Phrenology

In the early 1800s, there was no distinct science of psychology. The word psychology was used to label a branch of philosophy concerned with human consciousness. The term scientist itself did not come into general until the 1840s. Yet from that era emerged two influential ancestors of scientific psychology: phrenology and psychophysics .

Phrenology is a now-discredited theory based on the assumption that bumps on the skull reflect a person's character or personality traits. The original idea for phrenology came from Francis Gall, who made a reasonable-sounding assumption: brain areas should grow when exercised, like muscles. Therefore (he reasoned) the shape of the skull should reflect the size or development of the underlying brain tissue, and a bump on the skull might indicate well-developed brain tissue below. The phrase, "You ought to have your head examined" goes back to phrenologists, who literally examined people's heads in order to analyze their personalities.

The following illustration shows a phrenology chart. Areas on the skull are mapped and numbered. For example, if you had a bump in area 6, right above the ear, a phrenologist might say you were prone to destructiveness.

What is phrenology, and what was wrong with it?


Figure 4: A phrenology chart shows which areas were thought to be associated with personality traits

Unfortunately for the phrenologists, their primary assumption was false. Bumps on the brain do not reflect the size or development of underlying brain areas. Morever, the assignment of personality traits to brain areas was entirely fanciful. For example, modern brain scanning techniques show that activity in the brain tissue over the ear is not related to destructiveness.

What were some ways that phrenology foreshadowed later elements of psychology?

Phrenology may have been a false science, but in some ways it foreshadowed elements of more modern psychology. For example, phrenologists assumed different brain regions had distinct skills or functions. That idea has come back in today's neuroscience.

The phrenologists wanted a scientific, objective way to measure psychological qualities, and that is still a goal of psychologists.

Phrenologists believed valuable information about a person could be gathered in a short amount of time, using an objective test. That is still a belief of many psychologists.

Finally, phrenologists were almost right in their primary hypothesis: that the brain was like a muscle that would grow when exercised. After brain damage, neurons do recover faster and more completely if exercised. However, this growth is not reflected in bumps on the skull! Otherwise, humans would look rather odd after graduating from college or other learning experiences.

Despite the impressive array of "modern" elements, phrenology was a failure, because its primary hypothesis about bumps on the skull was false. The assignment of personality traits to particular areas of the brain (shown in the diagram) was inaccurate. Yet phrenology clinics remained popular up through the 1890s and the early years of the 20th Century. They became an embarrassment to psychologists, who publicly dissociated themselves from the phrenology and denounced it as a fraud.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey