The phrenology is an area of divination which seeks to determine a person’s character, personality, and criminal tendencies based on the shape of their head. Each bump and fissure in the skull provided clues. While this was a popular notion in the 19th century, it has since fallen into disrepute. However, it was an influential theory in 19th-century psychiatry.

Phrenologists believed that the organs of the brain changed the shape of the skull.a large swelling over a particular region indicated that section of the brain was used a great deal. The valleys in the skull indicated an area of little thought.

Phrenology was correct in certain aspects. They understood that the brain was the home of our emotions, perception, intelligence and more. They also knew that different parts of the brain had different functions. However, it was only possible to study dead brains – and dead brains told few tales.

On rare occasions, scientists got to study the brain in action. An interesting case out of Vermont led to greater understanding of the brain. A foreman, a most capable and efficient man, was involved in an accident that forced a metal bar through his skull, deep into his brain. Despite all odds, the man survived, though greatly changed. His former sunny disposition was gone. In his place was an angry, impatient, rude man who had extreme difficulty in planning. Phrenology could not account for the foreman’s changed behavior – the shape of his skull was the same, but he was a completely different man. Stories like this tolled the death knell for the theory of phrenology.

With modern medicine and advances in neurology, phrenology has been reduced to a pseudoscience. While Phrenologists “read” the bumps and valleys of a skull, they ascribed a significance to those features which was not justified by human observation. In many cases, phrenology was used to justify racism, among other crimes against humanity.

A 19th century phrenology chart. The inscription on the neck reads, “Know yourself.” Courtesy Wikipedia.
A definition of phrenology with chart from Webster’s Academic Dictionary, circa 1895. Courtesy Wikipedia.