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Phrenology: Past To Present

From the historical perspective, phrenology can be regarded as the early nineteenth-century expression of a longstanding medical interest in the precise relationship of the brain to human behavior. As early as the writings of Galen (2nd century C. E. ), medical speculation about the brain included the localization of mental attributes like common sense, imagination, and memory. Later medieval European medicine, which largely followed Galenic models, sustained notions of localization and often synthesized them with Christian beliefs (Clarke & Dewhurst, 1972).

In early American history, figures like the Revolutionary-era doctor Benjamin Rush continued this tradition in a modified form and explicitly linked the study of the brain to moral reform, preparing the way for phrenology (Clarke & Dewhurst, 1972). For the first four decades of the nineteenth century phrenology influenced much of the scientific discussion about brain localization because of its prominence in medical circles and in popular culture. For some scientists and doctors phrenology was a serious science of mental function; however, for others it was useful only as a set of theories to refute.

In the wake of the phrenological movement, the disciplines of neuroanatomy and psychology continued to study and debate localization (Young, 1970). Philosophical debate related to the mind/body problem often attended medical interest in brain localization. Likewise, theological concern about issues like the nature of the soul, free will, determinism, and possibility of regeneration often gave a decidedly religious flavor to discussions of the structure and function of the brain.

Phrenology got its start among European medical doctors interested in developing a more naturalistic understanding of the human mind, but it eventually became a popular movement that larger/ transcended class, gender, educational background, and nationality. Its history therefore conforms to a pattern that was common during the Enlightenment and that would later be repeated by Freudian psychoanalysis. In its early stages, three men of distinctive backgrounds and temperaments, Franz Joseph Gall, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, and George Combe, dominated the phrenological movement (Feher, 1989).

Gall formulated the basic scientific and philosophical arguments in support of phrenology, which Spurzheim and Combe later modified, embellished, and popularized. The three also provided phrenology with its basic intellectual orientation toward religion or what can be understood as the movement’s core theology. Over the first few decades of the nineteenth century, phrenologists used this theology to various ends – to stem criticism that equated their science with materialism, to lend optimism to an aggressive program of social reform, and to issue calls for a demanding new system of morality and personal discipline.

The founder of the systematic understanding of the brain that later came to be called phrenology was a Viennese doctor named Franz Joseph Gal Gall claimed that the idea of cerebral localization first occurred to him as a medical student in the early 1780s, when he noticed that his classmates who had good memories all seemed to possess bulging eyes. From this observation he conjectured that the area of the brain behind the eyes was directly related to the mental function that controlled memory (Young, 1970:9).

The enlarged eyes were thus symptomatic of a localized protuberance, or organ, of the mind that was devoted to memory, thus explaining his colleagues’ extraordinary ability that area by postulating a specialized anatomy and physiology. Seizing upon this insight as an indication of the true relationship of the brain to personality, aptitude, and behavior, Gall subsequently “mapped” the skull with twenty-seven distinct “organs” that corresponded to specific mental functions (Cooter, 1984). He was aided in this endeavor by Spurzheim, who had joined him as an assistant around 1800.

Gall used the German term Schodellehre, which has been translated into English as craniology, to describe his ideas, and he soon began lecturing about them to appreciative audiences in Vienna (Carlson & Noel, 1970: 695). In addition to his medical training and personal observations, Gall drew upon a variety of scientific influences, including the Swiss biologist Charles Bonnet. Bonnet had argued in his book La Palingenesie Philosophique (1770) that the brain was an “Assemblage of different Organs, themselves formed by the combination and intertwining of a prodigious number of Fibers, Nerves, Vessels, etc” (qtd in Clark & Jacyna, 1987:228).

Bonnet further emphasized that this was a functional anatomy; thus the organs of the brain were related to specific mental processes such as the processing of sensations and the forming of concepts. Also important for Gall’s work was Bonnet’s assertion that the “Mechanisms of the Brain” thus conceived might be “read as from a Book” – the “prodigious number of infinitely small Organs appropriate for Sensation and for Thought would be… as printed characters are to us” (qtd in Clark & Jacyna, 1987: 228).

Bonnet did not, however, go as far as Gall in arguing for specific locations for specific functions. Gall and Spurzheim produced a multi-volume text on the brain and nervous system, Anatomie et Physiologie du Systeme Nerveux. With regard to advancing the science of cerebral physiology, this is still considered a historically significant work (Ackerknecht and Vallois, 1956: 10). It also included five principles that would serve as the basis of phrenology:

(i) the brain is the organ of the mind; (ii)the brain is not a homogeneous unity, but aggregate of mental organs; (iii) these mental organs or physical faculties are topographically localized into specific functions ;(iv) other factors being equal, the relative size of any one of the mental organs can be taken as an index to that organ’s power of manifestation, and; (v) since the skull ossifies over the brain during infant development, external craniological means can be used to diagnose the internal state of the mental faculties (Cooter, 1984:3).

The fifth concept listed here was probably the key to the success ofphrenology and also to its undoing. By associating the basic codes of human character with external appearances, Gall and Spurzheim poised their scheme to enter popular culture as a novel form of personality analysis. The phrenological emphasis on revealing inner qualities and analyzing innate characteristics should not obscure the fact that Gall and his followers also stressed the importance of environmental influences (Hankins, 1995). Phrenologists believed that the various craniological organs responded to external stimuli.

Therefore, in theory, positive outside influences could strengthen the desirable regions of the brain – much like muscle tissue responds to exercise. If property situated, promising brains could be nurtured towards the full development of their potential, while not-so-promising ones could be confined to institutions that would curb their worst tendencies. From Gall onward, most key phrenologists considered the various dimensions of religion (beliefs, practices, institutions) as important environmental influences, central to proper moral and intellectual development (Hankins, 1995).

The centerpiece of phrenology was the topographical map of the regions of the brain which became a familiar object in antebellum households. Phrenologists marketed their ideas in a number of ways, including journals, charts, inexpensive self-help books, public lectures, and mail order merchandise. Perhaps the most familiar icon they produced was the plaster bust of a head marked with the phrenological regions. As with most of the phrenological paraphernalia, the busts were mass produced and inexpensive.

Although it may seem self-evident to modern observers, the most basic principle the phrenological map intended to convey was that the brain was in tact the organ of the mind (Hankins, 1995). The phrenological regions were thought to be the outer manifestations of underlying cranial “organs” that localized an assortment of human attributes ranging from the sexual instinct to the desire to venerate a deity (Feher, 1989). The size of each organ, measured on an absolute scale and in relation to the other organs, corresponded to its power of manifestation.

Furthermore since the skull ossified over the brain in early childhood, careful measurement of the head by a trained phrenologist could accurately gauge the size of the organs. Building upon this information the phrenologist could then venture an analysis of basic mental dispositions and aptitudes (Feher, 1989). In the course of popularization phrenologists boldly assumed the mantle of science, often claiming that they had discovered nothing less than the primordial structures of the mind. American interest in phrenology developed in stages.

The earliest advocates took their lead directly from European phrenologists and were predominantly medical doctors and other professionals in eastern cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York during 1810s and 1820s (Hankins, 1995). American public interest in phrenology dramatically increased after Spurzheim’s visit in 1832. In 1838, the brothers Orson and Lorenzo Fowler founded The American Phrenological Journal, which quickly became the leading organ of phrenology in the United States.

Proponents of a self-described “evangelical” style of phrenological advocacy, the Fowlers and their colleagues made phrenology a thriving entrepreneurial concern, and they were the chief apologists and interpreters of phrenology in the United States during the 1840s and 1850s (Hankins, 1995). During this period, the American phrenological movement sold hundreds of thousands of books, almanacs, and journals, and reached its highest level of cultural influence (Reed, 1997).

Advocates applied phrenological principles to virtually every sphere of life, including self-analysis, social reform, marriage, religion, politics, medicine, penology, and art. In spite of critics’ predictions of the imminent demise of the phrenological movement, the decline of popular interest was actually a slow process. Of course there were doubters who never gave phrenology any credence at all and for whom notions of decline are irrelevant.

But to those persons who showed some level of positive interest in phrenology, the decline of the movement, akin to its growth, can be understood in stages. Scientific criticism, however, did eventually persuade most orthodox physicians and scientists to withdraw their support for phrenology. Throughout its history the phrenological movement understood itself as an empirically-based “science of the mind” concerned primarily with the anatomy and physiology of the brain (Reed, 1997). Therefore there has been a strong tendency to appraise its historical significance on strictly scientific terms.

From the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, a significant amount of this scientifically oriented historiography has summarily judged the intellectual content of phrenology as “pseudoscientific” and thus to be rejected by the scientifically minded (Reed, 1997). Similarly, assessments of the popular interest in phrenology from a scientific perspective tend toward disparagement and often employ interpretive language with negative connotations, such as “fad,” “craze,” “fancy,” and “delusion” (Reed, 1997:118).

Somewhat more tempered scholars regard phrenology as, at best, a set of transitional ideas, the rejection or refinement of which gave rise to better sciences such as neurology and physical anthropology. In a similar vein, other interpretations view the phrenological movement as an idiosyncratic popularization of a naturalistic approach to behavior and culture, of interest primarily because it prepared the American public for the acceptance of the human and social sciences (Reed, 1997).

For example, Davies’s interpretation of American phrenology, in many ways still the most nuanced and sophisticated, argues that the “central message of phrenology… was that man himself could be brought within the purview of science and that mental phenomena could be studied objectively and explained by natural causes” (Davies, 1955:171). From the critical perspective, the legacy of phrenology was immense. For instance, phrenological concepts and principles were widely applied in criminal justice system.

For instance, idea that severe penalties would deter criminals from repeating their crimes has been based on the phrenological concept that both good citizens and criminals have similar minds. (Davies, 1955: 99). Moreover, phrenological concepts were effective in the care and treatment of insane patients. Particularly, phrenologists insisted that insanity is caused by the sickness of organs of mind, and thus insanity can be and should be cured (Greenblatt, 1995).

As Stern effectively pointed out “Phrenology enables us to retain a proper balance between our physical and mental functions, to restore loss equilibrium, and to treat successful the various phases of insanity and other disorders” (Stern, 1982, xi). REFERENCES Ackerknecht, Erwin H. and Henri V. Vallois. (1956). Franz Joseph Gall, Inventor of Phrenology and his Collection. Madison: University of Wisconsin Medical School Cooter, Roger. (1984). The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consentin Nineteenth-CenturyBritain. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press

Carlson, Eric T. and Patricia S. Noel. (1970). “Origins of the Word ‘Phrenology,'” American Journal of Psychiatry, November, 127: 694-97. Clarke, Edwin, and Kenneth Dewhurst. (1972). An Illustrated History of Brain Function Berkeley: University of California Press. Clarke, Edwin, and L. S. Jacyna. (1987). Nineteenth-Century Origins of Neurosdentific Concepts. Berkeley University of California Press. Davies, John D. (1995). Phrenology: Fad and Science; A 19th-Century American Crusade. New Haven: Yale University Press Feher M. (ed. ) (1989). Fragments for a History of the Human Body: Part Two, New York: Zone Books

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