Friday, January 25, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #61: Phrenology Edition

Phrenology is the belief that you can tell what a person is like by feeling their skull. I’ve always been sort of fascinated by the idea. While kind of totally not true, phrenology introduced some important ideas to the world, such as the concept that certain parts of the brain have specific functions, and that thought and behavior originate in the brain.

That's more than palmistry has ever done for us.

1) The pseudoscience of phrenology was invented in 1796 by a German doctor named Franz Joseph Gall. Gall believed that the brain was made up of an amalgam of different organs, 27 to be exact. By feeling the surface of the cranium, phrenologists could detect swellings, enlargements, shrinkages, and so forth in the brain organs. The phrenologist might use a head caliper, or craniometer, to measure the size of the head. Enlargement of a particular brain organ meant that the person was likely to exhibit personality traits associated with that particular region, such as combativeness, friendship or self-esteem.

Pictured here.

2) The Scottish lawyer and writer George Combe was largely responsible for the spread of phrenology’s popularity. It took off among the middle and working classes, who felt well pleased with themselves to be learning about science. Phrenology’s emphasis on inherent personality traits allowed for the criticism of upper and aristocratic classes, which were seen as having abused their own inherent personality traits. Knowledge of one’s inherent traits was also viewed as an important tool for self-improvement and social mobility. Even though it sounds silly to most people today, phrenology was well-respected for at least the first half of the 19th century; many important scholars and medical professionals supported it.

3) Mesmerist John Elliotson incorporated the principles of phrenology into his mesmerism treatments at his mesmerism hospital. Elliotson mesmerized people and then poked at their heads in order to improve and reform their behavior. I’m sure this worked wonderfully.

4) By the 1840s, the evidence against phrenology was too strong to allow it to continue as a mainstream scientific discipline. Experiments conducted by Jean Pierre Flourens on pigeons established that damage to some parts of the brain didn’t equate to loss of the functions or “faculties” associated with that part of the brain, or that it caused impairments of an altogether different type. Later, in the 20th century, phrenology experienced a brief, but small, revival, and would go on to do things like contribute to the Rwandan genocide. 

5) Apparently people today do still believe in phrenology, as the state of Michigan extended its six percent sales tax on personal services phrenology readings in 2007, so now if you want your head bumps interpreted in Michigan the state gets a cut. Also, there is this blog that has like three posts on it. And finally, there’s this website from 1998 which claims that “phrenology is a true science.”

6) Thomas Edison is said to have credited phrenology with revealing his own “inventive talent” to him, which is funny, because I didn’t know there was a “steal from Tesla” lump on the cranium.

I seriously don't see it there anywhere.