Tuesday, 27 March 2012

On Your Own Head

           At the beginning of Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, the hard-headed Mr Gradgrind demands that the schoolmaster, Mr. M'Choakumchild, give his charges,  “Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

The Victorians were passionate about scientific enquiry, the search for knowledge and the quest for facts. Explorers and collectors travelled across the Empire, mapping, logging and recording information. They brought back plants and animals, specimens, accounts of other lands. In addition to the world around them, they looked to understand the nature of man himself, by any means available. One such route was phrenology – from the Greek phren – ‘mind’ and logos – ‘knowledge’ – which sought to explain the nature of human characteristics by studying the shape of the head. Phrenology was developed in Germany during the 1790s by Dr Franz Josef Gall, who pioneered the idea that mental functions were localised in the brain, and that mental and moral character could be determined from the appearance of the skull. He called this cranioscopy, although his assistant, Johann Spurzheim, later renamed it as phrenology.  Gall and Spurzheim quarrelled and went their separate ways, lecturing and spreading the study of phrenology across the intellectual salons of Europe. It became incredibly popular in France and Britain, and Spurzheim took the practice to America. He died there during his first tour, but not before the fashion was established there too. The brothers Orson and Lorenzo Fowler set up a phrenological business in New York, publishing books and pamphlets, and Lorenzo went on to establish L N Fowler and Co. in London. Fowler’s china head, printed to show the position of the various mental faculties, became the popular symbol of phrenology. Most modern reproductions bear his name.

The phrenologist would run his fingers over a subject’s head, and note the various lumps and bumps. These were thought to indicate which characteristics and propensities were prominent or absent, by showing which of the ‘organs’ of the brain were developed or underdeveloped. Gall had identified 27 of these ‘organs’ but others added more over time. Having your bumps felt was quite the thing.

As advancements were made in scientific knowledge, particularly in neuroscience, phrenology began to fall out of fashion, and eventually it was dismissed as a pseudoscience. It enjoyed a slight revival in the early 20th Century, but has never regained its former esteem. One reason may be that it was misused by some to ‘prove’ the superiority of Europeans over their colonial subjects. A very good account of this practice, by the Europeans and the Americans, can be read in Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man.

As with the Angel of Mons mentioned earlier, I like this as another example of what some people will believe is the truth. Some astute entrepreneur has latched onto the money-making popularity of the Fowler head as a decorative piece, and has made a matching palmistry hand. Palmistry is yet another example of the woo-maker’s art.  


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