Shaq MacNeil is an expert with answers to the world’s most frequently asked questions. Today, Shaq MacNeil answers the most frequently asked questions about the science behind the bumps on our skulls: Phrenology.
Shaq, what is phrenology?
Phrenology, also known as cranioscopy, is the study of human skull’s structure to determine a person’s character and mental capacity. Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall, the father of phrenology, believed that the brain is the organ of the mind and that it is composed of multiple, distinct, innate faculties. Because they are distinct, each faculty must have a separate organ within the brain and their individual powers could be measured by their size. After all, you don’t need an education from the University of Strasbourg to know that bigness equals power.
The shape of the brain is determined by the development of the various organs. As the skull takes its shape from the brain, the surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies.
Shaq, can phrenology tell me what’s wrong with me?
No, it can’t. The topography of your skull cannot be measured to determine whether or not you have a bad memory, a slow wit or an impulse to murder everyone around you. The only thing we can learn about a person from rubbing our bare finger tips over their skull is how important scalp hygiene is to that particular individual as well as their parents’ knowledge–or more accurately, lack thereof–of fontanelles.
The only real contribution phrenology gave to the modern understanding of the human brain is the “parts list” for the human mind. “Functionalized localization” is a cornerstone of modern brain mapping and the concept was born out of phrenology. Otherwise, it’s all junk.
Shaq, even though phrenology isn’t real, we can still have fun trying to determine our mental capacities by rubbing skulls, no?
You definitely can. However, know this: some people used phrenology as justification for European superiority over “lesser” races. By comparing skulls of different ethnic groups, racist quacks that moonlighted as phrenologists used their “science” to rank the races from least to most evolved.
Phrenologists, who were coincidentally all white, proclaimed that the Caucasians were the “most beautiful.” Phrenologists even went so far to say that indigenous peoples like the Maori could never be considered civilized because they lacked the cerebral organ that produced great art. They also believed that women’s heads were generally larger in the back with lower foreheads because the brain organs necessary for success in the arts and sciences were under-developed. They did find, however, that women had the right mental organs to care for children and to serve their religion.
So if you are comfortable practicing an oppressive pseudoscience that was debunked in the mid-1800s, by all means knock yourself. Though check brain organ #24, the moral sense organ according to phrenology, first. You might find that it’s sorely underdeveloped.
Shaq, what now?
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