Phrenology: It's all on your head

Do the lumps and bumps on your head mean anything? Sophie Goggins busts the myths of Phrenology.
23 April 2019

Interview with 

Sophie Goggins, National Museums Scotland


A diagram of a head with the various characteristics once used in phrenology


Do the lumps and bumps on your head mean anything? Sophie Goggins brough a special guest with her and helped Chris Smith bust the myths of Phrenology.

Sophie - This is a lovely phrenology head. It's a cream ceramic skull that seems to be split into different types of areas. And this was a pseudo science that was pioneered, if you can use that word, by Franz Joseph Gall who believed that the brain was split into different faculties and that it was like a muscle. You had bigger bits of your personality like, for instance, I'm looking at here “the hope for your future” or your “sublimity” or your “consciousness” or, I quite like that there's the ones in the back, but “amorousness”, could be seen from the lumps and bumps of your head. He believed that your brain actually formed the different peaks and troughs of your skull and you could tell bits about your personality. It is of course a pseudo science but one that was believed pretty widely from 1810 to 1840 and Edinburgh was the european home of phrenology.

Chris - So basically, looking at this head you've got here, there's a map drawn on the surface with words corresponding. If I fondled your head and I felt a bump in that particular area, you say “oh, that's your dignity centre”, you must be very enriched for dignity. I see at the back here, this is obviously the love centre because we've got “conjugal values”, you've got “marriage” there at the back. Because that bit at the back there is actually where your External occipital protuberance is, the bulge on the back of the head… And didn't they say that if you've got a big one of those, you've got a big something else, wasn’t that the claim? 

Adam - Well there’s a lot of people in the audience fondling their own head.

Sophie - So that was indeed the claim. And for instance there was actually a group of phrenologists in Dumfries who dug up Robert Burns’ bones to get a cast of his skull to see whether or not his poetic centre was particularly large. But they actually found that his love of children and his ability to make children was especially large portion of his skull which if you know his story of course is true.

Chris - There was something about pickpockets. Wasn’t it round the side here, above the ear. There's something here…

Sophie - Yes, we've got a bit of an audience participation. If you have a little feel above your ears, you might feel a little bump. You can feel whoever you're with if you ask them nicely. Apparently this actually came about because Franz Joseph Gall went and surveyed all of the pickpockets, just pickpockets, to see what area of their skull made them more prone to pickpocketing. Apparently there's that little bump just above your ear and the bigger it is the more likely you are to steal.

Chris - When did this fall out of favour, when did people discover that this is just bunkum? The shape of your brain, whilst it is divided into different bits, the brain doing different jobs has no bearing really on the shape of your skull?

Sophie - Around the eighteen forties because, quite embarrassingly, the Phrenological museum is actually here in Edinburgh, it was right across the street from Chamber Street and you can see above all the windows there's casts of the skulls of the great men of phrenology. Now the problem was that when these men passed away and casts were taken of their own skulls, the kind of traits that they were actually showing weren't what they maybe would have wished them to be. A lot of them actually showed up to be they'd be murderers or pickpockets but were the great men of phrenology.

Chris - It suddenly fell from favour and was withdrawn quietly and disappeared, is that what you’re saying?

Sophie -  I think it was actually quite a lot of drama and debate in Edinburgh society about phrenology and a lot of great very Victorian arguments through correspondence. But it did indeed fall out of favour, thankfully!


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