Wonderful Things: Phrenology head

Psychics, psychologists and even friends attempt to read our minds; navigating what we do and how we say it to predict our actions. German-born Franz Joseph Gall took this one step further by suggesting an individual’s actions and disposition could be seen by literally examining the physical construction of their head. Sound like a wild idea?

How bumpy is your brain? Phrenological head, 1825.

Phrenology, from the Greek phren: ‘mind’ and logos: study/discourse’ (a fact for you all), was a complex method which examined the bumps of the skull to attempt to determine an individuals psychological attributes. Practitioners ran their fingertips and palms over the patient’s skull noting any enlargements or indentation, and used callipers to measure the overall size of the head.

So, the theory: Gall believed that the mind possessed a number of different faculties, discrete departments, each specialized and corresponding to a particular task or tendency, and that the cranium responded accordingly to accommodate these differences in size and shape within the brain. Gall had previously examined skulls of pickpockets noting many exhibited bumps slightly above the ear and suggested that these characteristics of stealing or deceiving could be linked to a formation in the brain.

Logically for Gall, these differences across the cranium could be linked to areas of the brain (or mind) which corresponded to particular characteristics and therefore could be used to predict the temperament of the patient. This was similar to Hippocrates’ ideas in Ancient Greece that excessive amounts of blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm caused certain moods, behaviours and emotions.  

Whilst some of Gall’s ideas regarding the brain have been influential in 19th century psychiatry and modern neuroscience, the practice of Phrenology is considered a pseudoscience by many. Gall was unwilling to respect or acknowledge data suggesting the inaccuracy of his technique whilst any anecdote or evidence seeming to confirm his ideas was met with enthusiasm.

Gall’s method of analysis show how new scientific developments require rigorous questioning and interrogation through peer reviews and honest data. However, it also demonstrates that whilst an idea may not be sound overall it can help in new developments.

The Phrenology head can be found in Who Am I? on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing.

-Christopher Whitby

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