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Divination - Phrenology

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Phrenology focuses on personality and character, and is therefore quite distinct from craniometry, which is the study of skull size, weight and shape, and physiognomy, the study of facial features.

Phrenology (Ancient Greek (phren) 'mind', and (logos) 'knowledge') is a pseudoscience involving the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits.  It is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localised, specific functions or modules.

It was developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1728 – 1858) in 1796.  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.

For a while in the nineteenth century, it became very fashionable for people to sit and have their 'bumps' read, and it became very fashionable for people to sit and have their 'bumps' read, especially from 1810 until 1840.  During this period, the principal British centre for phrenology, the 'Edinburgh Phrenological Society' was established in 1820.

The central phrenological notion that measuring the contour of the skull can predict personality traits is discredited by empirical research, although Gall's assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific areas of the brain is considered an important historical advance toward neuropsychology.

It was believed by phrenologists that the cranial skull -- like a glove on the hand -- accommodates to the different sizes of these areas of the brain, so that a person's capacity for a given personality trait could be determined simply by measuring the area of the skull that overlies the corresponding area of the brain.  It was further believed that the human mind has a set of various mental faculties, each one represented in a different area of the brain.  For example, being ‘philoprogenitive’ (from the Greek for ‘love of offspring), was located centrally at the back of the head.

Phrenology is a process that involves observing and/or feeling the skull to determine an individual's psychological attributes.  Franz Joseph Gall believed that the brain was made up of 27 individual organs that determined personality, the first 19 of these 'organs' he believed to exist in other animal species.  Phrenologists would run their fingertips and palms over the skulls of their patients to feel for enlargements or indentations.  They would also take measurements with a tape measure of the overall head size and more rarely employ a craniometer, a special version of a calliper.


Among the first to identify the brain as the major controlling centre for the body were Hippocrates and his followers, inaugurating a major change in thinking from Egyptian, biblical and early Greek views, which based bodily primacy of control on the heart.  This belief was supported by the Greek physician Galen, who concluded that mental activity occurred in the brain rather than the heart, contending that the brain, a cold, moist organ formed of sperm, was the seat of the animal soul -- one of three ‘souls’ found in the body, each associated with a principal organ.

In his Physiognomische Fragmente, published between 1775 and 1778, the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741 – 1801) introduced the idea that physiognomy related to the specific character traits of individuals, rather than general types.  His work was translated into English and published in 1832 as The Pocket Lavater, or, The Science of Physiognomy.  He believed that thoughts of the mind and passions of the soul were connected with an individual's external frame.

In 1809, Gall began writing his principal work, The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads -- it was published in 1819.

Johann Spurzheim (1776 - 1832) was Gall's most important collaborator.  He worked as Gall's anatomist until 1813 when for unknown reasons they had a permanent falling out.  Publishing under his own name, Spurzheim successfully disseminated phrenology throughout the United Kingdom during his lecture tours between 1814 and 1815, and the United States in 1832.

The popularisation of phrenology in the middle and working classes was due in part to the idea that scientific knowledge was important and an indication of sophistication and modernity.  Cheap and plentiful pamphlets, as well as the growing popularity of scientific lectures as entertainment, also helped spread phrenology to the masses.

George Combe (1788 - 1858) created a system of philosophy of the human mind that became popular with the masses because of its simplified principles and wide range of social applications that were in harmony with the liberal Victorian world view.  His book On the Constitution of Man and its Relationship to External Objects sold over 200,000 copies through nine editions.  Combe also devoted a large portion of his book to reconciling religion and phrenology, which had long been a sticking point.  Another reason for its popularity was that phrenology balanced between free will and determinism.

Many others contributed towards the of growth, some of whom were the American brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811 - 1896) and Orson Squire Fowler (1809 - 1887) who were leading phrenologists of their time.  John Elliotson (1791 - 1868) was a brilliant but erratic heart specialist who became a phrenologist in the 1840s.  He was also a mesmerist and combined the two into something he called ‘phrenomesmerism’ or ‘phrenomagnatism’.  Others also amalgamated phrenology and mesmerism, such as the practical phrenologists Collyer and Joseph R. Buchanan.  The benefits of combining mesmerism and phrenology was that the trance the patient was placed in was supposed to allow for the manipulation of his/her penchants and qualities.  For example, if the organ of self-esteem was touched, the subject would take on a haughty expression.

During the early 20th century, a revival of interest in phrenology occurred, partly because of studies of evolution, criminology and anthropology.  The most famous British phrenologist of the 20th century was the London psychiatrist Bernard Hollander (1864 - 1934).  His main works, The Mental Function of the Brain (1901) and Scientific Phrenology (1902), are an appraisal of Gall's teachings.

In Belgium, Paul Bouts (1900 - 1999) began studying phrenology from a pedagogical background, using the phrenological analysis to define an individual pedagogy.  Combining phrenology with typology and graphology, he coined a global approach known as ‘psychognomy’.  Bouts, a Roman Catholic priest, became the main promoter of renewed 20th century interest in phrenology and psychognomy in Belgium; he was also active in Brazil and Canada.

During the 1930s Belgian colonial authorities in Rwanda used phrenology to explain the so-called superiority of Tutsis over Hutus.

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How Phrenology Works

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 examine 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 the 27 brain organs discovered by Gall.

Gall 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 someone’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 organisation.
     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, he 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 Charles Lavery of Superior, Wisconsin, USA, was convinced that phrenology was a genuine science, and spent the next 30 years of his life trying to adapt this science to a machine, the psychograph.  The psychograph claimed to mechanically discern a subject's aptitudes in a number of mental faculties.  It was designed to measure a person's head according to the principles of phrenology.  Lavery patented his first psychograph in 1905 while living in Superior.  Eventually he joined with Frank P. White to form the Psychograph Company, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which operated from 1929 to 1937.

They produced a machine which measured the subject's head at 32 points and used those measurements to report the person's supposed mental attributes on a five-point scale ranging from ‘deficient’ to ‘very superior'.  It consisted of 1,954 parts in a metal carrier, and 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).  It could produce 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, and the partners had some initial success in selling or leasing out the psychograph.  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!

The popularity of the device helped maintain interest in phrenology in America well into the 1930s, but in the late 1930s the psychograph was withdrawn from the market due to falling sales and increased public skepticism; phrenology had already 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 not only because of increasing scepticism, but due to 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, one being on display at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, located at the Science Museum of Minnesota.  Visitors to the museum can ‘have their heads examined’ by the machine.

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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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