As A SCHOOLBOY of nine, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) was intrigued by a classmate with large, protruding eyes and a knack for rote memorization. The student’s appearance and skills made a lasting impression, one that years later Gall would trace to his theory of cortical localization. All the best memorizers, the German anatom ist recalled, seemed to share these bulging, “ox-like” eyes. So it followed, Gall concluded, that the function of verbal memory is governed by the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. The better the memory, the larger the lobe, and hence the jutting eyes.

Though he did not coin the term- and shuddered at its Usage Gall would become a leading exponent of phrenology, the pseudoscience of interpreting personal characteristics and mental abilities from cranial knobs and knots.

In interviewing hundreds of personalities across the continent and amassing a collection of some 600 skulls-not the interviewees’, fortunately-he determined the human brain to house 27 faculties. Each, he said, is controlled by different areas of the brain.

An ivory phrenological head maps skull lumps for pseudo-scientific analysis
An ivory phrenological head maps skull lumps for pseudo-scientific analysis

Among those faculties we share with animals, Gall included “reproductive instinct” , “pride” , and” destructiveness, carnivorous instinct, or tendency to murder.” Unique to humans were “poetic talent,” “religious sentiment,” and “wisdom.”

Determining each faculty’s cortical coordinates was simple enough. A large percentage of pickpockets, for example, had a sizable bulge on the side of the head. This area, Gall assumed, was the location of a faculty he called “desire to possess things.” The logic of Gall’s classification system had made it widely appealing by the 1830s.

Phrenology has since been lumped with the likes of astrology, palm reading, and graphology (handwriting analysis). Yet Gall unwittingly contributed to true science. His theory of cortical localization would prompt future neuroscientists to rethink their concept of the brain, paving the way for ground- breaking discoveries at the turn of the century.

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