‘Materials of the Mind’ Review: The Lost Art of Reading Bumps

Phrenology (n.): the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character.


Christoph Irmscher

May 22, 2019 6:42 p.m. ET

In the summer of 1868, in sweltering Barbados, a man named W.D. Maxwell, a native of the island, gave a series of public lectures on the subject of phrenology. Audience members were pleased; a Mr. Brewster, who had his head measured and manipulated by Maxwell, later professed his enthusiasm for the new science in a letter to the Barbados Times. Maxwell was on a roll: After a repeat performance in neighboring British Guyana, he eventually took his phrenology lectures to England, where his “piercing eye” (as the papers reported) came to rest on the skulls of compliant Brits. In his wide-ranging, engagingly written “Materials of the Mind,” James Poskett, an assistant professor at the University of Warwick, reveals that Maxwell’s career wasn’t an anomaly. Phrenology wasn’t just Western or limited to a particular country. From Cambridge, Mass., to Canberra, from Calcutta to Cape Colony, the world had gone cranium-crazy.

Phrenology, literally “mind science,” had its roots in grade-school competitiveness. Remember that annoying classmate who never forgot to do his homework, whose mind always retained everything? As a young boy in southwest Germany, Franz Josef Gall (1758-1835), the founder of phrenology, noticed that these intimidating hyper-achievers tended to look alike: They all had, he claimed, protruding eyes and high foreheads. (As one might suspect, young Gall was not a member of that select group, although contemporary portraits do show that he was the owner of a pretty sizable brow.) After earning a medical degree from the University of Vienna, Gall, with his assistant Johann Spurzheim, theorized that different moral and mental faculties dwelt in different parts of the brain. Their exercise put varying kinds of pressure on our skulls, producing uneven “bumps” on our heads that could be felt and assessed. The stronger the attribute, the more pronounced the bump.

Measuring those cranial hills and hillocks, with calipers made for the purpose, the phrenologist was purportedly able to disclose the secrets of a person’s inner life. Specially developed terms—“amativeness” (the capacity for physical love), “philoprogenitiveness” (the instinct for parental love) or, my favorite, “vitativeness” (the faculty that makes us see everything “in a joyful way”)—lent an aura of scientific respectability as well as a touch of poetry to these skull readings. Thanks to all that ceremonial laying-on of hands, the process also involved just enough magic to scandalize the orthodoxly devout. For a fee, the phrenologist would, after the exam, provide you with a chart mapping out the results.






By James Poskett 
Chicago, 373 pages, $45

Today we tend to snicker at the silliness of the whole enterprise. And we remember the spectacular misdiagnoses. The poet Walt Whitman, who had his noggin fingered by the famous American phrenologist Lorenzo Fowler, scored only a disappointing 4 for his “tune” bump, measuring the “organ for musical perception.” Whitman was pleased with his other ratings including a very desirable 6-7 for “self-esteem.” Gauging the bumps on Mark Twain’s leonine head, the same Prof. Fowler, who incredibly hadn’t recognized his famous client, found no indication of a sense of humor: Where there should have been a bump, Twain had, he joked, “a cavity.” By contrast, his bump for cautiousness (not a quality one would immediately associate with Twain) was the size of the Matterhorn.

Phrenology, like so many other fads of the past, has landed in the scrap yard of very bad ideas. But terms such as “lowbrow” and “highbrow” still inhabit our language, and each time we recommend that someone should have their “head examined” or “see a shrink,” we’re tipping our hats to phrenological theory, whose underlying premise was as revolutionary as it was liberating. Imagining mind as matter, and personality not as something that we’re stuck with but as a bundle of qualities each of which could be improved upon, was a proposition that appealed to people around the world. Arguably, the current vogue of train-your-brain self-help books began with these homespun mind exams.

One of the many merits of Mr. Poskett’s book is that it rejects the standard view of phrenology as something that was almost accidentally invented in Europe and then came to flourish in the therapy-obsessed United States. Instead, Mr. Poskett paints the picture of a globe crisscrossed by phrenological exhibits and ephemera: skulls; plaster casts of people’s heads; phrenological charts, drawings and photographs; and articles in periodicals. George Combe’s “The Constitution of Man” (1828), the self-respecting phrenologist’s bible, was printed in a special octodecimo edition, small enough to fit in one’s pocket: light shipboard reading when you needed it. Phrenology thus provided a lingua franca for the understanding of individual and national differences while also allowing folks to hold out hope for a sense of shared humanity.

While the new “mind science” was often invoked to bolster theories of white superiority, Mr. Poskett shows that the phrenological insistence on the possibility of amelioration also worked against such tendencies. In Calcutta, Bengali phrenologists appropriated Combe’s book, adding dainty little mustaches to the androgynous heads in his charts, and exulted in how excellent their own intellectual faculties were. And just north of Calcutta, on the banks of the Hooghly River, the surgeon George Murray Paterson, another avid fan of Combe’s work, opened a school based entirely on phrenological principles. He assigned his Indian “lads” to classrooms according to the results of their head exams, but he also taught them that their minds (and bodies) were eminently improvable.

Since “Dr. P.” urgently wanted to shrink that large bump of cautiousness he had noticed on “Hindoo” skulls, he put his boys through a rigorous regimen of wrestling, skipping and weight lifting. The problem was that Paterson’s own brain, floating in a sea of liquor, was also shrinking, and not in a good way. “He drinks like a fish!” one of his colleagues complained to George Combe. Send no more books to him, he pleaded: Dr. P.’s brandy bump—or, rather, cavity—was, sadly, beyond the phrenologist’s ken.

Mr. Irmscher is director of the Wells Scholars Program at Indiana University Bloomington.

Appeared in the May 23, 2019, print edition as 'The Lost Art Of Reading Bumps.'