Debunking Phrenology with 21st Century Methods

By Neuroskeptic | January 7, 2018 5:29 am

Modern neuroscience has been accused of being a ‘new phrenology‘, but now researchers have conducted a modern evaluation of phrenological claims using neuroscience methods.

In an enjoyable new preprint called An empirical, 21st century evaluation of phrenology, Oxford researchers Oiwi Parker Jones and colleagues say that they’ve rigorously tested, and debunked, phrenology for the first time.

Notoriously, the phrenologists believed that the shape of an individual’s skull provided clues about their character. The theory was that the brain contained different ‘organs’  which determined different traits. Larger organs exerted a more dominant influence on personality, and organ size could be inferred from head shape because larger organs would push out the skull (early in life) forming “bumps” on the scalp.

Phrenology was wildly popular for much of the 19th century, but later went out of fashion. In recent decades the idea has been nothing more than a historical curiosity. Parker Jones et al. decided that the time has come to seriously test the theory:

We believe it is important for scientists to test ideas, even unfashionable or offensive ones, and not to be content dismissing them out of hand.

So the authors took MRI scans on 5,724 people from the UK Biobank dataset. The scans were processed to calculate the curvature of the scalp at each point – conventionally, neuroscientists use similar algorithms to study the shape of the brain. Here’s what it looked like:


To see if scalp bumps predicted behaviour, the researchers correlated them against the lifestyle and cognitive variables in the Biobank dataset. But to spice things up a bit, and ensure an authentic phrenological feel, Parker Jones et al. first mapped the Biobank variables against the 27 mental “faculties” proposed by Franz Joseph Gall, founder of phrenology.

So, for instance, Gall’s Faculty I was “Impulse to propagation (Amativeness)”, which was, not unreasonably, assigned to the “lifetime sexual partners” variable. Some of the other Faculties, however, were less easy to find proxies for… but Parker Jones et al. did their best:

phrenology-facultiesThe researchers comment laconically that “All associations were made in a spirit of mirth.” (I wonder if this was a light-hearted Christmas paper that arrived a few days late?)

So what did the researchers find? Absolutely nothing. There were no associations between any ‘faculty’ and scalp curvature. Scalp shape also had no relation to underlying brain shape (gyrification), contrary to phrenological assumptions. Here’s the entirety of Parker Jones et al.’s results section:

Results: We found no statistically significant or meaningful effects for either phrenological analysis.

The authors comment that:

The present study sought to test in the most exhaustive way currently possible the fundamental claim of phrenology: that measuring the contour of the head provides a reliable method for inferring mental capacities. We found no evidence for this claim.

Regarding the famous ‘phrenological busts’ which depict the locations of the various faculties,

According to our results, a more accurate phrenological bust should be left blank since no regions on the head correlate with any of the faculties that we tested.

antiphrenologyI’m actually rather surprised that there were no significant effects in the “faculty”-scalp analysis. I would have expected there to be racial/ethnic differences in some of the measures, and skull shape does show racial/ethnic variation. (Of course this doesn’t mean that skull shape is somehow the cause of behavioural differences.) The authors controlled for age and sex in their analyses, but they don’t mention controlling for other demographics, like race.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: funny, history, papers, science, select, Top Posts
  • Pácskaany

    I believe it has never been the skull shape and scalp bumps that mattered regarding judging behavioral cues, it was and is (intuitively) perceived facial features.

  • Trut Tella

    Yup. So basically, in attempting to get attention for ‘debunking’ something which is true in the broad sense (skull shapes with greater cranial capacity correlate to brain size, which correlates to intelligence) they’ve done junk neuroscience. Great stuff.

    • Uncle Al

      Mensa is rife with primary grade trauma of school standard issue hats and helmets not fitting. Its intellectual counterpoint is jocks’ occipital buns. We must forever battle White Protestant European patriarchal factualism. Social Justice is about ideas not facts.

      • Trut Tella

        Back in the days of phrenology, we didn’t have these weird distinctions between smart people and healthily athletic people. Certainly these two things do not always occur in the same person, but an English amateur athlete of the 19th century likely had healthy genes for brain and nervous system development too.

    • Basil D.Maguire

      Yes, ’tis a prime example of the desperation induced by the “publish or perish” sub-culture in academia that results in such junk. And of course, they did’nt dare touch the issue you mentioned with, literally, a ten-foot pole, even though spending a small fortune(whose funds, one wonders?) on MRIs that must, or could have, yielded far more data than size, such as injuries of the skull that might or might not have been relevant to the silly “bumps” theory behind “phrenology”, which, however silly, was never really explained in this supermarket-tabloid magazine(“Discover”?).

      • DavidT

        “…spending a small fortune(whose funds, one wonders?) on MRIs…”

        They used a data bank of MRI images — no funds expended.

        My advice is to lighten up. This was clearly a tongue-in-cheek paper. Perhaps this will help:

        • Basil D.Maguire

          DavidT:Thanks for the URL; I did’nt get the joke because “” is so often pompously absurd(which, along with it’s extremely militant elder Sister, Irony, are the very nexus of humor itself), for example, presenting the American Pychology Associaton as consisting of “Scientists”. I’ll try to “lighten up” as you suggest, but must admit that’s not my forte(An editor for The Guardian(UK) once described me as “probably a bitter Irishman”! :-)

    • Wouter

      Phrenology is of course not about cranial size. Phrenology theorizes that cranial lumps, bumps and the like are (causally) related to behavioral traits. This particular notion has been debunked in the current article. Great stuff.

  • PsyoSkeptic

    Perhaps a phrenologist would argue, “OK, you’re improved measurement techniques show that for this limited assessment of skull shape we were may not have been correct that variability in the brain ‘organs’ would manifest in bumps. But in essence you’re all still following the same hypothesis that there are sections of the brain responsible for varying faculties and their size does influence the manifestation of those faculties.”

  • John C

    Another Goop revenue stream goes up in smoke.

  • Rob Krol

    im not sure or he debunked that just look for some politician or dictator ;-))

  • Halogen11

    Is it REFable? :)

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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