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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > Sept/october 2019 > The New Phrenology

The New Phrenology

Trauma researchers, using modern imaging, have attempted to link psychiatric disorders to child abuse by demonstrating smaller hippocampal volumes. The studies differ little from those of nineteenth-century phrenology.

Phrenology was Franz Gall’s (1758–1828) and later Johann Spurzheim’s (1776–1832) attempt to correlate behavior with skull shape. Gall published his work between 1810 and 1819 in four volumes, titled The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations on the Possibility of Discovering the Number of Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Men and Animals Through the Configurations of Their Heads. Gall’s original study found twenty-seven different cranial areas overlying specific and separate brain “organs.” By the end of the phrenology vogue in the early twentieth century, the number of “bumps” had risen to forty-two.

Phrenology proved very popular in mid-nineteenth-century America. Both Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman were fervent believers. Poe provided phrenological descriptions of characters in his writings, and Whitman even published the results of his phrenology exams five times. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of Mary Had a Little Lamb and the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book (the most popular women’s magazine in America during the mid-nineteenth century), claimed that phrenology was “second only to Christianity as a force for the elevation and improvement of the status of women” (Hothersall 1995). Celebrities such as Clara Barton and Joseph Smith had their heads measured and assessed by phrenologists. President James Garfield was a believer, having had his head examined several times.

Much like today’s school counselors, phrenologists acted as life coaches, advising clients on their education and marriages, but based on head bumps rather than SAT scores. The appeal of phrenology in America lay in its emphasis on the detection of moral characteristics via physical characteristics and the belief that intellectual and physical attractiveness could be improved through the exercise of moral and religious living (Lintern 2012). Phrenologists developed and used precise measurements and rating scales. Electricity was eventually introduced into the cities, and phrenologists kept up with the times, investing in the Lavery Electric Phrenometer, patented in 1905 to measure skull bumps “electrically and with scientific precision.” (See also Geoffrey Dean, “Phrenology and the Grand Delusion of Experience,” Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2012.)

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