What do Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Bram Stoker have in common? Besides being authors that you were hopefully forced to read in high school, they are just four of the many Victorian writers who reference phrenology in their novels. Now recognized as a psuedoscience (with the exception, I suppose, of the odd tarot card reader and steampunk conventioneer), phrenology was a theory of brain development and personality proposed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in the early 1800’s. Herr Gall came to the conclusion that you can determine a person’s entire core personality and aptitude by feeling the lumps in their skull by this fascinating swan dive of logic–
– That moral and intellectual faculties are innate
– That their exercise or manifestation depends on organization
– That the brain is the organ of all the propensities, sentiments and faculties
– That the brain is composed of as many particular organs as there are propensities, sentiments and faculties which differ essentially from each other.
– That the form of the head or cranium represents the form of the brain, and thus reflects the relative development of the brain organs.
Armed with blind conviction and shamelessly biased research, Gall identified twenty-seven distinct “brain organs” said to control, and therefore indicate the strength of, certain personality traits and intellectual capacities, such as vanity, affection, courage, aptitude for numbers, and sense of colors. Using a chart like the one above, Gall and his trainees would conduct a cranial examination with results not dissimilar from a Chinese fortune cookie. From what I gather, phrenology came under suspect of the scientific community almost immediately, but traveled on a slow decline from somewhat-respected scientific theory to lecture circuit hocus pocus over the course of the 19th century.
Phrenology also underwent two distinct “movements,” the first being its relative heyday of scientific acceptance from 1811 to about the 1840’s and centered largely in Europe, particularly the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh. During this time, it was not uncommon for people to request phrenological evaluations of everyone from potential employees to potential spouses, which has to make you feel incredibly sorry for this guy:
The second movement was centered mostly in the United States, where phrenology enjoyed the most popularity, if not credibility (go figure). There, the mantle was passed to the Fowler brothers, Lorenzo and Orson, who explored the entrepreneurial possibilities of phrenology by making it a side-business to their publishing house in New York. They are most famous for the now-iconic china phrenology heads that decorated the offices of many a charlatan and snake oil salesman for years to come.
Eventually, of course, the spiritualist movement that gave phrenology its fertile breeding ground died out, reducing phrenology to its final resting place among circus talkers and hokey psychic mediums. It continues to endure, however, as a part of popular culture and our collective Western memory, as evidenced by things like this Roots album cover and this movie still from Darren Aronofsky’s movie Pi.
All in all, I guess there are lots of worse medical examinations than a soothing scalp massage. You just have to hope that your benevolence lobe outsizes your murderous instinct lobe, and you’re good to go!