Phrenology: an overview

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Phrenology: an overview

Franz Joseph Gall was born in Baden, Germany, on March 9, 1758. Gall studied medicine in Vienna, Austria. He became a well known neuroanatomist and physiologist. He was one of the first to study the localization of mental functions in the brain.

Gall believed that there was a relationship between the size and shape of the skull and mental faculties and character. Although the ideas of phrenology were different, it gained wide acceptance. Gall began his lectures on phrenology in 1796. In 1802 the government and Roman Catholic Church ordered him to stop his lectures. He was forced to leave Vienna and go to France. He continued study phrenology in Paris.
Many people condemned Gall because he could not provide real scientific proof of his theory. Phrenology was also considered a money making fraud. Gall’s phrenological theories were best accepted in England, where the ruling class used it to justify the inferiority of colonial subjects. Phrenology became popular in the United States from 1820 to 1850.
Phrenology was based on head reading and character analyses as well as looking at the interactions between the faculties of the brain.  Most phrenologists would run their bare finger tips over a head to distinguish any elevations or indentations. Gall thought they should use their palms when doing the readings. Gall believed the bumps on the skull represented specific personality characteristics.
The invention of the psychograph came from the study of Phrenology. The psychograph was invented by Lavery and White. It was a machine that could do a phrenological reading complete with a printout. Many people who had the phrenological readings were satisfied and felt that the results were extremely accurate.
Gall's idea of phrenology was based on several concepts:

  • the brain is the organ of the mind

  • the brain is a collection of organs representing the characteristics of the person

  • these functions are located in specific parts of the brain

  • the size of each organ is representative of its power

  • the shape and size of the skull relate to the shape and size of the underlying organs and is representative of the individual's mental faculties.

Since the mid-19th century, phrenology has been remembered as a very controversial science. This was even true during the height of phrenology. Today, the ideas behind Phrenology have been absorbed into many other disciplines making some aspects still alive today. The idea of phrenology lived on in other sciences of measuring and comparing human heads- most notoriously the attention to cranial size, forehead shape etc. used by late 19th and early 20th century racial anthropologists to confirm their belief that Europeans were superior to other humans. Phrenology was also used to determine whether or not someone was a criminal. Could you imagine deciding this just by the shape and size of a persons head?

Ironically, most of phrenology's basic premises have been justified. For example, the idea that many functions are localized in the brain is now a common idea. There is much research being done on the localization of brain activity.  Also, areas of the brain that are more frequently used may become enlarged with use.  This is what phrenologists believed to be true. Modern brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) make the localization of functions something that we can witness and are not just guessing at. To this day there are still self-appointed experts who work, talk, teach and write on the "scientific" aspects of phrenology. Many of the past phrenologists were not able to pass down the ideas to the next generation because it had been already discredited. Despite the fact that phrenology had been widely discredited, the British Phrenological Society was only disbanded in 1967.

The idea that different areas of the brain are associated with different functions has been tested and supported through today's research. Phrenologists also said that the areas used the most would become enlarged which has also been found to be true. Gall's area for speech and verbal memory was located very closely to today's Broca's and Wernicke's speech areas.


What actually happens in the study? Is there a causal relationship or are the effects due to confounding variables?


Can the findings be generalised beyond the present situation or to other groups of people?

1. Ask them to feel their heads and try to identify where there are the most prominent areas or bumps. Draw this on the blank sheet. Draw or mark relative size.

2. Ask if they have heard of phrenology. Briefly explain background – make sure you mention localisation of function (The idea that different areas of the brain are associated with different functions) and that areas used the most become enlarged – analogy of brain as a muscle – and could be reflected in the bumps of the skull.

3. Place phrenology chart on the board. Ask students to write on their marked areas the attribute associated with the bump.

4. Ask them to now switch pairs. Get them to feel for bumps in the new person. Do the bumps correspond to the marked areas found by the previous person? Are the results consistent (Reliable)? Explain that they have just demonstrated the feature of reliability in measurement and the technique of inter rater reliability. Link to internal and external reliability. Ask what could change this result? E.g. getting your head hit but this retains the reliability because the circumstances will have changed during measurement.

Class discussion – what do these result mean in terms of Validity? Give each student their record sheet. Get them to discuss and fill in boxes in pairs. Switch pairs to support students as necessary from task one. Give around 5 mins to discuss then take as whole class discussion. Ask for reasons for or against validity.

CRITERION VALIDITY alternative methods. Recap definition criterion validity. Discuss how else we could test this information e.g. using MRI scan. Explain that this is one reason why phrenology has lost ground scientifically – loss of validity

GROUP WORK. Highlight the destructiveness area. Give an example of how this could be demonstrated experimentally. Using localisation of function Get students into groups and see if they can come up with an alternative way to achieve these results e.g. using Observational/Self Report and Correlational methods.

Franz joseph Gall

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