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What is Phrenology?

Phrenology is a theory/belief which claims to be able to determine character, personality traits, and mental attributes on the basis of the shape of the head, and involved feeling bumps in the skull.  Phrenologists would run their finger-tips and palms over the skulls of their clients to feel for enlargements or indentations, and would sometimes take measurements of the overall head size.  Using this information the phrenologist would then assess the character and temperament of the patient by addressing each of 27 brain organs.

The theory was developed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall in the late eighteenth century, and for a while it became very fashionable for people to sit and have their 'bumps' read.  Gall noticed that the cerebral cortex of humans was much larger than that of other animals, and believed this was what made humans intellectually superior.  Eventually, he became convinced that the physical features of the cortex could also be seen in the shape and size of the skull.

He examined the heads of a number of young pickpockets and discovered that many of them had a bump on their skull just above their ears.  He then advocated that the bumps, indentations and shape of the skull could be linked to different aspects of a person's personality, character and abilities.  For example, he suggested that the bump behind the ears of his young pickpockets was associated with a tendency to steal, lie or deceive.  In his book on the subject of phrenology, Gall suggested that:

  • Moral and intellectual faculties were innate.
  • The exercise or manifestation of these faculties depended upon their organization.
  • The brain controlled all of the propensities, sentiments and faculties.
  • The brain was composed of as many organs as there are different faculties, propensities and sentiments.
  • The form of the skull represented and reflected the form and development of the brain organs.

Gall sought support for his ideas by measuring the skulls of people in prisons, hospitals and asylums, especially those with odd-shaped heads.  Based on what he found, Gall developed a system of 27 different ‘faculties’ he believed could be directly diagnosed by assessing specific parts of the head.  He created a chart showing the areas of the skull associated with specific traits or characteristics.  He also believed the first 19 of these organs were present in other animal species.

The principles of Phrenology, therefore, were that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that the mind has a set of different mental faculties, each particular faculty being represented in a different part or organ of the brain.  Phrenology has since been discredited as a pseudoscience, although it has received credit as a protoscience for having contributed to medical science the ideas that the brain is the organ of the mind and that certain brain areas have localised, specific functions.

The Psychograph

In 1901, Henry C. Lavery of Superior, Wisconsin, USA, was firmly convinced that phrenology was a genuine science, and spent the next 30 years of his life trying to adapt this science to a machine.  On January 29, 1931, along with his partner, Frank White, he announced the invention of just such a machine - the ‘Psychograph’.

The Psychograph consisted of 1,954 parts in a metal carrier.  It had a continuous motor-driven belt encased in a walnut cabinet containing statements about 32 Individual mental faculties, each rated between 1 (deficient) and 5 (very superior), thus producing an actual 160 possible statements with an almost unlimited number of possible combinations.  How a subject scored was determined by the way the 32 probes, each with five separate contact points in the headpiece, made contact with the head.  The subject sat in a chair connected to the machine, after which the headpiece would be lowered and adjusted.  Once in position, the operator pulled back a lever to activate the belt-driven motor, which received low-voltage signals from the headpiece and stamped out the appropriate statement for each of the 32 faculties consecutively.

Thirty-three of these machines were manufactured, the local office in Minneapolis flourishing as a result of their popularity.  Psychographs were leased to entrepreneurs throughout the country for a $2,000 deposit, plus a monthly rental of $35.  They proved extremely fashionable attractions for theatres, lobbies and department stores, generating substantial extra income during the depression.  It is even reported that two promoters ‘set up shop’ in the Black Forest Village at the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, netting some $200,000 at their standing-room-only booth!

However, long before this, phrenology had been discarded as 'utter nonsense' in Europe.  Consequently, the success of the Psychograph was short-lived, lasting until the mid-1930s, when the company closed because of increasing scepticism, along with an associated decline in income.  The machines were returned and packed away in storage until the mid-1960s, when John White, the co-founder's son, put several back into working order.

In Summary

While some principles of phrenology are well-established today, the basic premise that personality is determined by the shape of the skull is largely considered to be false.

N.B.  Phrenology focuses on personality and character, and should be distinguished from craniometry (the study of skull size, weight and shape), and physiognomy (the study of facial features).  Each of these fields has claimed the ability to predict traits or intelligence, and was once practised intensively in anthropology/ethnology, occasionally being utilised to 'scientifically' justify racism.

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