Franz Joseph Gall & Phrenology Theory: Definition, Lesson & Quiz

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Sarah Collins

Learn about phrenology. Understand the theory behind its practice and how it was used to help explain human personality and behavior. Learn about its important role in the developement of neurology.

We also recommend watching Carl Jung's Theories: Lesson & Quiz and Alfred Adler's Theories: Lesson & Quiz


Take a look at this woman (yes, that's a woman).

Deformed Head
How would you describe her personality? I think she's somewhat smiling, so I would say she seems happy. Other than her quaint facial expression, there's not much else that stands out, right? Am I overlooking something? Oh, yes, her head seems to be quite elongated. Kind of footballish. I wonder if the shape of her skull can tell us about anything?

Well, let's jump in our time machine--the one behind the refrigerator--and go back to 1810. Load her--we'll call her Maggie--into our buggy and we'll zoom across the German landscape to make our 10 a.m. appointment with Dr. Franz Joseph Gall.

Franz Joseph Gall

Phrenology Explained

Gall is a physician who looks a lot like George Washington and has theorized that human personality and behavior is based on the shape and size of regions in the brain. These different regions control everything from the ability to perceive color to a tendency towards superstition. Gall felt the best way to examine the shape and size of the regions without a patient having to have his or her head cut open was to examine the shape of the skull. Examining the skull to better understand the brain is called phrenology. The word 'phrenology' is the combination of the Greek words phren or 'mind' and logos or 'knowledge.' It's kind of a Princess and Pea phenomenon. Remember the fairy tale where the princess became aware of a pea under mattress because of the bump she felt when lying down?

Gall asks Maggie to take a seat. As he examines her head, he takes out a measuring tape and measures many sections of Maggie's skull. He then asks her to remove her impressive ponytail so he can feel her entire skull. He's checking for elevations and depressions. 'Your hands are cold!' she says sternly. Once he's taken all the data, he references a chart similar to this one:

Phrenology Chart

As you can see, each area of the brain has been given domain over some type of personality attribute, feeling, or behavior. Let's look at Maggie's melon again. Her forehead area is pretty narrow and squashed, while the back end is significantly elongated (you think to yourself that her mother should get a trophy for what that labor must have been like). Dr. Gall says, 'Well, Maggie, I can see that you are very, very consistent and firm with whatever you do and that your self esteem is through the roof which is good considering...uh. Well, also, you seem to be very conscientious and love to make friends.' So, far this rings true to you as she had already invited you and I to the movies during the buggy ride over. Dr. Gall continues (cautiously, because her combativeness region is also very much over developed), 'Well, you have some difficulty with language, it's amazing that you arrived here on time, and you don't have much of a sense of humor.' Maggie is visibly upset (he was right!) and grabs your arm to get going. She yells, 'Quack!' as the buggy speeds away.

Phrenology: A Precursor to Neurology

Is Maggie right, though? Is Dr. Gall a complete quack? Phrenology was wildly popular for about 30 years. There were even institutes of phrenology all around Europe. Today, however, you will find phrenology referred to a pseudo-science and its charts will often times be displayed in museums alongside with sham medical equipment made to dupe people out of their money.

However, even though his theories weren't completely accurate, Gall is considered to be an important part in the evolution of neurology. He was one of the first to place primary importance on the brain in explaining a person's behavior and character. While, as far as science can show today, there aren't regions of the brain that dictate if a person will be secretive or constructive, he did have the correct notion that different areas of the brain are responsible for different aspects of a person's behavior and personality. He also correctly understood that under and over development of areas in the brain can lead to different attributes or deficiencies.

Lesson Summary

Started in 1810, phrenology is the practice of measuring the shape of the skull in order to determine the shape and size of various regions in the brain. These different brain regions are responsible for a person's personality and behavior. Phrenology was a precursor to the field of neurology.

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