RationalWiki's 2019 Fundraiser

There is no RationalWiki without you. We are a small non-profit with no staff – we are hundreds of volunteers who document pseudoscience and crankery around the world every day. We will never allow ads because we must remain independent. We cannot rely on big donors with corresponding big agendas. We are not the largest website around, but we believe we play an important role in defending truth and objectivity.

If everyone who saw this today donated $5, we would meet our goal for 2019.

Fighting pseudoscience isn't free.
We are 100% user-supported! Help and donate $5, $20 or whatever you can today with PayPal Logo.png!

Donations so far: $5800Goal: $6000
Information icon.svg The 2018 moderator election has started! We are electing 6 moderators and 2 alternatives to serve in 2019. Nominate users here and read their campaign slogans here!


From RationalWiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Were you looking for Phylogeny (relationships between groups of animals according to their evolutionary heritage)?
A phrenology chart from 1883.
Style over substance
Icon pseudoscience.svg
Popular pseudosciences
Random examples

Phrenology is the idea that it is possible to establish facts about a person's psychology or morality, such as criminal tendencies, by measuring the size and shape of their head and feeling for any bumps.

The concept emerged at the end of the 18th century, and became incredibly popular in Europe and America throughout the 19th century, although it was widely discredited by the early 20th century.

Among the accomplishments attributed to phrenologists is the postmortem theft of composer Joseph Haydn's head.[1]

Phrenology was based on a theory that specific parts of the brain control certain things (which is true), but rather than mapping brain activity as things like nerve responses, muscle control or memory, phrenological diagrams show parts of the brain governing character traits such as "acquisitiveness", "benevolence", "passion" and "mirth".

Although now dismissed as a pseudoscience, phrenology was important historically in that it recognised the importance of the brain in thought and behaviour, a concept which had been proposed before but had largely been neglected. However, phrenology's findings were based on misconceptions, speculation and anecdotal evidence, placing it in pseudoscience territory. It can be seen as a transitional discipline before the more empirical sciences of neuroscience and psychology studied the brain and the mind more accurately.[2]

Despite being denounced by the mainstream scientific community, phrenological ideas have been used sometimes during the 20th century, particularly by some racial theories, which (wrongly) argue that differences in some races' skull sizes and shapes indicate low morality and intelligence.

Despite its scientific pretenses, the idea of phrenology is remarkably similar to palmistry, a concept more associated with mysticism.

The 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon Bowery Bugs poked fun at this practice when Bugs (disguised as a mystic) talks about reading the bumps on his client's head. When his client replies he doesn't have any bumps on his head Bugs hits him there with a hammer.[3]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Skull of Joseph Haydn by "R." (anonymous author) (1932) The Musical Times Vol. 73, No. 1076. (Oct. 1), pp. 942–943.
  2. Philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor drew some inspiration for his modularity thesis from Franz Joseph Gall, the first phrenologist. See Fodor (1983). The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology.
  3. Bugs Bowery Bugs (1949) Merrie Melodies (Warner Brothers) (archive.org copy)