What is Phrenology? - part one

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

Phrenology is a way of reading a person’s character, studied by phrenologists. The idea of phrenology originated with a European physician Dr Franz Joseph Gall (1758 – 1828). He theorized that the way a person’s mind works has a relationship with the shape of their cranium (top part of the skull, which protects the brain).

Phrenology looks at the bumps on the head to determine a person’s character or mental traits. He also suggested that the brain could be altered by education and by the way it is used. Neural plasticity now demonstrates how a brain can change with use.

Although phrenology seemed popular in the nineteenth century, it was never actually a scientific method. There was no agreement about where to divide the cranium, with debate about how many sections were used to interpret mental traits. Only the shape of the skull was measured, and the corresponding area of the brain was just assumed.

In comparison to today's method of determining the relationship of an area of the head to that area of the cerebral cortex, there is an internationally standard 10-20 system of electrode placement used in medical procedures. This system ensures accuracy regardless of the shape of the cranium, such as doing a paediatric sleep study on a child with a craniofacial abnormality.

Furthermore, there were also questions about the validity of interpretation based on the religious views and socioeconomic status of the person interpreting the cranium. There was also disagreement about whether the brain worked together as a whole organ or whether it had separate parts responsible for different functions.