by Steven Novella, MD
When first introduced in 1796, phrenology was the latest advancement in the field of neurology. It was widely accepted, even welcomed, by many practicing neurologists as a powerful diagnostic tool. Phrenologists were even on the winning side of an important scientific debate concerning a central concept of brain anatomy and function. As more scientific methods began to take hold within medicine, however, and the secrets of the brain began to yield to more careful investigation, phrenology became increasingly marginalized. By the end of the 19th century the last vestiges of phrenology were gone from scientific medicine and mainstream neurology, but not gone completely. Phrenology survives to this day as a classic pseudoscience, with dedicated adherents convinced of its efficacy.
Phrenology (from Greek: φρήν, phrēn, “mind”; and λόγος, logos, “knowledge”) is a pseudoscience primarily focused on measurements of the human skull, based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specificfunctions or modules. Phrenology was first practiced by mystical groups that operated during the period of the Essenes. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, the discipline was very popular in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 until 1840. The principal British centre for phrenology was Edinburgh, where the Edinburgh Phrenological Society was established in 1820.
Although now regarded as an obsolete amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy with moral philosophy, phrenological thinking has been influential in 19th-century psychiatry and modern neuroscience. Gall’s assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in localized parts of the brain is considered an important historical advance toward neuropsychology.