Phrenology: A Head’s Bumps and Indentations

Originally known as cranioscopy, phrenology was a revolutionary pseudoscience that determined personality and the development of mental and moral faculties based on the external shape of the skull and its size. Franz Joseph Gall, a German physiologist, neuroanatomist, and pioneer in mental functions in the brain, discovered this in 1796 when he examined people’s heads and discovered bumps and indentations just above their ears. He thought these bumps and indentations could be linked to a person’s personality, character, and abilities. However, the term phrenology and its popularization is credited to John Gall’s collaborator, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim.

Phrenology: Franz Joseph Gall

Franz Joseph Gall. Author’s collection.

Phrenology became particularly popular in the early to mid 1800s. In England, the Edinburgh Phrenological Society was the principal and central site for phrenology and its study, and it was at this Edinburgh facility, where, at the time, phrenologists thought the mind had different mental faculties represented in different areas of the brain. For example, they thought the faculty of destructiveness was located just above the ear, the faculty of color was above the eyes, and the faculty of parental love located at the back of the head, as shown in the illustration below.

Gall produced a list of twenty-seven different “faculties” (nineteen of which were identical in animals) and associated skull parts with specific traits or characteristics. Gall’s list is as follows: 1, veneration; 2, love of offspring; 3, friendship; 4, courage, self-defense; 5, murder; 6, cunning; 7, the sentiment of property; 8, pride, self-esteem, haughtiness; 9, vanity, ambition; 10, cautiousness; 11, memory of things, educability; 12, local memory; 13, the memory for persons; 14, memory for words; 15, memory for languages; 16, colors; 17, music; 18, number; 19, aptitude for mechanic arts; 20, aptitude for drawing conclusions; 22, wit, 23, poetry; 24, good nature; 25, mimicry; 26, religion; 27 firmness of character.

Gall also believed these areas were proportional to a person’s propensities and that personality traits could be determined by measuring a particular portion of the skull, as the size of the skull conformed and accommodated the size of any or all the portions. For instance, in Spurzheim’s 1825 book titled Phrenology: Or, the Doctrine of the Mind, Spurzheim claimed that when it came to combativeness:

“[Dr. Gall] called together boys from the streets, and made them fight. There were, of course, some who were fond of it, and others who were peaceable and timid. In those who came willing to blows, that part of the head which corresponds to the posterior inferior angle of the parietal bone behind the mastoid process, was prominent; in those who declined the combat, the same place was flat or depressed.”[1]

Forty-Two Categories for Phrenology, Author's Collection

Forty-two categories for Phrenology. Author’s collection.

At some point Gall and Spurzheim had a falling out and Spurzheim used more exact terms. He also expanded and reclassified Gall’s list of faculties to include thirty-seven “brain or mental organs.” As time passed more were added. In 1899, Stackpool Edward O’Dell wrote Phrenology: Essays and Studies in which he claimed:

“Altogether phrenologist have localised the seats of forty-two more or less distinct faculties in either hemisphere of the brain, the comparative strength of any of them being indicated by the comparative prominence of its organ as judged by the height, width, length, or fulness of some part of the head.”[2]

O’Dell also provided the names and a definition of each category, most based on earlier descriptions written and standardized by Spurzheim. A brief description of each of the forty-two categories given by O’Dell follow in alphabetical order:

  • Acquisitiveness: The accumulating instinct.
  • Agreeableness: The tendency to please, to exercise suavity, without any necessary feeling of friendship or sympathy.
  • Alimentiveness: The desire for food.
  • Amatativeness: Connubial love.
  • Approbativeness: The desire for approval.
  • Benevolence: General sympathetic feeling, distinct from friendship.
  • Calculation: Capacity for arithmetic.
  • Causality: Recognizes the connections subsisting amongst phenomena—cause and effect.
  • Cautiousness: The propensity to be circumspect.
  • Colour: Perception of colors.
  • Combativeness: The tendency to oppose.
  • Comparison: Perception of analogy.
  • Concentrativeness: Power of attention.
  • Conjugality: The instinct for marriage.
  • Conscientiousness: The feeling of duty.
  • Constructiveness: The desire to construct.
  • Destructiveness: In low types of mankind, the hunting, killing instinct—in civilized man modified so as to give force and energy.
  • Eventuality: Perception of occurrences—”Its essential nature” says Spurzheim, “is expressed by the infinitive mood of the part of speech styled ‘verb.'”
  • Firmness: Decision, determination, persistence, “will.”
  • Friendship: Instinctive desire for the society and appreciation of certain individuals.
  • Form: Perception of conformation.
  • Hope: Anticipation and cheerfulness.
  • Human-nature: Instinctive perception of character and motives.
  • Ideality: Appreciation for the beautiful.
  • Imitation: The imitative tendency.
  • individuality: The power to observe and distinguish objects, without attention to special qualities.
  • Inhabitiveness: Love for home, country, etc.
  • Language: Acquires knowledge of words and their signs.
  • Locality: Perception of relative position; gives recollection for places, and pleasure in travel.
  • Marvellousness: Belief in the supernatural.
  • Mirthfulness: Appreciation for humor.
  • Order: Perception of and desire for arrangement and system. 
  • Philoprogentiveness: Love for children.
  • Secretiveness: The propensity to conceal.
  • Self-esteem: Appreciation or respect for self.
  • Size: Perception of dimensions and relative proportions. 
  • Sublimity: Appreciation for the grand and awe-inspiring.
  • Time: Perception of the succession and duration of events; also recognizes rhythm.
  • Tune: Appreciation for melody and harmony.
  • Veneration: The feeling of respect or reverence.
  • Vitativeness: Instinctive love for life.
  • Weight: Perception of resistance—”the muscular sense.”

Problems with phrenology began almost from the start. First, many people though phrenology was morally reprehensible, promoted atheism, and encouraged materialism. Phrenologists themselves could not agree on the number of faculties, brain organs, or categories, and, as time passed, they could not locate them. In addition, Napoleon Bonaparte had no faith in Gall’s system and despised him. 

Experiments on pigeon brains by the French physiologist Jean Pierre Flourens did not match phrenology theories either. The final straw was the numerous scientific studies that showed it made no sense and the publication of these beliefs was best summed up by French physiologist François Magendie who stated:

“Phrenology, a pseudo-science of the present day; like astrology, necromancy, and alchemy of former times, it pretends to localize in the brain the different kinds of memory. But its efforts are mere assertions, which will not bear examination for an instant.”[3]

Supposed Grades of Intelligence, Public Domain

Supposed grades of intelligence. Public domain.

Despite its many problems, phrenology was extremely popular between 1810 and 1840. This was due to George Combe‘s ability to tailor phrenology to a middle class thirsty for knowledge and the publication in 1828 of his book, On the Constitution of Man and its Relationship to External Objects. Phrenology became popular once again in the 1880s and again between 1899 and the early 1900s. The resurgence of popularity was due to the study of evolution, anthropology, and criminology. However, today, the scientific community does not believe skull shape or its size has any thing to do with personality or intelligence, and, phrenology, although exciting at its time, can best praised for furthering the fields of medicine and psychology.


  • [1] Spurzheim, Johann Gaspar, Phrenology: Or, the Doctrine of the Mind, 1825, p. 125.
  • [2] O’Dell, Stackpool Edward, System of Phrenology, Vol. 1, 1836, p. 8.
  • [3] Young, Robert Maxwell, Mind, Brain, and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century, 1990, p. 88.

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