Challenges to Phrenology

What made Phrenology appealing to medical professionals?
Although phrenology is widely regarded as nonsensical at the present day, it held some appeal in the eyes of a substantial number in the early 19th century. One reason for why this is so is because that this doctrine was among the first to regard mental characteristics as the functions of brain activity (Brazier, 1963). Although Gall is often seen as the founder of a practice of reading bumps on the heads of patients, he is commonly overlooked as one of the first to distinguish between white and grey matter, and roughly identifying speech localization quite a few decades before Paul Broca (Weiss, 2006; Overholser, 1962; Temkin, 1947). Some people were quite enthralled with the practice and returned to the United States to build a more stable foundation. Three of these people were John Bell, John C. Warren, and Charles Caldwell; one major development within the country was the founding of the Central Phrenological Society in 1822 (Finger, 1994). However, one major challenge to this doctrine came at the hands of a scientist named Pierre Flourens, around 1824.

Reactions to Phrenology: Flourens and John P. Harrison
Flourens was a man who embodied the scientific establishment and was strongly appalled by the lack of direct experimentation, and overuse of observational strategies to come to his conclusions (Fancher, 2012, p. 103-104; Brazier, 1963). In order to test Gall’s conclusions, Flourens conducted ablation experiments on animals, deducing that they lost abilities that were mediated by the portion of matter that was taken out. For instance, he believed that the cerebral hemispheres were key for sensory and intellectual functions; other portions of the brain were responsible for vital and motor functions.
Much of the problem for Flourens concerned localization of brain function; he was certain that the cerebral cortex could not be divided into units, and therefore, functioned as a whole. This came at odds with phrenological views.

John P. Harrison (1796-1849) also saw flaws with phrenology. One of his main arguments brought attention to the very specific borders of the cerebral organs that Gall has proposed. These functions could not possibly be delineated and was therefore impossible to draw correlations from Gall’s observations (Finger, 1994). At around 1825, Harrison also presented measurements of skulls and found it impossible to predict brain size by means of skull size.

Over the next 12-13 years, there is a continual waning of phrenological interest in the United States. It is important to note that the Phrenological Society founded in 1822 by Caldwell and Bell, ceased to exist after 1828, which is also the year of Gall’s death. The increased lack of interest combined with the deaths of Gall and Spurzheim, allowed for the practice to lose steam fairly quickly, and start to be replaced by more detailed experimentation.

Comments are closed.