A definition of phrenology with chart from Webster's Academic Dictionary, circa 1895
Phrenology (mind 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, specific
functions or modules.
The distinguishing feature of phrenology is the idea that the sizes of
brain areas were meaningful and could be inferred by examining the skull
of an individual. Following the materialist notions of mental functions
originating in the brain, phrenologists believed that human conduct
could best be understood in neurological rather than philosophical or
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.
In 1843, François Magendie referred to phrenology as "a pseudo-science of
the present day."
Phrenology has long been dismissed as a pseudoscience because of neurological advances. During the
discipline's heyday, phrenologists including Gall committed many
errors. In his book The Beginner's Guide to
Scientific Method Stephen S. Carey explains that pseudoscience can
be defined as "fallacious applications of the
scientific method" by today's standards.
Phrenologists made dubious inferences between bumps in people's skulls and their
personalities, claiming that the bumps were the determinant of
Modern neuroscience agrees that mental processes are localized in the
brain and that different structures have different functions, but not
that physical measurements of the brain or skull correlate with
The following explanation is reprinted by kind permission of the
Historical Society website:
During a skull reading, the phrenologist would run their fingers and
palms over a clients head, carefully feeling for bumps and concavities. Occasionally a tape measure or callipers also were
used to get precise measurements. These shapes would then be compared to
a three-dimensional head or a chart to determine which of the
approximately 35 organs were responsible for an individual's aptitudes
According to the phrenologists, both physiological conditions (such
as circulation and digestion) and mental faculties (such as cautiousness
or veneration) could be measured on the skull and graded on a scale of 1
(very small) to 7 (very large).
For example, if a person was determined to have a very large
Eventuality organ, they should "possess a wonderfully retentive memory
of facts, incidents, and general knowledge, and have strong craving for
information. They would be a great devourer of books, newspapers, and
periodicals; and with large Language and Imitation [organs], would excel
And a person with a very small Eventuality organ? According to the
1869 book, How to Read Character, "Your memory is utterly
untrustworthy. You forget almost everything relating to what has
happened, no matter how recently."
You may also be interested in this link to Google Books on
How To Read Character