EXAMINING PHRENOLOGY

January 1, 2007
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This pseudoscience did have some influence on modern understanding of the brain

In its heyday, phrenology was extremely popular. People consulted phrenologists about whom to employ, marriage choice, education, and child-rearing practices (Figure 1). Itinerant phrenologists offered their services throughout rural America. Prominent Americans who embraced phrenology included Horace Mann, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Garfield.3

Phrenology's Decline

With time phrenology's flawed scientific basis became apparent. People soon realized that “bumps on the head” did not correspond to personality traits. Phrenologists entered the ranks of tea leaves readers and circus palmists. In fact, John Quincy Adams once remarked that he could not see how two phrenologists could look at each other without bursting into laughter.3

Yet this pseudoscience persisted. In the 1930s, Lavery and White developed an automated phrenological machine called the Psycograph, which provided a numeric printout of a skull's shape. They built 33 such devices (Figure 2), which were leased to American entrepreneurs for “clinical” use. The Psycograph had 1,954 parts and rated 32 mental faculties. It looked at each faculty on a five-point scale by way of 32 probes with five head contact points arrayed in an elaborate headpiece. In 1934, two businessmen set up shop near the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and earned more than $200,000 from a public eager to have their heads read.9 Some of the Psycographs have survived to this day. One is at the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio, and for a donation of $20 visitors can have their own phrenology reading (figure 2).

Phrenology is now cited as the quintessential example of psychological pseudosciences, but it did provide the basis of cerebral regional specificity—that is, that specific areas of the brain have designated functions.10 As Simpson says, “phrenology thinking played an important part of the growth of clinical neurology in the second half of the nineteenth century.”11

Gall contributed to the ongoing debate of the origins of personality (nature versus nurture) by emphasizing areas of the brain as fundamental to personality types, and later research found that mental and neurologic disorders can be tied to specific areas of the brain. MRIs have demonstrated specific locations of brain activity in Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, and ADHD.

Acknowledgment

The authors would like to acknowledge research by John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge. For more information, visit http://www.darwin-online.org.uk/people/van_wyhe.html.

Stephen M. Soreff, MD, is President of Education Initiatives in Nottingham, New Hampshire, and is on the faculty of Metropolitan College at Boston University, Fisher College, Worcester State College, and Southern New Hampshire University. He also works in the School Health Section of the New Hampshire Department of Education.


Patricia H. Bazemore, MD, is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. She is also Chief of Medicine at Worcester State Hospital.

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