Bump-starting a stalled pseudo-science

Modern discoveries are attracting new converts to the ancient art of phrenology
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The discovery, earlier this week, that women's brains shrink during pregnancy has drawn attention again to the relationship between the physical characteristics of the brain and the psychological characteristics and capacities of its owner. Such questions were once the province of the old art of phrenology which, to judge by a quick search around the more dubious nooks of the Internet is making a bit of a comeback. Indeed, our by no meqans exhaustive browse revealed more than 600 references to phrenology on the Web.

For the benefit of the phrenological neophyte, here is how it works:

The science of phrenology was developed in Austria in the late 18th century by Franz Joseph Gall, one of the founders of modern neurology. At a time when almost nothing was known about the functioning of the brain, Gall had the amazing insight that different regions of the brain were responsible for different faculties. He even identified the cerebral cortex as "the highest level of the brain and that the development of this area characterised mammals and man". Where he seems to have erred, however, was in his belief that the brain comprised many several distinct organs, each controlling a separate aspect of personality.

As Douglas Adams fans will be pleased to hear, the full phrenological system identifies precisely 42 "moral and intellectual faculties" as Gall called them. Here's the official list: Amativeness, Conjugality, Parental Love, Friendship, Inhabitiveness, Continuity, Vitativeness, Combativeness, Destructiveness, Alimentiveness, Acquisitiveness, Secretiveness, Cautiousness, Approbativeness,Self-Esteem, Firmness, Conscientiousness, Hope & Expectation; Spirituality, Veneration, Benevolence, Constructiveness, Ideality, Sublimity, Imitation, Mirthfulness, Individuality, Form, Size, Weight, Colour, Order, Calculation, Locality, Eventuality, Time, Tune, Language, Causality, Comparison, Human nature, Agreeableness.

Every one of those was identified with a specific site in the brain, and the assumption of phrenology was that superior development of any of the faculties would be revealed by the contours of the cranium.

So, having learnt where everything is, you have only to inspect people's heads in the proper manner to disover their innermost secrets. Here's how you start:

Place the third finger of each hand upon the head, just at the top of the ears; let the lower side of the third finger be even with the upper part of the ear; that finger then rests upon Destructiveness. Then spread the second finger about one eighth of an inch from the other, and it will rest upon Secretiveness. Let the end of your longest finger come as far forward as the fore part of the ears, and they will then rest upon these two organs.

(From a mid-19th century manual on phrenology by Orson Squire Fowler and Lorenzo Niles Fowler.)

Even though its fundamental basis became increasingly undermined by psychological and neurological research, phrenology continued to be practised until the 1930s, by which time Americans could even have their head bumps read by an automatic electrical phrenology machine which printed out a report on ticker-tape.

Considering the continuing appeal of astrology, and the growth in academically doubtful methods of character assessment such as graphology, the almost complete demise of phrenology is perhaps surprising. It has, after all, only three major defects:

Firstly, there was never much evidence to support the view that the contours of the brain follow the bones of the skull as closely as the phrenologists would have liked. Secondly, in the brain, as in other organs, there is little evidence to correlate size with efficacy. And thirdly, Gall and his followers seem to have got their bumps in the wrong place. For example "Broca's area", now known to be responsible for language, is nowhere near Gall's Language bump, but seems to lie somewhere between Constructiveness and Ideality.

So Phrenology is based on two false premises, which, even if they were correct, would be giving out quite the wrong results anyway.

There are, however, two good things about phrenology. The first, and best, is that it provides an excellent excuse for fondling the head of someone whom you would like to get to know better. After mastering palmistry in order to indulge in a little harmless hand-caressing, phrenology is the next logical step for any shy chiromantic suitor to take.

For the less tender-hearted, however, we must mention the newly developed technique of "Phrenotherapy". The idea of this "bold new discipline", as its inventor Kevin Kelm describes it, is to improve people's personalities by rearranging their head bumps. With a mallet. Do not try this at home.