Psychology, Science


Our understanding of the human brain is constantly expanding. Yet, there have been many missteps in the past. In the 1880s, a popular subject for scientists to explore was Phrenology, measuring the skull to determine mental faculties.

The entire doctrine of Gall [Phrenology] is contained in two fundamental propositions, of which the first is, that understanding resides exclusively in the brain, and the second, that each particular faculty of the understanding is provided in the brain with an organ proper to itself.

Now, of these two propositions, there is certainly nothing new in the first one, and perhaps nothing true in the second one. [3]

Phrenology was very popular in the 19th century, after being introduced by the physician Franz Joseph Gall, in 1796. Gall asserted that there were 27 organs in the brain, each with a specific function. The larger this section of the brain, the greater capacity for the corresponding function. The skull was believed to conform to the shape of the brain so that, studying the shape of the skull would lend insight into the moral and mental altitudes of the subject. By running his hands over the head, Gall would determine which areas were larger and, thus, more used.

Phrenology, the nineteenth century’s most popular and popularized “science” and one of its most fecund in the period preceding Darwin. [2]

Phrenology flourished in a time while scientific standards of evidence were still in their infancy. Many notable scientists and societies accepted and promoted Phrenology to the point that even Queen Victoria had her children’s heads studied. By the 1840s, however, the inability to generate a reliable and replicable map of the brain as well as advances in other directions of neural studies left phrenology discredited and at the fringe of sciences. It had become a mirror of bias, as “scientists” observed cranial variations between races and sexes as reinforcing stereotypes of mental faculties and people’s rolls in society.

Because Phrenology is poised between the intellectual boundaries that have come to be erected between science and pseudoscience, nature and culture, science and society, it provides the incentive to expose and evaluate those boundaries. [2]

Even so, phrenology was a valuable stepping stone to today’s studies in neuroscience and psychology. Gall’s theory that the brain has distinct functional locations, while not exhibited as he presumed, was a step toward today’s neuroscience. While concepts of reform and therapy have now matured into today’s psychological studies and reevaluated the roles of prisons and mental wards as places of reform rather than vindictive punishment.

It is a scholarly problem that will seemingly never be solved: what do we call those practices that we no longer consider sciences? [1]


1 Lyons, Sherrie Lynne. Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. Albany: State University of New York, 2010. Print.

2 Cooter, Roger. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 1984.

3 Flourens, Pierre. Phrenology Examined. Hogan & Thompson, 1864.

Learn More

Lite-Brite Phrenology [Wall Street Journal]

Phrenology [Wikipedia]

Phrenology [Encyclopedia Britannica]

19th and 20th century psychiatry: 22 rare photos [CBS]


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