The Professor paced up to Tony studying him closely through his thick spectacles. Then he grabbed Tony by the jaw and began probing his forehead with his long, tapering fingers. "Mediterranean type," the Professor muttered. "Small cranial development. Low intellect. Clearly a specimen of no interest. Dispose of him." He turned to walk away.
Tony struggled to free himself. Small crainal development? Low intellect? If only he could get loose from the old man's goons Tony would give him a few new bumps on the head to read!
Phrenology is the study of the alleged correlation between the shape of the skull and personality traits and intelligence. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall around 1800, the discipline was very popular in the 19th century. In 1843, François Magendie referred to phrenology as "a pseudo-science of the present day." It is dismissed as quackery by modern scientific discourse as it has no predictive power.
Phrenology is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules. Phrenologists believed that the mind has a set of different mental faculties, with each particular faculty represented in a different area of the brain. These areas were said to be proportional to a person's propensities, and the importance of the given mental faculty.
It was believed that the cranial bone conformed in order to accommodate the different sizes of these particular areas of the brain in different individuals, so that a person's capacity for a given personality trait could be determined simply by measuring the area of the skull that overlies the corresponding area of the brain.
Perhaps inspired by Phrenology [admittedly I am guessing here, but the link seems likely —quark] French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon developed a system of biometrics called anthropometrics for the identification of criminals using records of cranial and body measurements. The Bertillon System did not attempt to predict the subject's personality, but merely identify him. It was widely used in the 19th Century, especially in France where it was created, but ultimately replaced by fingerprinting in police procedures.
Game and Story Use
- A villain who believes in phrenology may subject his captives to some very disturbing measuring instruments, without causing any actual harm or getting grossly unethical.
- In a fantasy setting where phrenology works, skilled characters can easily deduce any racial mental dispositions, even for races never encountered or heard of before and even for exotic monsters.
- Unless they're dealing with a species that doesn't have heads…
- In a world where supernatural abilities exist, phrenology may predict aptitude for those as well.
- Even if phrenology doesn't normally work, mind control abilities might only be able to force the target into their phrenological profile.
- Phrenological stereotypes can be used as a convenient shorthand for describing NPCs, linking a dominant trait of the character's with some physical feature.
- Anyone for retrophrenology? If the lumps on your head affect your personality, can you alter your personality by creating new lumps?
- And do major shifts in personality add or remove lumps?
- Anthropometrics turned really sinister under the Nazis, who were certain they could identify racial heritage by measuring people's skulls, judging how much of their heredity derived from "inferior" races.