The Beginnings of Brain Localization: Franz Joseph Gall and Phrenology 1800-1824

Phrenology is a theory regarding the function of the brain based upon the size and shape of the head, along with the undulations of the skull, with emphasis on the locations of said undulations (Eling, 1994, p. 7). Although this approach seriously overlooked the aspects of brain function and utility, it did allow for increased attention to the study of the brain. The first proponents of this theory, who would leave behind a legacy, was Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828).

Franz Josef Gall

Franz Gall was an anatomist and anthropologist from Germany who saw an importance in looking at the physical characteristics of patients. He took a naturalistic approach, and saw that objective observation was very important in recognizing the different natures of the brain. Gall was a major proponent of carrying psychology into a psychophysical realm, away from the previous epistemological views (Young, 1970). The major thought here was that the different functions of the brain, which had been neglected prior to the 1800s, were meant to be discovered; Gall believed that this had to be done through observation, and not introspection.
Gall’s interest in the study of people’s psychophysical characteristics started in his childhood, where he observed various friends and schoolmates, noticing different propensities among them. Through his seemingly random observances of his peers, whilst reading about views asserting that all men are born with equal faculties, he questioned how this could be so (Gall, 1835, p. 4). As a result of his researches after studying medicine in Vienna, Gall’s template maintained a number of things. He ascertained that 1) all moral and intellectual faculties were innate, 2) organization played a major role in the way that these faculties were used, 3) the brain was the driving force of peoples’ different propensities and talents, and finally, 4) that the brain was composed of as many organs, as there were faculties (Young, 1970, p. 12). Therefore, each region of the brain had a particular function, and the size of the region affected the shaping of the skull, with the larger regions meaning that these faculties were more developed.

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The most important aspect of Gall’s legacy is a shift from a sensationalist point of view, to a more biologically driven science.

Expansion of Phrenology from Europe to America
A major figure involved in the expansion of phrenology was Gall’s student and collaborator Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832) (Vukin, 2009). Through his lectures and writings he convinced physicians to more seriously consider and adopt the practice. Among those influenced by Spurzheim, was an American named Charles Caldwell (Vukin, 2009). It is interesting to note that although this phrenological theory at first attracted intellectuals, it also began to interest people with commercial interests as well. The structure of the brain according to phrenologists was purportedly easy to learn and seemingly offered profitable financial opportunities (Vukin, 2009).
As we move forward, we start to see a challenging of these phrenological views, starting around 1824 with a man named Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens. These views did remain popular for a short amount of time, although some people did not fully buy into the phenomenon.

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