The Phrenology Head Frenzy
Yeah — this 19th-century “science” of head shapes was a real craze! While phrenology roots go way back, it’s still fun to learn about and see how we’ve been influenced by it in modern times.
Believe it or not — believe it — researchers once studied head shapes in hopes of finding a scientific explanation of personality and thought processes in the skull geometry. It’s super fascinating, so let’s explore the origins of phrenology!
In this post, we'll launch (head-on, of course) into a brief history of phrenology and how a phrenology reading is done.
A Phrenology Definition that Won’t Leave You Scratching Your Head
What is phrenology you ask? Good question…using your noggin we can see.
Phrenology’s an interesting and controversial field of study dating back to the late 1800s. It’s focused on the idea that one's mental capabilities and personality traits can be predicted based on the size, shape, and contours of their skull. Yeah — all those knobs and depressions on your head have a phrenology meaning.
This science (We’ll call it that because that’s how folks in that era viewed it.) emerged from a combo of observation, speculation, and assumptions. It supposes that certain characteristics of the human brain can be determined by looking at the form of and bumps on the old cranium.
Phrenologists believed that each brain zone controlled a different aspect of behavior — like morality, memory, etc. And, they thought these areas could be identified by examining features of the head. It was a look-see and touchy-feely science.
Phrenology Reading 101
During its heyday, phrenology was widely practiced by medical pros. They’d used their analyses to make a diagnosis of mental illness. (Yikes!)
Tools of the Phrenology Trade
Before we discuss process, let’s talk about what’s needed to do phrenology. Phrenology involves only a couple of key tools:
- A phrenology head. A phrenology bust or phrenology skull is a [usually] ceramic sculpture of the head with a phrenology chart printed onto it.
- A phrenology chart. A phrenology map marks and labels the various regions of the head, each area corresponding to a personality or behavioral trait. This enables the phrenologist to “read” and interpret the subject’s character.
- A tape measure or calipers (optional)
- A hat. Haha, just kidding here. But after a phrenology reading, one’s hair is bound to be hella messed up so a head covering is handy.
Intro to Phrenology: How To Read a Head
Surely, you’ve always wanted to know how to do phrenology. At least since popping into this post….
Basically, OG phrenologists (doctors) would rub their hands over the patient’s scalp and analyze the dips or ridges they felt along the way. They’d also look for asymmetry in features — like ear placement or nose size — as a way to make deductions about internal organ functions and psychological makeup. Phrenologists would then consult their phrenology head map and eventually land on a diagnosis.
Want to try your hand (or head) at phrenology reading? It’s not that hard. As phrenology is the study of the head, you start there. Gently move your fingers and palms over the skull, noting the different contours. Along the way, refer to your phrenology bust that emblazoned with a phrenology chart to suss out meaning for what you’re touching.
What’s Up with Phrenology Today?
Make no bones about it — even though phrenology has been abandoned as a scientific endeavor, it’s left an imprint on modern medical research. For example, researchers have used digital facial analysis to see if certain features actually correlate to specific personality types or behavioral traits. And, interestingly, there are studies indicating a connection between head shape and advanced achievement in math.
Are You a Phrenology Phan or Phoe?
No matter your position on phrenology — you think it’s a now-harmless pseudo-science or a legit way to help figure people out — it has made an impression on our society. And it’s cool to know about these funky cultural trends from the past!