An Old Brain Science

The "science" of phrenology advocated that certain functions of the brain could be found in specific spots, which a physician would find by feeling and measuring the bumps and grooves on the patient’s head. Today this sounds downright ridiculous - feeling around someone’s head for bumps, and using them as a means of judging how smart, creative, or logical a person is - but at the time, this practice was groundbreaking.

Let’s start at the beginning. The practice of phrenology was founded by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796. It gained popularity during the 19th century and is often considered a precursor to modern day psychology. Phrenology is often associated with Victorian England for good reasons. In the UK the practice of phrenology took off, receiving funding from the crown, and forming the Royal Phrenological Society.

The founders of phrenology concluded that humans had twenty-seven “brain organs” located under a specific areas of the skull. As a phrenologist felt the skull, he would use his knowledge of the shapes of heads and organ positions, to determine the overall natural strengths and weaknesses of an individual. Specialists in the field believed that the human mind has a set of various mental faculties, each one located in a different area of the brain. For example, the ability to love of your child was located centrally at the back of the head. Spatial reasoning was located near the temple. The more you used a “mental organ,” such as creativity or love, the more prominent that area of the brain would become.

What made phrenology so appealing was that for the first time among the middle and working class, scientific knowledge was within reach. Experts in the field would frequently hand out cheap pamphlets and hold scientific lectures as entertainment in poorer English neighborhoods. For once not just the upper class had access to tools of sophistication and modernity. Phrenology provided an attractive, biological means of explaining all mental phenomena using consistent biological terminology anyone could understand.

"Phrenology" is the name of a 2002 album from the popular rap group The Roots

"Phrenology" is the name of a 2002 album from the popular rap group The Roots

As we all know, phrenology was not destined to last. By 1840, a growing body of evidence existed that suggested phrenology was a pseudo medicine. During the last sixty years of the 19th century, the pseudo science passed into obscurity and phrenology was ultimately debunked due to lack of any real psychological evidence.

Phrenology saw a resurgence in the 20th century, only this time it wasn’t focused on bringing knowledge of the human mind to the masses. Phrenology was used as a tool to promote racial superiority. Scientists such as Bernard Hollander used it as a means of explained evolution, claiming that the “lesser races of the world,” were inferior to European races, as evidenced by measuring bumps in the skull.

Hollander even went a step further, purposing that the indentations found in the inside of the skull could help “rank the races of the world.” He concluded that because a European skull had far more indentations than that of an African, Europeans must be more intelligent. Many in the fields of anthropology and psychology regarded this as nonsense - but his findings, and the findings of others like him, caught the attention of Adolf Hitler.

In Hitler's eyes, the practice of phrenology was all the proof he needed of Aryan superiority. When the Reich rose to power, Nazi physicians compared a German skull to a Jewish skull, using it as a scientific basis to legitimize their racist agenda.

Phrenology began as one doctor trying to explain the nature of this mysterious, fleshy organ we all have in our heads. I’m sure that even he couldn’t have seen where his studies would lead to, and the kind of men he would inspire.


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