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What Is Phrenology In Psychology

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Why Is Phrenology A Pseudoscience

What is Phrenology? (Intro Psych Tutorial #4)

With no scientific support for its claims, phrenology is considered a pseudoscience. Even during its most popular era, phrenology was heavily critiqued and largely dismissed by the larger scientific community. John Gordon, who wrote the scathing critique of phrenology in the Edinburgh Review, ridiculed the presumptuous thought that feeling bumps could determine personality traits. Other articles went so far as to state that the terms phrenologist and fool were synonymous.

More recently, University of Oxford graduates conducted an empirical study to rigorously vindicate or debunk the claims of phrenology. Using MRI, scalp curvature to brain gyrification , and scalp measurements to lifestyles, the researchers concluded that there was no evidence to support that scalp curvature relates to individual traits or that a phrenological analysis produced any statistically significant effects.

Where Did Phrenology Come From

The idea that one’s skull could give hints to someone’s intelligence and personality first popped into the mind of German physician Franz Joseph Gall in the late 1700s, when he was a medical student. Gall noticed that classmates with larger eyes and more expansive foreheads seemed more adept at memorizing long passages. This, he surmised, suggested that one’s emotional characteristics were not dictated by the heart, as was assumed at the time, but from somewhere in the head.

By the 1790s, Gall began to study the localization of mental functions in the brain, believing that certain areas were responsible for psychological activity. Gall further believed that the shape of the skull reflected personality traits and mental abilities that corresponded to the topography of the brain. He called this “science of the head” craniology and, later, after believing the brain to be not one organ but a group of organs, changed the name of his study to organology.

In 1832, Spurzheim landed on American soil with the same plan of spreading interest in phrenology, but three months later literally worked himself to death. It proved to be plenty of time to gin up the support of the entrepreneurial Fowler brothers and their business associate Samuel Roberts Wells.

Relating Scalp Morphology To Local Brain Morphology

In order to test the second claim of phrenology, that bumps on the head should reflect the underlying shape of the cerebral cortex, we correlated each subject’s local scalp curvature with a local index of brain gyrification . This gyrification index was quantified using a surface ratio, corresponding to the amount of cortical surface packed within a limited spherical volume at every point on the cortex . If the phrenological hypothesis is true, we would expect a large negative correlation between scalp curvature and the gyrification index. We assume that the amount of cortical surface correlates with pressure under the skull but note that 19th century phrenologists imagined pressure to come from individual gyri instead. For data we extracted the cortical surface from each subject’s T1-weighted scan using FreeSurfer . In order to summarise the surface ratio of the cortex underlying each scalp vertex, we used the average surface ratio within a 20 mm sphere that was centred around the nearest cortical vertex. Once both measures were mapped onto the scalp surface, we were able to correlate the two measures and answer the question of whether scalp morphology looks like a consistent proxy for underlying brain morphology.

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Phrenology History Of A Science And Pseudoscience

When first introduced in 1796, phrenology was the latest advancement in the field of neurology. It was widely accepted, even welcomed, by many practicing neurologists as a powerful diagnostic tool. Phrenologists were even on the winning side of an important scientific debate concerning a central concept of brain anatomy and function. As more scientific methods began to take hold within medicine, however, and the secrets of the brain began to yield to more careful investigation, phrenology became increasingly marginalized. By the early 20th century the last vestiges of phrenology were gone from scientific medicine and mainstream neurology, but not gone completely. Phrenology survives to this day as a classic pseudoscience, with dedicated adherents convinced of its efficacy.


The history of phrenology, and the story of its modern believers, is a classic one in the history of pseudoscience. To contemporary skeptics, the claims of phrenology sound no different than any wacky belief system. Believers claim to be able to read an individuals personality, their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and desires, by examining the pattern of bumps on their skull. At first the idea sounds no different, and no less ridiculous, than treating liver disease by rubbing the foot, or diagnosing heart disease by the pattern of colors in the iris. It isnt, but phrenology has a very different origin than reflexology or iridology.

Phrenology and Cold Reading

Modern Phrenology


Is Phrenology Still Used Today

The Neurocritic: Phrenology, Then and Now

There’s a phrenology head in psychologist Colin G. DeYoung’s office at the University of Minnesota. “It was given to me as a joke,” he says. “It’s amusing that people connect it to what we do.”

Phrenology is something DeYoung calls “interesting from a historical perspective,” but in practice, it’s riddled with problems. “First, the idea that the shape of the outside of the skull has anything to do with the shape of the brain, well it doesn’t,” he says. “Beyond that, their map of what the different parts of the brain are doing, that’s all made up. There’s nothing meaningful to it.”

Where Gall was on the right track was his assumption that character, thoughts and emotions are related to specific regions of the brain. Today, researchers, like DeYoung, are using modern technology to better understand the functions of the different parts of the brain and how they relate to one’s personality.

Instead of phrenology charts, DeYoung’s research in the emerging field of “personality neuroscience” uses neuroimaging and molecular genetics to map personality traits onto functions the brain. By doing this, he aims to understand how these individual differences in brain function produce individual differences in personality.

While this information may not help someone find their life partner as phrenology promised, it could one day be used to help treat people with mental health problems, he says.

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The Principles Of Critical Thinking Are Follows:

A scientific mind must necessarily have a critical mind. Critical thinking is the ability of a person to inquire about causes and events and develop skepticism about explanations and conclusions. One of the principles of skeptical thinking, is that one must be skeptical and keep an open mind. Nothing must be accepted without evidence.

The assumptions er premises of arguments must be examined. For example, a statement says that we cannot learn about human beings by studying animals. That means we are not animals, but surely we are social animals.

We cannot draw any hasty conclusions from evidence. We have to look at all the possible causes of an event.

Whenever we find some evidence in a research, we have to consider various alternative interpretations than just blindly accepting what has been interpreted by the researcher.

We should not try to oversimplify a complex interaction, and neither over generalize. Sometimes there is more to a problem than a straight-forward yes or no.

Phrenologys Influence On Psychology

If youve ever read an introductory psychology book, you might remember that phrenology was depicted as basically a fraud. It was viewed as a bizarre scientific dead end in which charlatans read character by looking at the bumps on someones head, wrote C. James Goodwin in A History of Modern Psychology.

But as Goodwin said in his book, thats a simplistic explanation. In fact, phrenology helped move American psychology forward in various ways.

For instance, the basis of phrenology was individual faculties, and thereby individual differences. Phrenologists were interested in analyzing and measuring individual differences, like psychologists do today.

As mentioned above, phrenology also proposed that ones DNA didnt predetermine their life. The environment, including education, played a big role, too. You could improve upon your skills and talents.

You not your genes had control over your future, and that was a hopeful and exciting notion. It still is!

Last medically reviewed on January 27, 2011

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Examples Of Phrenology In A Sentence

phrenology WSJphrenology The Atlanticphrenology oregonlivephrenology Smithsonian MagazinephrenologyWiredphrenology Los Angeles TimesphrenologyThe New YorkerphrenologySmithsonian

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word ‘phrenology.’ Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Lifestyle Measures And Phrenological Faculties

What Is That? – Phrenology

Philosophically, phrenology was organised around the metaphor of the brain as a collection of physical organs with identifiable functions such as language or love, or an impulse to propagation. In phrenology, these functions are referred to as faculties. Although these faculties diverge from the familiar functions mapped by neuroimaging in the 20th and 21st centuries, by focussing on identifiable functions the approaches do not differ in kind .

In addition to MRI, the UK Biobank Imaging study includes data from numerous questionnaires and cognitive tests, which we refer to collectively as lifestyle measures. Subject responses to these lifestyle measures could be binary or integer-valued . Some integer-valued responses required closed-set answers . We used the lifestyle measures as proxies for 23 common phrenological faculties .

Gall originally proposed 27 faculties . From these, we selected a subset of 23 faculties for which we found compelling lifestyle measures in the UK Biobank. For example, we associated the faculty of combativeness with lawyers, and we associated cunning with scientists. By connecting the faculty of cunning to our own profession, we follow a phrenological tradition evident for instance in choice to cite Gall’s skull as an example of Causality .

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Phrenology Psychology And Mesmerism

Phrenology, Psychology, and Mesmerism- (Hypnosis, animal magnetism, hypnotism, autogenic training, biofeedbackI have been shown that we must be guarded on every side and perseveringly resist the insinuations and devices of Satan. He has transformed himself into an angel of light and is deceiving thousands and leading them captive. The advantage he takes of the science of the human mind, is tremendous. Here, serpent-like, he imperceptibly creeps in to corrupt the work of God. The miracles and works of Christ he would make appear as the result of human skill and power. If he should make an open, bold attack upon Christianity, it would bring the Christian in distress and agony to the feet of his Redeemer, and his strong and mighty Deliverer would put the bold adversary to flight. He therefore transforms himself into an angel of light and works upon the mind to allure from the only safe and right path.The sciences of phrenology, psychology, and mesmerism are the channel through which he comes more directly to this generation and works with that power which is to characterize his efforts near the close of probation.

Criticism Of Gall’s Phrenology

However, Gall’s methods lacked scientific rigor, and he chose to simply ignore any evidence that contradicted his ideas. Despite this, phrenology became increasingly popular from the 1800s well into the early 1900s. Having your head examined by a phrenologist was a popular activity during the Victorian era, and it remained fairly popular even after scientific evidence began to mount against Gall’s ideas.

Gall’s ideas gained many followers, but also attracted considerable criticism from scientists as well as other groups. The Catholic church believed that his suggestion of a “religion organ” was atheistic, and by 1802, he was forbidden from lecturing in his home.

After Gall’s death in 1828, some of his followers continued to develop phrenology, and references of the theory began seeping into mainstream popular culture. Despite phrenology’s brief popularity, it eventually became viewed as pseudoscience like astrology, numerology, and palmistry.

Criticism from well-known brain researchers played an important role in this reversal of popular views of phrenology. During the early- to mid-1800s, the renowned French physician Marie Jean Pierre Flourens, a pioneer in brain studies and cerebral localization, found that the fundamental assumption of phrenologythat the contours of the skull corresponded to the underlying shape of the brainwas wrong.

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Racist And Sexist Implications

Although the ideas that phrenology put forth may have been fascinating at the time, and although this pseudoscience did contribute to some real scientific progress in understanding how the brain works, it also contributed to solidifying some discriminatory notions.

For one, phrenology held that mens and womens skulls, and therefore their brains and mental capacities, were vastly different.

Phrenologys relationship with women was a double-edged sword. On one hand, historians note that this science was more open to women practitioners than most other scientific fields in the 19th century, which tended to be all but exclusive to men.

At the same time, however, phrenological treatises emphasized ways in which womens skulls allegedly differed from mens, only to claim that this was due to certain qualities inherent to women that were not naturally present in men.

Citing 19th-century American phrenologist Orson Fowler , historian Dr. Carla Bittel explains that where en were distinguished by their firmness, force, self-esteem, courage, combativeness, and destructiveness women were known for exquisiteness, emotion, susceptibility, and devotion to offspring, as well as their secrecy, artifice, and nervousness.

Some also used phrenology to uphold scientific racism that is, the misuse of scientific and pseudoscientific ideas to claim that one race is superior to others.

Phrenology’s Contribution To Medicine


Phrenology’s largest contribution to medicine is that the early ideas proposed by Gall sparked interest in the scientific community about understanding the human mind and how it relates to the brain. Despite having been debunked by advances in neuroscience, some ideas posited by phrenologists have been confirmed. For instance, the idea that mental functions are localized in areas of the brain’s cerebral cortex has been supported. Modern brain imaging has allowed scientists to localize functions in the brain and some speech disorders have been correlated with specific atrophied or lesioned areas of the brain. Galls proposed faculty for verbal memory was close to Brocas and Wernickes areas, which are now known to be important areas for speech.

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What Is The Place Theory In Psychology

Place theory is a theory of hearing that states that our perception of sound depends on where each component frequency produces vibrations along the basilar membrane. … More generally, schemes that base attributes of auditory perception on the neural firing rate as a function of place are known as rateplace schemes.

Education And Early Career

As the second eldest son, he was intended for the priesthood but chose instead to study medicine at the University of Strasbourg. In his advanced studies, he again made observations about his classmates. He noticed that many of the particularly bright students had prominent eyeballs and concluded that this could not be purely coincidental.

He later completed his degree in Vienna, Austria. While in medical school, he studied under Johann Hermann and Maximilian Stoll who impressed upon him the importance of natural observation. He took his first job at Lunatic Asylum making observations about the insane. He then opened up his own successful private practice and became so popular he even gave well attended lectures to the public. He was offered the position as head Austrian Court physician but decided to remain in private practice and research.

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Facing A Bumpy History

“I found Fowler on duty,” Twain wrote, “amidst the impressive symbols of his trade. On brackets, on tables . . . all about the room, stood marble-white busts, hairless, every inch of the skull occupied by a shallow bump, and every bump labeled with its imposing name, in black letters.”

During the 19th century, thousands of busts like those Twain described were manufactured and sold by Fowler and others. One of them its surfaces inked with lines showing the location of such traits as “Conjugality” and “Combativeness” is on display at the American History Museum’s “Science in American Life” exhibit, surrounded by other measures of human intellect and personality.

According to the “science” of phrenology, an individual’s character and abilities could be deduced from the size and shape of various bumps on the head. By the time Twain visited Fowler, phrenology had developed an enormous following, especially in America. Characteristics such as verbal memory, “Amativeness” and “Secretiveness” were supposed to be controlled by corresponding areas, or “organs,” of the brain. The more developed the trait, the larger the organ, and the larger a protrusion it formed in the skull.

Phrenologists also believed that such traits and their respective organs could be modified through the practice of restraint or by the conscious “exercise” of a positive quality.

The Shape Of Your Head And The Shape Of Your Mind

What is Phrenology?

How the archaic study of brain shape and head reading the origin of terms like highbrow and lowbrow,well rounded, and shrink shaped the modern obsession with the mind. One reason phrenology attracted so many followers was that it seemed to provide the toolbox for the American dream.

To anyone who has ever shaved his or her head and been horrified by the lumps and dents hidden beneath, the idea that those bumps said anything about a persons character might be unsettling. But for millions of Americans in the 19th century, phrenology provided comfort and insight, a way to know and understand behavior and personality with seemingly scientific precision.

Why do we act the way we do? What determines the patterns of our behavior? How can we be better people? Every generation seeks answers to these questions, and in the mid-19th century, phrenology provided one incredibly popular and influential explanation.

Physician Franz Joseph Gall first developed his theories on the anatomy and function of the brain in 18th-century Vienna, where Sigmund Freud would later foster another science of the mind, psychoanalysis, beginning in the late 19th century. Gall grew fascinated by the physical structure of the body as a medical student. As a physician, he became a skilled anatomist who learned to dissect the brain to show the origins and pathways of cranial nerves.

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