Modern Phrenology

Incredible as it may seem, to this day there are still self-appointed experts who work, talk, teach and write on the "scientific" aspects of phrenology, and there seems to be a lot of people who believe on its tenets or even make money out of it. There is a very curious and entertaining site in the Internet, Phrenology Resources, which deals with the modern evolution of phrenology, with useful information on these trends. According to its creator, in the 20th century phrenology has benefited from evolutionism and criminal anthropology. It must be said that the site is apparently pro-phrenology (its opening statement is "Phrenology is a true science, which is there to benefit humanity").

Bernard Hollander

Paul Bouts

Two of the modern-day followers of phrenology are best known. They are the British psychiatrist Bernard Hollander (1864-1934), who wrote "The Mental Function of the Brain" (1901) and "Scientific Phrenology"(1902), and Paul Bouts (1900-), a Belgian educator and free-lancer who mixed phrenology with typology and graphology to create a new "objective"approach which he called psychognomy. His most important work has the impressive title of "Les Grandioses Destinées Individuelle et Humaine dans la Lumiére de la Caracterologie et de l'Evolution Cerebro-cranienne". There was a also British Phrenological Society, which was active from 1886 to 1967, and a London Phrenological Company, still doing brisk business on phrenological memorabilia and assorted information sources.

There are a few recent books on phrenology. They are: "Phrenology, A Study of Mind", by Frances Hedderly (L.N. Fowler & Co Ltd, London, 1970. 8524 3169 4), and "Heads, or the Art of Phrenology", by Helen and Peter Cooper (The London Phrenology Company Ltd, London,1983. ISBN 0-9508539-0-9).

A well used device by modern adepts of phrenology is to perform post-hoc analyses of historical figures, such as the infamous Russian priest Gregory Rasputin (1869-1917), in order to show how the technique "works". Since the phrenology experts who did this have had no opportunity for actually palpating Rasputin's cranial bumps, analyzing it from photographs, and since his main personality traits are well known through numerous historical accounts, one should not be surprised by the relatively accurate portrayal produced by such phrenological analysis !

In fact, even the most hardened phrenologist admits that there are many sources of error in their remarkable interpretative "science" (such as when the observer "is misled by the subject's hairstyle"), thus making it an entirely subjective procedure, influenced by the interpreter's biases, previous knowledge about the examinee, and personal prejudices.

The Phrenological Legacy

Phrenological CraniometerOne of the many offshoots of phrenology was craniology, which advocated the use of precise quantitative measurements of cranial features in order to classify people according to race, criminal temperament, intelligence, etc. Craniology became influential during the Victorian era, and was used by the British to justify its racism, colonization and dominance of "inferior people", such as the Irish and the black tribes of Africa. Racial types were classified as to its prognathism (a relative anterior advancement of the jaw in relation to the mandible) or orthognathism. "Inferior" races were said to be prognathic, in similarity to apes and monkeys, so that they were considered to be more kin to these animals than the main European people (such as the Anglo-Saxon, of course...). Jonh Beddoe, the founder and president of the British Anthropological Institute, in his book "The Races of Man" (1862), developed an "Index of Nigressence", based on which he was able to state that the Irish had crania similar to those of the Cro-Magnon pre-historic men and thus were a kind of "Africanoid" white race !

Anthropometry was also a close relative of phrenology. In the nineteenth century, a member of the French Sureté (security police), named Eugene Vidocq, instituted the documentation of facial characteristics of criminals for identification purposes, which is still in use today. One of his coworkers, Alphonse Bertillion, expanded the system by taking many body measurements of convicts and criminals, so that they could be positively identified (remember that digital impressions were unknown at the time). However, they were not used for psychological assessment of criminals. These was to be started by an ambitious and controversial Italian named Cesare Lombroso, who published a book titled "Criminal Anthropology" in 1895, in which he associated certain craniofacial features to criminal types. For instance, Lombroso thought that murderers have prominent jaws, and that pickpockets have long hands and scanty beards. Lombroso was a highly influential figure in the police and judicial systems in Italy and in many other countries. Well until the 30s, many judges ordered "lombrosian" anthropometric analyses of defendants in criminal charges, which were used against them by the prosecution in the trial procedures !

Still another relative of phrenology has been the typology devised in the 20th century by German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer. His scheme for the classification of personality was based on body build (such as the athletic, the asthenic and the pycnic types) and how basic psychological characteristics accompanied them. In his book Physique and Character (1921) he stated that a person with a delicate physique more often is an introvert, while persons with low stature and round bodies tend to be moody. However, this and other constitutional theories of personality have been found to have no validity at all.

A well-known and infame use of anthropometry was made by Nazi-inspired anthropologists and physicians, who, in the National Hygiene Department in the Ministry of the Interior and in the Bureau for Enlightenment on Population Policy and Racial Welfare, proposed the "scientific" classification of Arians and non-Arians on the basis of quantitative measurements of the skull. Official craniometric certification became required by law and were carried out by hundreds of certified institutes and experts. Many persons were sent to the death camps or denied marriage or work as a result of this "mismeasurement" of man, as has the prominent American evolutionary biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould named this unfortunate mass usage of pseudoscientific knowledge to harm people (he has written a very nice book on this subject).

From: "Phrenology, the History of Brain Localization"
Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD
Brain & Mind, March 1997.