phrenology endured an upsurge of criticism primarily as a consequence of its theoretical exploration into brain functions. Phrenology postulated numerous ideas about the impact of these still-theoretical, exclusive areas of the brain and in many ways remains the theoretical mother to the scientific study of the mind.


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  2. Kragh, H. (2002). Problems and challenges in the historical study of the neurosciences. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 11(1), 55.
  3. Van Wyhe, J. (2002). The authority of human nature: The schadellehre of Franz Joseph Gall. British Journal for the History of Science, 35(124), 17.
  4. Van Wyhe, J. (2004). Phrenology and the origins of Victorian scientific naturalism. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  5. Van Wyhe, J. (2004). Was phrenology a reform science? Towards a new generalization for phrenology. History of Science, 42(3), 313.

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