Phrenology: Definition, History, Evolution, Skull Readings and Critiques

It can be defined as the exploration of the contours of the skull.

Phrenology was a popular 19th century theory, which said that a person’s character could be read by measuring the shape of their skull.

An approach, mainly of historical interest, to describe the thought process based on the belief that different mental capacities are controlled by specific locations in the brain.

Although people recognize that the brain is the center of mental processes , this contemporary view has not always been accepted.

Philosophers and scientists have proposed different ideas throughout history about the thought process, which have since been rejected as inaccurate. One of those rejected approaches was phrenology.

Phrenologists believed that our different mental capacities were controlled by specific locations in the brain.

Although scientists today recognize the general validity of this belief, the problem was that phrenologists developed ideas that did not really describe the way the brain works.


Modern phrenology was founded in the 1790s on the principles of an Austrian physician, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828).

The German scientist, was a recognized expert in anatomy and proposed the initial ideas on phrenology.

He posited that some areas of the brain were highly developed in certain individuals, leading to specific behaviors.

For example, he claimed that some parts of the brain were acquisitive, that is, they possessed the desire to possess things, due to the overdevelopment of an area on the side of the head.

One of Gall’s contemporaries, Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832) identified 35 different mental faculties and suggested the location in the brain that was related to each of the faculties.

He claimed that each trait led to a certain behavior, the inclination towards that behavior could be detected by evaluating the shape of a person’s skull.

Scientists have now confirmed that the shape of the skull is not related to the shape of the brain.

During Gall’s time, neurologists showed that different areas of a person’s brain were responsible for different functions such as memory and speech.

Gall, however, took this scientific proof a step further when he developed phrenology, which he called ” cranioscopy .”

According to Gall’s theory, the mind is composed of different “organs” responsible for certain faculties. All other things being equal, the size of an “organ” is a measure of its power.

He believed that the different sizes of organs in the brain determined the physical shape of a person’s skull based on how strong or how weak that organ was.

He assumed that just as muscles grow when they are exercised, different parts of the brain would grow or shrink with use or disuse.

Thus, the shape and surface of the skull could be read as an index of an individual’s natural abilities, aptitudes, and tendencies.

Evolution of phrenology

In the 19th century, phrenology was considered a scientific way of understanding a person’s character.

For most of the 20th century, phrenology was replaced by psychoanalysis, the exploration of the unconscious hidden in the mind.

Today neuroscience, the study of chemistry, genetics and the biology of the brain, have replaced psychoanalysis as the last way to understand human behavior.

From the beginning, phrenology was controversial, for example, the Roman Catholic Church lobbied the Austrian government to prevent Gall from lecturing in an area that the Church considered materialistic and atheistic. This tactic apparently served to increase interest in phrenology.

Although Gall developed his ideas with a serious scientific perspective, his contemporary Spurzheim was more of an entrepreneur.

He coined the term phrenology, which Gall never accepted, popularized it, and brought it to the United States.

Spurzheim’s goal was to reform education, religion using the principles of phrenology.

However, he died shortly after arriving in America. Spurzheim’s work was continued by the British phrenologist George Combe (1788-1858), whose book on phrenology, Constitution of Man, was quite popular.

According to psychology historian David Hothersall, Combe was highly respected by scientists in the United States.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He is curiously remembered for the fact that at one point in his life he was asked to justify slavery on the grounds that people of African descent had “inferior” skulls.

Combe refused, pointing out that educated slaves were just as intellectual as whites.

In the same way, Combe rejected the second-class status that was intended to be accorded to women, stating that women were not intellectually or emotionally inferior to men.

Skull readings

During the reading of a skull, the phrenologist would slide the fingers and palms of the hands over the head of a person, being careful to detect blows and concavities.

From time to time, a tape measure or calipers were also used to obtain accurate measurements.

These shapes would then be compared to a three-dimensional head or chart to determine which of approximately 35 organs was responsible for an individual’s abilities and characteristics.

According to phrenologists, both the physiological conditions, such as circulation and digestion, as well as the mental faculties (caution or veneration) could be measured in the skull and classified on a scale from 1 (very small) to 7 (very large).

Making the most of yourself

The subjects who participated in phrenology did so because they believed that if they received a true reading of the characters, it would help them to be more self-aware and more carefully choose a partner and a vocation.

The phrenologist would tell them, based on their measurements, what mental faculties they needed to restrict or cultivate in order to “correct any errors of judgment or inappropriate habits that they may possess.”

The individual could then cultivate and develop all the higher qualities of mind and heart and make the most of his opportunities and of himself.

For example, if a person was determined to have a large eventuality organ, they should possess a wonderfully retentive memory of events, incidents, and general knowledge, and have a strong craving for information.

This person would be a great devourer of books, newspapers, and publications, and they would excel at storytelling.


Critics of phrenology have compared it to palm reading, astrology, and divination.

If the attributes and characteristics of a person read by a phrenologist did not seem to fit his personality, the criticism was dismissed by stating that another of the largest organs of the brain counteracted the effects of the small organ.

Critics also noted that the location and function of particular organs were occasionally revised and renamed and that the number of organs proposed by Gall increased in the late 20th century.

There were also racial and anthropological concerns, as certain groups of people were labeled and categorized by their skull shape.

Phrenology was discredited by scientists and others in the 1840s and was equated with other forms of quackery.

However, it remained popular, peaking in the 1830s and 1840s, the 1860s, the 1890s, and into the early 20th century.

Many believed that phrenology was a breakthrough in seances.

The thought was that listening carefully to patients’ fears and dreams through the prism of psychoanalytic theory was superior to looking at the lumps on the head.

Now the interdisciplinary molecular study of the brain, with the use of precise scientific instruments and data, is the latest attempt to pin down human nature, replacing speculation with pure empiricism.

No matter how successful science is in understanding the world we live in, it cannot by itself lead to a complete understanding of human nature.

Knowledge through empirical understanding is limited by the ability of the knower.

While tools can broaden our senses and give us new insights, better perspectives, and sophisticated ways of manipulating the environment, our ability to fully understand ourselves must always be insufficient because we cannot understand more than our brains are capable of interpreting. .

Our brains structure our understanding in such a way that it is impossible to know or know anything except through the brain structure.