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Phrenology - Study of the Shape of Your Head

Rucha Phatak Oct 17, 2020
What if we tell you that you can know a lot more about a stranger by just looking at his head? You read it right; we are not bluffing. It was once a popular science called phrenology. This story takes to explain what phrenology is and what do phrenologists do.

Did You Know?

The word 'phrenology' is derived from Greek words phrēn, which means mind, and logos, which means knowledge.
Famous American politician Abraham Lincoln was the first President who ran his primary presidential campaign by distributing his photographs among his supporters. People who bought these portrait cards believed that they can deduce intimate knowledge about Lincoln through the photograph.
This idea had taken its roots in people due to a popular science of that time―Phrenology. The popularity of this science was so high that A. T. Rollner, who called himself as a practical phrenologist, published a guide in 1864 named Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant: Their Character and Constitution Scientifically Explained, With Engravings.
It is mind-boggling to see how once people believed that they can judge others by only examining their head. The theory still prevails today, but maybe is not as famous as it was at one time. Let us find out more about phrenology.


According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, phrenology means the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character. In other words, it is a study of the shape of the head.

What History Reveals

► The idea of examining bumps on the skull to deduce the character of a person was first conceived by a German physician Franz Joseph Gall. However, it was his collaborator, another German physician Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, who popularized the idea.
► Around 1796, Gall started working on isolating mental faculties and studying the shapes of skulls.
In his prominent work, The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads (1819), he introduced principles that became the basis of phrenology.


  1. The brain is the organ of the mind.
  2. The brain is a total of several mental organs with specific functions.
  3. These organs hold places in different regions of the brain surface.
  4. The relative size of any particular organ indicates the power or strength of that organ.
  5. The form of skull represents the development of these organs.
► Gall believed that there is a connection between different aspects of personalities and different organs in the brain. His belief was backed by careful observations and extensive experiments.
► Gall and Spurzheim had a permanent fallout in 1813. However, Spurzheim started publishing phrenology work under his own name to popularize it. His study tours in the United Kingdom in 1814-15 and the United States in 1832 introduced this phenomenon across the Western world.
► However, it was not until George Combe took the responsibility of promoting phrenology that it was universally accepted. He founded the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1820. By 1826, there were almost 120 members who were a part of the society, which included dignified personalities. It was Combe who made phrenology popular among the masses.
► However by the 1940s, a number of evidences against the theory started growing. It was discredited as a scientific theory, and the downfall of phrenology began. Physiologist Francois Magendie discarded phrenology as a science in his Elementary Treatise on Human Physiology.
He said, "Phrenology, a pseudo-science of the present day; like astrology, necromancy, and alchemy of former times, it pretends to localize in the brain the different kinds of memory. But its efforts are mere assertions, which will no bear examination for an instant."
► However in the 20th century, the interest in the study was revived. Development of evolution studies, criminology, and anthropology contributed to its revival.
► Phrenology has contributed to the field of neurology too. It attracted researchers' attention to the fact that the metal abilities are associated with the different parts of the brain. However nowadays, scientists use MRI and PET scans to examine brain rather than massaging it with hands to feel the bumps.

What does a Phrenologist Study?

► A phrenologist will mostly do a head-reading and character analysis.
He will run his fingertips or palms over a person's head to feel any elevations, bumps, indents, etc. Sometimes a special caliper or a measuring tape is used to measure the exact size and location of the bumps. Those will be recorded, and the reading is recorded with the help of phrenological diagrams and charts.
These diagrams and charts help the phrenologist to deduce the aspects of a person's personality.

The 27 Faculties

Gall has noted down 27 faculties or organs stating different personality traits.

1. Reproductive instincts
2. The love of one's offspring
3. Affection and friendship
4. Self-defense, courage, and fighting
5. Murderous instincts
6. Guile, acuteness, cleverness
7. Sense of property, the tendency to steal
8. Pride, arrogance, haughtiness, love of authority, loftiness
9. Vanity, ambition, love of glory
10. Circumspection, forethought
11. Aptitude for being educated
12. Sense of locality and place
13. Recollection of people
14. Verbal memory
15. Language ability
16. Sense of colors
17. Sense for sound and musical talent
18. Mathematical abilities
19. Mechanical abilities
20. Comparative sagacity
21. Metaphysics
22. Satire and wit
23. Poetic talent
24. Kindness, compassion, sensitivity, moral sense
25. Imitation and mimicry
26. Religiosity
27. Perseverance, firmness
► However, the number of organs was increased over time. According to Edwin H. Lundie's The Phrenological Mirror; or, Delineation Book (1844), there are around 39 organs.
► A phrenologist, in earlier times, would go for a weekly meeting at the local phrenological society. New ideas and theories would be discussed. Phrenological books and busts, skulls, or casts would help them in their studies.
► It is always interesting to find out intimate details of a person's personality. For example, if a person has a long skull jutting at the back, then that person may have a good memory and IQ. On the other hand, a wide forehead is attributed to intelligence. Such a person will usually be good with logic and numbers.
One may know a lot about oneself through this study. However, it is always fun to know what the shape of your head says about you.