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13 Disgusting Facts About Phrenology, The Pseudoscience Used To Justify Racism

Updated September 21, 2020 29.6k views13 items

Phrenology was a popular way of diagnosing mental ailments during the 19th century. The practice involved reading the "bumps" on a person's head and measuring certain parts of their skull to determine personality traits. Practitioners used phrenology charts to determine exactly which parts of the brain they were examining through the skull. Phrenology is now considered a pseudoscience, having risen and fallen rapidly like many of the Victorian era healthcare fads, such as quack medical devices that contained radium

Surprisingly, though it has been disproved, phrenology led to many discoveries and advancements in psychiatric research and development. It was also abused as a science, as many people used it to justify racism and slavery. Read on to discover some of the craziest facts about phrenology and learn how people used to study skulls as a way of conducting a personality test. 

  • Several Prominent Abolitionists Believed In Phrenology

    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons

    Although phrenology was used to justify slavery, some abolitionists also believed in the practice. In fact, abolitionists like Lucretia Mott and Horace Mann were on the same page as those who believed that Black people were timid and tamable (as reinforced by the science of phrenology). However, instead of enslaving them, abolitionists advocated for helping the "weaker" race of Blacks. They thought that slaves were too timid by nature, and that society should save them from themselves, not further enslave and mistreat them. 

  • Upper Class Americans Used Phrenology To Justify Their Position In Society

    Photo: George Cruikshank / Wikimedia Commons

    Phrenology was used by many to categorize people. Those in the upper class pointed to the geography of their own skulls to explain why they were better than others. It wasn't because of skill or their wealthy ancestors - it was because their brains were better developed. Those in the middle or lower classes also accepted the practice, because it pointed out ways that they could improve to better their social status. 

  • Phrenology Greatly Influenced Psychology

    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons

    The 19th century was also the heyday of psychology, thanks to Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries. One of the most important theories of psychology states that once a person understands himself, then he can improve himself. A person's DNA didn't determine the final outcome. The same was true for phrenology, even though it involved measuring skulls (the shapes of which are determined by DNA). The main ideas for self-improvement stuck and became embedded in psychology. 

  • Phrenologists Believed That Most People Could Change The Shape Of Their Brains With Proper Practice

    The entire point of understanding how a person's brain shaped their behavior was, ideally, to enable them to change. Phrenologists believed that free, independent people, once their faults were pointed out to them, could alter the shapes of their heads and become better human beings.