The Science and Myth behind Phrenology
Phrenology is a phenomenon that attempts to relate one’s personality and mental capabilities with the form and structure of one’s skull. This “science” became popular in the nineteenth century as the Eugenics movement gained widespread approval.
In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the reference to Phrenology is apparent in the scene where Marlow visits the doctor.
“Then with a certain eagerness [the doctor] asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather surprised…he produced a thing like calipers. ‘I [the doctor] always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there [the African jungle].’…He gave me a searching glance, and made another note. ‘Ever any madness in your family?’ he asked, in a matter-of-fact tome. I felt very annoyed. ‘Is that question in the interests of science, too?’” (Conrad 13).
As it can be inferred, Marlow patronizes the doctor by implying that Phrenology is not a scientific practice because it cannot be used to determine the psychologcal “fitness” of an individual. Regardless, the spectacle of this practice in the late 1900s most likely gave Conrad the impetus to construct this parodied scene, which depicts Phrenology as a baseless science; however, the practice is not wholly baseless.
The founder of Phrenology, Austrian physician Franz Joseph Gall, determined the existence of a relationship “between the morphology of the skull and the human character” (Peter 1). Franz asserted that the brain is responsible for a human’s mental capacities. He attempted to prove this assessment by making statements—found in his chief work, The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular—that were accepted as truisms:
“That moral and intellectual faculties are innate. That their exercise or manifestation depends on organization. That the brain is the organ of all the propensities, sentiments and faculties. That the brain is composed of many particular organs as there are propensities, sentiments and faculties which differ essentially from each other. That the form of the head or cranium represents the form of the brain, and thus reflects the relative development of the brain organs” (Gall).
These axioms shaped Phrenology and allowed Gall to affirm his testament that the brain is the primary source of function and human behavior. “Through careful observation and extensive experimental measurements, Gall was able to link aspects of character, called faculties, to precise brain localizations” (Peter 1).
Phrenology gained more momentum as a popular global movement...