You need your brain examined

Looking back to the 19th century, there were many social and political causes that now seem, at best, curious and at worst bizarre and ridiculous. As science and capitalism progressed, they brought all sorts of questions, debates and answers. With a further 100 years of ‘progress’, it is easy to look at the answers with disbelief, contempt or self-satisfied humour. One of the most obvious is Phrenology.


Phrenology focused on measurements of the human skull, based on the notion that certain areas of the brain – about 40 in total – have localized, specific functions. Furthermore, it proposed that these functions could be ascertained by measuring the bumps and indentations in your skull. First developed by Franz Joseph Gall, a German physician, in 1796, it was very popular in the UK and the US throughout the 19th century, even though it had been scientifically discredited by 1840. For an interesting summary, see:

As I research popular politics in the latter part of that century, I keep bumping into phrenology in the most unlikely places. In 1850 the radical Wilhelm Liebknecht arrived in London, became a member of the German Workers’ Education Society, and was vetted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Liebknecht claimed that, when he was interviewed by Marx, “he not only examined me with questions, but also with his fingers, making them dance over my skull in a connoisseur’s style. Later on he arranged for a regular investigation by the phrenologist of the party.” I have also uncovered detailed phrenological reports on Charles Bradlaugh (the secularist MP for Northampton), Henry George (the radical American political economist), and the founding post of this blog, John De Morgan.


The reports are all reasonably insightful on the virtues and flaws of these individuals, offering advice on self-improvement. To the 21st century eye, they look suspiciously like the reports of a coach or mentor (or even a counsellor), rather than scientific studies of the head and brain. John De Morgan’s report is a good example. Done by someone who was also a political ally and who knew De Morgan well, the report concluded that his physical power was limited while his mental power was above average; that he had a restless brain and preferred subtlety to brute force; that he had too little of the Scotchman to become rich; was large in self-esteem, fond of praise, and high in the organ of Hope; but had too much imagination, was too easily effected by public opinion, and used his heart rather than his head. Surprisingly for a man who spent much of his life in the public gaze, the report concluded that he was fitted by nature for the studio or cloister, but more realistically that he was an initiator rather than a follower. Much of this makes sense in terms of what we know about the man.

Phrenology also attracted such notable figures as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, President James Garfield,  Honoré de Balzac, Charlotte and Emily Bronté, George Eliot, and Otto von Bismark. Queen Victoria employed a phrenologist to look the royal children’s cranial bumps.

The successful popularization of phrenology was partly due to the idea that scientific knowledge was important and that embracing it was a sign of sophistication and modernity. It became popular with the masses because of its simplified principles and wide range of social applications that were in harmony with the liberal Victorian world view. It was also seen as a tool for self-improvement and upward mobility, while providing fodder for attacks on aristocratic privilege through reformist rather than revolutionary action. As its later critics noted, however, it was also underpinned by racist assumptions.

Phrenology was particularly popular in the U.S. fitting in well with the emergent view of the American dream, and the belief that a humble past did not preclude future success. The brain was portrayed as something like a muscle that could be exercised and which offered the opportunity to improve your life through simple solutions. By the second half of the 19th century it had become a commercial success, spreading throughout people’s lives. Phrenologists would test couples for compatibility, potential suitors for marriage, and job applicants for different positions. Lorenzo and Orson Fowler dominated the business, successfully marketing the idea, setting up phrenology clinics, selling phrenological pamphlets and supplies and, and establishing the American Phrenological Journal which ran from in 1838 to 1911. As a result phrenology’s popularity outlasted its scientific credibility by 60 years or more.

In the 21st century, the ridicule that eventually led to phrenology’s demise, has been tempered by an acceptance that – in its assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific parts of the brain – it was both influential in the development of 19th-century psychology, and , an important historical advance toward 21st century neuropsychology. As Erika Jarika commented in The Atlantic in 2014:

“The 19th-century fascination with the brain isn’t all that far removed from our modern obsession with the mind. We have once again elevated the brain to cultish status, celebrating and perhaps even aggrandizing its power and purpose to shape the world and ourselves. Many of us continue to hope, as the phrenologists did, that mapping the brain will reveal the secrets of human nature that, once known, will allow for personal improvement and transformation….And once known, this information will allow us to manipulate and transform ourselves into something better. We just call it “neuro” this and “neuro”…. a transmutation of language strikingly similar to what occurred in the 19th century as phrenological terms (high brow, low brow, shrink, well rounded) passed from the lab to daily conversation….It seems to me that popular brain science is the phrenology of the 21st century, and we’re just as ravenous for that knowledge today as they were in the 19th century.”

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