Anatomy And Physiology

Phrenology



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The idea that the size of one's ears is an indicator of intelligence is patently absurd. Some might be surprised to learn that even the size of one's head is no indicator of intelligence. Neurophysiologists stress that it is neuron population, not the size of the cortex, which influences intellectual potential, and even given a high population of neurons it is more the complexity and diversity of their neural networks which contribute most to intelligence. The study which relates brain size with intelligence is called "phrenology", and it has been largely discounted as a false discipline.

Phrenology, or "cranioscopy" as it was previously known, is the brainchild of Franz Joseph Gall. It is the study of the localisation of certain traits, functions, or tasks in the brain. The term cranioscopy was what Gall called it. A contemporary and follower by the name of John Spurzheim first coined the term prhenology, and it is he who was largely responsible for its brief success among the gullible and uneducated.

Gall was born in 1758 in Baden, Germany, and earned his medical degree in Vienna, so he can be considered to be a pioneer of sorts of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. His ideas were rejected by both the church and by the medical and scientific communities, so his attempts to find professorships there failed miserably. Instead, he took up residence in Paris where he acquired a following, in spite of like inhospitable treatment of his theories by the emperor Napoleon and the scientific establishment, represented by the Institute of France. The only positive contribution that this field of study gave to medical science is the idea that emotions are the product of the brain, and not of the heart. Medical science was coming of age.

The essential premise of Gall's study lay in generalisations of character and aptitude based on the physical appearance of the skull. For example, a person with prominent eyeballs has a powerful memory. A particular shape of the cranium determines talent or aptitude in a specific field. People with small craniums are necessarily inferior, and so on.

The "science" of phrenology was widely accepted in England, and later became very popular in America from 1820 to 1850. It was largely used to justify racial and gender discrimination and therefore indirectly encouraged perpetuation of the slave trade.

Phrenology has evolved in modern times into the study of the dedication of specific areas of the brain to specific parts of the human body, and out of this has grown the odd caricature of the homunculus - the little man behind the being. In the cartoon representation of the homunculus, the exaggerated parts of the human body represent the amount of the brain which is believed to be dedicated to their respective functions. Curiously enough, the caricature invariably has a rather sloping brow and a small cranium.

I seriously doubt that anybody believes that phrenology has any claim to a meritable discipline. It was really no more than a fad of long ago, and fads come and go. It is not to be taken seriously today.

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