Phrenology: The pseudoscience of skull shapes

Phrenology: The pseudoscience of skull shapes


Written by Maria Cohut, Ph.D. on February 2, 2021 — Fact checked by Jasmin Collier

Some thinkers and physicians of the 18th and 19th centuries believed that the shape of a person’s skull could hold clues as to their psychology. In this Curiosities of Medical History feature, we take an in-depth look at this long-discredited “science,” known as phrenology.


Share on PinterestThis is an illustration of a phrenological chart showing which areas of the brain allegedly corresponded to which mental attributes.
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In the 18th century, a new “science” started to amass interest in Europe: phrenology.

This science, which has been long since discredited, held that an experienced phrenologist would be able to tell what a person’s psychological inclinations and personality traits were just by feeling the shape of their skull.

The person who first popularized this notion was physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828). He believed that the shape of a person’s brain held clues as to their personality and that it would also influence the shape of their skull.

Phrenology evolved and took on a life of its own throughout the 18th and 19th century, until its eventual decline at the turn of the century.

In this Curiosities of Medical History feature, we look at what believers of phrenology argued, why this pseudoscience was particularly problematic, and some of the ways in which it actually contributed to the development of neuroscience.

Faculties and symmetries

Gall did not refer to this science as “phrenology.” That term came into use later, in the early 1800s, when British physician T. I. M. Forster coined it.

It was Gall, however, who suggested the basis for this science. He wrote of “the possibility of distinguishing some of the dispositions and propensities [of an individual] by the shape of the head and skull.”

Gall believed not only that the shape of the skull held clues as to someone’s “predispositions” but also that each area of the brain was linked to a different characteristic.

In his view, this was true of both animals and humans, though he believed that humans had more and more varied mental and emotional capacities.

As psychologists Dr. Paul Eling, Prof. Stanely Finger, and Prof. Harry Whitaker write in a paper discussing the origin and development of Gall’s ideas:

“Gall would ultimately settle on 27 distinct higher functions or faculties of mind […]. Many of these functions, such as love of offspring and memory for locations, humans share with animals; some functions, including wit, poetry, and religion, are uniquely human.”

Some other “faculties” that Gall described include:

  • the “instinct of generation, reproduction, or propagation”
  • pride, or “hauteur, loftiness, elevation”
  • the memory of things, of facts, “educability, perfectibility”
  • talent for painting
  • talent for music
  • the “faculty of the relations of numbers”
  • the “faculty of spoken language” or “talent of philology”

Gall also posited that the two hemispheres of the brain were practically interchangeable and held similar functions. He also believed that should one hemisphere sustain damage, the other could compensate.

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