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Phrenology: Old and New Ways for Looking at the Brain

What, if anything, can we learn from the Victorian Phrenologists

Phrenology is based on a simple idea that is very current today. The brain is the “organ of the mind” and that it is structured so that different parts are responsible for different functions. Different parts of the brain which are reflected in the shape of the head control different facilities.

In 1896 Herbert Spencer wrote: “Whatsoever calmly considers the question (the truth of phrenology) cannot long resist the conviction that different parts of the cerebrum must, in some way or other, subserve different kinds of internal action”

Cynics have called the modern approach to Brain Scanning electro-magneto phrenology.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging,  Computed tomography and Positron Emission Tomography is really “where it is at” for cognitive neuro-scientists. They are the state-of-the-art methods for brain scientists

But old fashioned sceptics are both amused and appauled at the idea of finding the part of the brain which controls various beliefs and behaviours.

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In fact Tom Wolfe, writing amonst exactly a 100 years after Spencer wrote: “Among neuroscientists phrenology now has a higher reputation than Freudian psychiatry, since phrenology was in a certain crude way a pre cursor to electroencephalography”

However there are crucial points of disagreement between the orthodox nineteenth century phrenologist and the modern neuro-scientist. First, phrenologists believe the size of the brain area “dedicated” to a particular function is proportioned in size to the “importance” of that mental facility. Second, craniometry which is the measurement of things like skull size and shape represents the form of the brain and therefore all human functions. Third, that both moral and intellectual facilities are innate.

The roots of phrenology, like so much, go back at least to the ancient Greeks. Many have been essential physiognomists - readers of nature by the form of things. Many books on arts and science, particularly three to four centuries ago showed pictures, silhouettes and drawings that illustrated physiognomic principles.

The “modern” phrenological system was developed by Franz Gall who published his treatise in 1819. He believed his brain map linked brain areas called organs with specific functioning call faculties.

The Victorians really took phrenology seriously. Their busts, casts, journals, callipers and machines survive particularly the fine white china busts produced by the London Phrenology Company. Many academic psychologists have copies which they display in their offices.

The Victorians had phrenological surgeries, schools, foods and even doctors. They measured heads enthusiastically: head size meant brain size meant mental power and temperament...or so they believed. The average man had apparently a head size of 22” and a woman ½ to ¾ inch less. Head size was linearly related to brain capacity and intellect except where people were hydroencephalice. Indeed there are papers very recently in the respectable academic journal Intelligence, which argue the same point. Head size is a crude but reliable index of intelligence, even controlling for various other factors.

But for the phenologists shape was more important than size. A good cranioscopy could, they believed, show special talents. Phrenologists made diagnoses and predictions about motives, abilities and temperament. You got the “full picture” of a person, much as some still believe a two day assessment centre might offer.

Victorian phrenologists even acted as talent spotters. Some did cross national comparisons looking at English-French differences. Phrenologists examined skeletons like the skull and bones of Thomas-a-Beckett. Queen Victoria had her children “read” because phrenologists professed both self-knowledge and the keys to developmental, moral and occupational success.

Various groups and individuals carried the “torch” for phrenology. These included Nazis and colonialists who wanted to use “phrenological” evidence of the superiority of certain groups. And this partly explained why the enthusiasm for it declined, along (of course) with the poor evidence base.

In 1896 Sizer and Drayton published a phrenology manual entitled “Heads and Faces and How to Study them." It illustrated how to recognise idiots, and poets as well as those with a criminal vs moral character. It is, to the modern eye, very shocking.

The traditional “reading of the head” begins by first considering the overall shape of the head. A rounded head supposedly indicates a strong, confident, courageous, sometimes restless nature. A square head reveals a solid, reliable nature, deeply thoughtful and purposeful. The wider the head suggests an energetic, outgoing character, while the narrower head suggests a more withdrawn, inward-looking nature. An ovoid shape belongs to an intellectual.

The phrenologists then argue it is important to gently, but firmly, run your fingers over the skull so that you can feel the contours of the skull. One has to measure individual size of each faculty and its prominence in comparison to other parts of the head. As the brain consists of two hemispheres, each faculty can be duplicated: check both sides of the skull.

A faculty that is underdeveloped in comparison to the others indicates, they argued, a lack of that particular quality in the personality. Equally one that is well developed indicates that the quality is present to a considerable degree. So a small organ of “alimentiveness” indicates a light and finicky eater, possibly a teetotaller; if this faculty is well developed, it indicates a person who enjoys food and wine; and if over-developed, a glutton, who may also drink to excess.

The phrenological head has over 40 regions but it depends on which list or system you read. Some with rather old fashioned concepts, like 20 Veneration which is respect for society, its rules and institutions; 26 Mirthfulness which is cheerfulness and sense of humour, and 24 Sublimity which is the love of grand concepts. There are also head regions for 1 Amativeness (sex appeal); 3 Philoprogenitiveness (parental, filial love); 10 Alimentiveness (appetite, love of food); 31 Eventuality (memory) and 5 Inhabitiveness (love of home). These areas have been further described or classified into 8 sentiments or propensities.

 

1. The ‘Domestic’ Propensities, which are characteristics common to man and animals and are basically responsible for one’s emotions and instinctive reactions to objects and events.

2. The ‘Selfish’ Propensities provide for man’s wants and assist him in self-protection and self-preservation.

3. The ‘Self-regarding’ Sentiments are concerned with self-interest and expression of personality.

4. The ‘Perceptive’ Faculties are responsible for awareness of surroundings.

5. The ‘Artistic’ Propensities give rise to sensitivity and aptitude in art and artistic creation.

6. The ‘Semi-Perceptive’ Faculties in such fields as literature, music and language, and are responsible for appreciation of cultural surroundings.

7. The ‘Reflective’, ‘Reasoning’ and ‘Intuitive’ Faculties are concerned with styles of thinking.

8. The ‘Moral’ Sentiments including religious faculties humanise and elevate the character.

 

Despite its popularity mainstream science has always dismissed phrenology as quackery and pseudoscience. Worse it encouraged race and sexism.

The idea that “bumps” on the head were related to personality structure and moral development was dismissed as nonsense. The limited evidence has been evaluated and is wanting. In short, there is no acceptable scientific proofs for most of the claims.

The rise of neuroscience has shown how many of the claims of phrenology are fraudulent. However, there remain other popular brain myths like the idea that we only use 10% of our brain in day to day processing. There are also myths about brain energy, brain tuners and brain tonics which seem as plausible as phrenology.

Certainly new technology has increased our knowledge of, and interest in, cognitive neuropsychology and psychiatry. We are now able to map the brain electronically and metabolically. Through studies both of accident victims as well as “normal” people we are building up a new detailed map of the brain and what “parts” are primarily responsible for what functions.

But this “electrophrenology” is empirically based and bares no relationship to old, prescientifying moralistic ideas of the founders of phrenology.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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