February 10, 2009
3 min read

F.J. Gall and phrenology’s contribution to neurology

Early attempts at ‘brain mapping’ were quite different from the modern interpretation of the science.

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Throughout the history of medicine there have been many examples of theories that were once believed to be true that have since been debunked or disproved. The “science” of phrenology is no different.

Phrenology was a field of thought based on the idea that the brain was the organ of a person’s mind. Personality traits were all located in a separate area of the brain and could be measured by feeling bumps or fissures of a person’s skull. Most of the theories behind phrenology were developed by Franz Joseph Gall, a German-born physician.

Although phrenology is not considered a real science in modern times, the idea of brain mapping or neuroimaging is. Using modern techniques like MRI, scientists have explored different regions of the brain and their association with not only physical functions, but also different psychological traits. Experiments have examined which areas of the brain “light up” when affected by outside stimuli. Lying, depression, criminal behaviors and other traits are all believed to be linked to certain regions of the brain.

Observation of human behavior

Gall was born in 1758 in Tieffenbronn, Germany. His interest in facial and cranial characteristics began when he was a boy. He made the observation that two children who were known for their ability to memorize long texts had very prominent and protruding eyes. This first observation was the beginning of a lifelong study of the human brain and how it relates to personality characteristics and facial and cranial features.

Gall’s knowledge of the brain as an organ was expanded by his dissection of the organ. He is considered to have been one of the first physicians to dissect a brain by teasing out the medullated fiber tracts. Getting his hands on the brains of people whose personalities he had studied was of even greater importance to him so that he could relate his observations of their personalities to the structure of their brains postmortem. He made many observations throughout his life to try to classify all types of individuals such as criminals, the insane, intellectuals or people who excelled in arts or music.

Phrenology poster with labeled sections. Drawn by R. Degranza Pease, MD.
Phrenology poster that shows a profile with labeled sections in an elaborate border. Drawn by R. Degranza Pease, MD.
A cartoon about phrenology by George Cruikshank.
A cartoon about phrenology by George Cruikshank.
Source: National Library of Medicine

By the early 1800s Gall began publishing medical literature about his theories. By then he had isolated 26 sections or “organs” of the brain that he associated with specific characteristics such as self-esteem, individuality, secretiveness, hope, language and others.

Johann Gaspar Spurzheim became a student of Gall’s and was one of many who began to practice and teach about phrenology. Societies such as The London Phrenological Society were founded for people who practiced the trade to meet and discuss ideas, and medical journals such as the Phrenological Journal and Miscellany were published throughout the first half of the 1800s. A phrenologist was even called to Windsor by the royal family of Britain in 1846 to “advise on the educational retardation of the Prince of Wales.”

Just as phrenology had fans it also had critics. The new science was criticized in political cartoons, farces or songs. Much of the criticism was probably justified — there were holes in the theories involved in phrenology. Phrenologists viewed the two halves of the brain to be copies of each other. A section of your brain on the right side had a twin on the left side. This basic theory proved that there was no knowledge of asymmetrical brain function at that time. In addition, phrenologists were not quite able to map the entire brain; only about two-thirds of the cerebrum was accounted for with Gall’s 26 personality “organs.”

Contributions to neurology

Despite the fact that phrenology is not considered a legitimate science today, many of the theories that Gall developed as a basis for phrenology were, at the time, important insights into a still-young neurology and neuro-anatomy field. Gall is credited with discovering that the nervous system was uneven and the cervical and lumbar spinal enlargements. He also described the origins of the second, third, fifth and sixth cranial nerves. In addition, through his dissections, Gall was able to describe the differences between gray and white brain matter. He correlated the prefrontal lobes with language, and maybe most importantly, his theories and discoveries established the fact that the brain as an organ did not function as a whole, but instead had many parts that had unique functions.

It is important to always remember, as one author put it, that “undoubtedly in the future we will look at some of today’s medical tenets as inappropriate and pseudoscientific, as we now think of phrenology.” – by Leah Lawrence

For more information:

  • Am J Psychiatry. 2007;164:414.
  • BMJ. 1965;2:775-781.
  • Can Fam Physician. 1996;42:717-720.