Phrenology head


Around 200 years ago, phrenology – the study of the connection between the shape of the skull and the characteristics of the mind – emerged. Nancy Wilkinson asks why it became so popular

At the end of the 18th century, a new concept of how we connect the mind with our brain was materialising. Called phrenology, it was started in Vienna, Austria, by the anatomist Franz Joseph Gall.

Phrenology is the study of the relationship between a person’s character and the shape of the skull, which Gall began to lecture on in the early 1790s. He had always had a keen interest on this particular subject and had decided at a comparatively early age that humans with a good memory also had ‘prominent eyes’.

Gall defended his work by saying: “As the skull takes its shape from the brain, the surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies.” Basically, he argued that if the skull is the same shape as the brain, it will reflect the characteristics of that person.

He asserted that regions of the brain correspond to various personality traits and abilities. For example, if you are born with a gift for languages, that part of your brain is well-developed and that is mirrored in the shape of your skull.

Gall also believed people were born with their moral and intellectual characteristics, and what those were depended on the brain, which he called the “organ of the soul”. He thought the brain was composed of as many organs as there are abilities, tendencies and feelings of humans and animals.

He composed a list of 27 discrete brain ‘centres’ of behaviour, some of which were exclusive to humans and some of which were seen throughout the animal kingdom. For example, ‘the love of one’s offspring’, ‘memory’, and ‘the instinct of self-defence’ were common across animals and humans. ‘Kindness’, ‘a sense of satire’, and ‘a sense of metaphysics’ were only found in humans.

Although 25 of these ‘centres’ of behaviour have never been confirmed to exist, his theory that brain functions were localised was proven in the late 19th century, and the areas he linked to language and word memory turned out to be correct.

In 1792 Gall began to collect skulls and casts of skulls to develop his theory of phrenology. By 1802 the collection had reached 300 skulls and 120 plaster casts and had made him a local celebrity!

He used the skulls and models of skulls to connect their distinguishing features with characteristics of the owners’ personalities. However, this method did lend itself to what some might say was Gall seeing what he wanted to see in the links between skulls and behaviour.

Was phrenology accepted?

In the early 19th century, phrenology was an unpopular scientific theory among some leading groups within society. The church condemned it because it gave the mind a physical presence in the brain, going against the belief that the mind was created by God and was part of the soul. In 1802 phrenology was banned by the Austrian government, which prohibited the publication of Gall’s work. Gall then decided to move to Berlin, where phrenology became an international sensation (helped by the publicity from the ban).

Phrenology was regarded as a serious scientific theory for several years, but as scientific lectures became a form of entertainment in the 19th century, it became more popular with the public and less respected by scientists.

By the 1840s most of phrenology had been discredited. The main evidence against it was that the thickness of the skull was shown to vary independently of the brain, proving skull shape did not reflect the size or shape of the brain.

In spite of phrenology being discredited, Franz Joseph Gall was an important figure in the history of neurology. His theory came at a time when ideas about the brain were changing. Previously the mind had been seen as part of the soul and, therefore, as created by God, but people were beginning to view the mind as a physical aspect of the brain.

Gall also discussed important anatomical features of the brain that had previously been overlooked, including the grey matter. Gall was an important figure in the debate between religion and science, something that is still discussed today.

Lead image:

This image comes from a book by the physician John Elliotson, who practised phrenology in the early 19th century. Phrenology is the study of the relationship between the shape of the skull and a person’s character. Elliotson describes the picture, which was from 1562, in his book as a very early example of phrenology, before it was a popular scientific theory. Phrenology was discredited in the mid-19th century and stopped being practiced soon after.

Wellcome Library, London


Questions for discussion

  • Do you think there are any modern scientific practices that may be discredited in the future?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Inside the Brain’ in January 2013 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Neuroscience, History
Inside the Brain, Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development