Does a bumpy head mean you're a brainy guy? In the 19th century, many people were absolutely convinced that bumps were the keys to understanding the human brain after Austrian medical student, Franz Joseph Gall, crafted the science of phrenology. The fundamental premise of this 'brainchild' of Gall was that the human mind was indeed like other muscles in the body. Phrenology described how exercising any of twenty-seven mental functions he identified would produce a corresponding increase in the quantity of tissue (cerebral 'muscle') in that region of the brain. According to phrenology theory, excessively used brain regions would eventually cause the over-used brain tissue to swell just beneath the surface of the cranium, which would ultimately alter the skull's external contours leaving detectable bumps on the outside of an individual's head.

Phrenology though was not based on reliable medical research, observations, measurements or experimentation. Among the earliest clues rendering the scientific foundation of phrenology questionable was the fact that very few 'experts' ever reached the same conclusions, generating well-founded and mounting suspicions. The growing body of scientific and medical detractors began to refer to phrenology facetiously as 'Bump-ology.' Medical practitioners (and the common man) were already aware that an external bump could be caused by blunt instrument head trauma. The external features of the cranium actually can tell us precious little about the internal operations of the human brain, especially such characteristics as personality traits, skills, abilities or predilections.

But the theory of phrenology was wildly popular, widely accepted and extremely profitable during the 1800s and the early 1900s, both in Europe and the United States. In spite of (1) its enormous methodological deficiencies, (2) its arbitrary selection of 27, then 31, and later 35 primary characteristics, and (3) its questionable unscientific basis and conclusions, fewer psychologically-based schemes have ever generated as much public attention or caused as much money to change hands as phrenology did during its heyday.

About the Author

Kenneth A Wesson

Kenneth A WessonKenneth Wesson is a keynote speaker, writer and educational consultant for pre-school through university-level institutions and organizations. He speaks throughout the world on the neuroscience of learning and methods for creating classrooms and learning environments that are 'brain-considerate.' Ken’s articles appear in educational journals.