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Identity &
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section heading icon     phrenology

This page discusses character identification on the basis of phrenology, ie 'reading' the shape of a person's skull.

It covers -

It supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding Identity and Biometrics.


Phrenology is predicated on the belief that there is a direct and readily identifiable relationship between an individual's character (eg honesty, loyalty and bravery), aptitudes (eg suitability to become a successful accountant, novelist or business executive) and skull shape.

It enjoyed a vogue in the West from around the time of the French Revolution to the turn of last century, with some practitioners still enjoying success in providing phrenology-based career guidance as late as the 1930s.

Like physiognomy it was a pseudo-science, one that enjoyed considerable support among people of all classes, attracted a devoted following, and provided both practitioners and publishers or vendors of phrenological aids with substantial revenue. It offers a perspective on the shape of belief over the past two centuries and the operation of recruitment/career advisory services.


Observations about skull shape and character, albeit on a very anecdotal basis, predate the Enlightment and can be found for example in pre-modern biographers or poets who implied that there was a correspondence between a mis-shapen head and anger, lust, cruelty or simply insanity. Those observations are not very surprising in cultures that had a shaky grasp of psychological mechanisms and anatomy.

Phrenology as a supposed science - a discipline based on objective recording of phenomena identified in a large population and on principles that could be verified through application by enthusiasts or critics - has been traced to the writing of German savant Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and associate Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), who offered a materialist argument that the mind - and hence the soul - was located in the brain rather than the heart.

Gall's cranioscopy proposed that 'mind' is associated with the brain and comprises multiple innate faculties. Each of those faculties are distinct and thus must have a discrete "organ" in the brain, with the size of that organ - sometimes referred to as its development - being an indication of the strength/sophistication of the particular faculty. The brain's overall shape is determined by the development of the various organs. That shape in turn determines the shape of the individual's skull. Examination of the skull - with a novice or expert phrenologist looking for protuberances and declivities - supposedly allows the 'reader' to accurately identify the person's emotional makeup and aptitudes.

In essence, by feeling the person's head a phrenologist could determine that person's character and for example advise on whether the individual could be trusted with money, was a secret drunkard, was likely to run amok or worthy of investment in training.

That determination would be independent of any statement by the individual or cues such as clothing. Phrenological examination would thus supposedly reveal meaningful and independently verifiable insights through 'reading' the head of someone who was unconscious or asleep; phrenology saw a vogue for the collection or measurement of skulls (craniometry) and a trade in plaster reproductions casts from the heads of live or deceased celebrities.

Gall argued that the brain comprised 27 organs, each corresponding to a discrete human faculty. (Spurzheim later publicised a higher figure.) Nineteen of Gall's faculties were shared with other species. The organs - helpfully mapped onplaster or ceramic phrenological busts - were

  • the instinct of reproduction
  • love of one's offspring
  • the associated instinct of friendship and affection
  • the instinct of courage and self-defence (including a tendency to fight)
  • the carnivorous instinct, including a tendency to murder
  • the organ of guile or cleverness
  • the feeling of property, evident in hoarding by animals and in theft by humans
  • pride, arrogance and enjoyment of power or authority
  • vanity, ambition and love of glory (characterised as "beneficent for the individual and for society")
  • circumspection and forethought
  • memory of things and of facts, along with 'educability
  • sense of place, space and proportion
  • memory of people
  • memory of words
  • sense of language and capacity for speech
  • sense of colours
  • sense of sounds and capacity to create/enjoy music
  • sense of connectness between numbers
  • sense of mechanics, including aptitude for construction and architecture
  • comparative sagacity
  • sense of metaphysics
  • sense of satire and witticism
  • poetical talent
  • kindness, benevolence and gentleness
  • moral sense
  • faculty to imitate
  • organ of religion
  • firmness of purpose, constancy and obstinacy

Epigones adapted particular aspects. Influential criminologist, racist and graphology fan Cesare Lombroso (1835-1895), in L'homme criminel (1895), claimed that particular 'craniofacial features' were consistently associated with specific classes of offenders. Murderers thus supposedly prominent jaws, pickpockets had long hands and little hair. Several generations of racists used craniometry to advance their careers and ostensibly substantiate claims about the inferiority of members of other 'races'.

Neuroanatomists have resoundingly dismissed the notion of a brain consisting of 20 or so independent and competing organs. Claims that the size of the skull necessarily correlate to the size of the brain or to particular functions and that bumps on the skull closely match the grey matter inside have rightly attracted particular derision.

Defenders of phrenology have relied on traditional defences -

  • the 'reader' was led astray by the person's haircut
  • the reader was inadequately trained
  • the reader conducted an inadequate examination

One contemporary enthusiast attributes error to

Insufficient attention for the interaction between faculties. This is a very common cause of errors. It is not correct to make a judgment on one single faculty; the interaction of other faculties must always be taken into account. Example: a strong Destructiveness does not in itself stand for a violent, aggressive person; a strong development of Moral faculties may lead this person's dynamic forces towards higher aspirations.

The basis for determining the interaction between the faculties is unclear and a sceptic might argue that defences are so open-ended as to be meaningless.

     practitioners and consumers


     phrenology and law

As with physiognomy and astrology, phrenology is not recognised by Australian law as a science or as a professional discipline. Practitioners thus do not have a special status in the provision of evidence in criminal or other litigation.

What about discrimination in the workplace and other fora. Could someone for example be legitimately excluded from a job because a phrenologist claimed that phrenology demonstrated the person's lack of 'the right stuff'.

In Australia an adverse employment decision or other exclusion on the basis of a phrenological assessment would breach Commonwealth and state/territory anti-discrimination law. Possession of particular bumps on the skull is not an inherent requirement of a job as a policewoman or bus driver, jobs where there is an expectation that performance can be objectively measured.


For historical accounts see in particular Roger Cooter's The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science. Phrenology and the organisation of consent in 19th-century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1984), John van Wyhe's Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (Aldershot: Ashgate 2004), Charles Colbert's A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America (Chapel Hill: Uni of North Carolina Press 1998), Steven Shapin's 'Homo Phrenologicus: Anthropological Perspectives' in Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture (Beverly Hills: SAGE 1979) edited by Barry Barnes & Shapin, David De Giustino's Conquest of Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social Thought (London: Croom Helm 1975) and 'Reforming the commonwealth of thieves: British phrenologists and Australia' in 15 Victorian Studies (1972) 439-461, John Thearle's 'The Rise and Fall of Phrenology in Australia' in 27(3) Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry (1993) 518-525, 'The murderous Dutch fiddler: Criminology, history and the problem of phrenology' by Nicole Rafter in 9(1) Theoretical Criminology (2005) 65-96, John Davies' Phrenology: Fad and Science - A 19th-Century American Crusade (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1955), Madeleine Stern's Heads and Headlines: Phrenological Fowlers (Norman: Uni of Oklahoma Press 1971) and Terry Parssinen's 'Popular science & society: The phrenology movement in early Victorian Britain' in 8 Journal of Social History (1974) 1-20.

For egregious abuses by Lombroso and his peers see Deviant Bodies (Bloomington: Indiana Uni Press 1995) edited by Jennifer Terry & Jacqueline Urla, The Criminal Body: Lombroso and the Anatomy of Deviance (London: Routledge 2003) by David Horn, A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 2004) by Stephen Kern, Criminals and their Scientists (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2006) edited by Peter Becker & Richard Wetzell, 'American Polygeny and Craniometry Before Darwin: Blacks and Indians as Separate, Inferior Species' by Stephen Gould in The "Racial" Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future (Indiana Uni Press 1993) edited by Sandra Harding 84-115 and Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, 1848-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1993) by Daniel Pick.

For primers by contemporary enthusiasts see Phrenology (London: Collier-Macmillan 1970) by wiccan Sybil Leek, Phrenology, A Study of Mind (London: L.N. Fowler & Co 1970) by Frances Hedderly and Heads, or the Art of Phrenology (London: London Phrenology Company 1983) by Helen & Peter Cooper. Reprints of works by Gall, Spurzheim and devotees such as the Fowler brothers and George Combe are also available.

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