Gently touch your fingertips to the side of your head, about a finger’s width in front of the top half of each ear. There. Do you have a slight bump in that spot? Or a hollow? A place where your skull changes shape? That, according to phrenology, is a measure of how alimentive you are; in plain English, how much you enjoy food and eating.
Phrenology is the “science” of interpreting personality through the shape and size of a person’s skull. It was immensely popular during the nineteenth century, and takes its name from the Greek words for “mind” and “knowledge”. Phrenologists believe that different parts of the brain control different aspects of character, and these zones of the brain are reflected in the contours of the skull.
This sounds hilarious and absurd to us. But to understand why the Victorians took it so seriously, we need to know that the nineteenth century was a time of immense scientific discovery and development. Chemistry. Biology. Medicine. Physics. Engineering. Sociology. Anthropology. All these fields were exploding, and Victorian men and women were tremendously excited – and confused – as a result.
To give one example, Victorians were the first to understand modern germ theory. Before the 1850s, people believed that foul odours made you sick. (There’s a certain logic to this: germs thrive in dirty places, which frequently smell bad.) But after a terrible cholera epidemic in London in 1854, a physician called John Snow discovered that the disease was spread through contaminated water. Two decades later, the German physician Robert Koch isolated three specific germs (the ones that led to anthrax, tuberculosis, and cholera – all deadly threats). That in turn helped Louis Pasteur to create the first vaccines against rabies and anthrax. These huge leaps in science, in just a thirty-year period, created the field of microbiology.
Now, if you lived in 1840 and someone told you that tuberculosis was spread by tiny creatures that entered your lungs, you might ridicule them. Or you might be tempted to believe them. And if you believe THAT, why not believe that different zones of the brain control different bodily functions, and that the skull is shaped around these different regions? After all, human skulls are all different in their bumps, as people are different in their quirks. And that’s the basic case for phrenology – another emerging science, as far as the average Victorian man or woman had reason to believe.
I suspect another reason phrenology become so popular is because it’s fun, and anyone can feel the bumps on their head and compare them to a phrenological chart. Like personality quizzes (either those in trashy mags, or their stuffy Myers-Briggs cousins), phrenology is a parlour-game – and the Victorians adored those, too.
So, tell me: how accurate is your phrenological measure of alimentiveness, described in the opening? I have to admit that I adore food, and have a significant bulge in the phrenologically correct spot!