How Things Work: Phrenology

Don?t you wish you had lived in the 19th century? So many great things were happening: The postage stamp was invented, Emily Dickinson was sitting in her house for most of the century, and millions of heads were analyzed by practicing phrenologists. Thomas Edison, one of the great inventors of our time, said, ?I never knew I had an inventive talent until phrenology told me so. I was a stranger to myself until then!?
What the heck is phrenology, anyway? I?ll give you a hint: there hasn?t been much headway in the field since 1850. Okay, I?ll stop playing head games with you. Indeed, after you read this article, you?ll know so much about phrenology that you?ll have a head start on your peers when phrenology comes back into fashion.
Just what could make the inventor of the light bulb say such a thing? Phrenology is the study of the shape of the skull, which was believed at the time to portray character traits. As with Pogs and the Magic 8-Ball, many were swept up in the brief craze that the field created. This craze began in the early 19th century, when physician Franz Joseph Gall published the first work on phrenology, and it soon spread its fingers throughout Europe and America.
Gall postulated that the brain was divided into sections with different functions. Because each had its own function, he actually called each of these sections of the brain an organ. The size of each organ, he thought, was proportional to its influence in the person. Finally, he stated that the skull accurately represented the shape of the brain. Were his statements to prove true, someone feeling the contours of your head should be able to tell you what kind of person you are.
Bump above the eyebrow? Tendency for murder. Lump behind the ear? Perverse enjoyment of jet-lag. Cone-shaped cranium? You idolize Dan Aykroyd. As you can see, these are fairly ridiculous claims. I made them up, just like the phrenologists who concocted traits to associate with our beloved copper tops. But what if the traits I just rattled off were flattering? What if I told you that the lump behind your ear showed a streak of entrepreneurism, a streak that would soon net you
large sacks with dollar signs on them? You just might be tempted to believe me. You would also be more inclined to pay me, and tell your friends to pay me as well.
The reason behind this interesting trend is known as the Forer or P.T. Barnum effect. Psychologists observed that people will believe statements not according to their factual validity but according to their desire for the statements to be true. In effect, people will self-validate statements that could be applied to anyone. This forms the grounds for the popularity of fortune cookies, horoscopes, psychics, and many other forms of fortune-telling.