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What is Craniology?

Sara Schmidt
By
Updated: Feb 02, 2024

Craniology is the study of the differences in proportion, size, and shape of the cranium, or skull. Also called phrenology, it has its roots in the 18th century, when people believed that the character of a person could be revealed by the shape of his or her skull. Craniology was once considered an important practice in anthropology studies.

Developed by Franz Joseph Gall, a German physician, craniology is based on the premise that the brain itself is an organ of the mind. During this time period, it was a common belief that the different mental abilities of an individual were held in separate, orderly alcoves within the cerebral cortex. The makeup of a person's skull was said to indicate the size of each faculty, and therefore how much of a certain trait that person possessed. A craniologist would carefully examine a skull, identifying various depressions and bumps, and provide a diagnosis of that person's personality.

Today craniology is thought to be a pseudoscience. Though craniologists may claim that it is a scientific practice, it does not actually abide by acceptable standards of scientific methodology. Some scientists even dismissed the study as a pseudoscience upon its inception. However, that did not prevent it from being used in many psychiatry and neuroscience theories and practices.

Anthropological practices that specialized in studying features of the head in order to make personality predictions are not limited to craniology. Craniometry involves measuring the bones in the skull, while physiognomy is the study of facial features. Each of these disciplines claim to be able to predict traits or intelligence through their studies. These practices are also widely dismissed as quackery by modern scientists.

These fields were mainly utilized in physical anthropology during the 19th and 20th centuries. Their use was heavily political, providing justification for race segregation based on the different cranial makeup of each race. Georges Vacher de Lapouge, a prominent French anthopologist, was particularly in favor of such racialism. He created a hierarchy of the human race, hoping to instill a fixed social order.

Following its use by white supremacists in the early 20th century, many scientists came forward with counter evidence to disprove these notions. The use of such theories to create racial division is considered both unethical and unscientific. Modern scientists and historians both continue to study craniology and its related studies as a cautionary reminder what kind of effects the misuse of science can cause.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Sara Schmidt
By Sara Schmidt
With a Master's Degree in English from Southeast Missouri State University, Sara Schmidt puts her expertise to use by writing for WiseGeek, plus various magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She published her own novella and has other literary projects in the works. Sara's diverse background includes teaching children in Spain, tutoring college students, running CPR and first aid classes, and organizing student retreats, reflecting her passion for education and community engagement.
Discussion Comments
By popcorn — On Jun 25, 2011

I think that the term craniology has been adopted by quite a few professions since its original inception. You can see a craniologist these days and usually it will be a massage artist that specializes in holistic healing practices. They work to massage your skull lightly in order to bring your body more in line.

From what I have read a massage of the head is supposed to help with a huge variety of issues, from attention deficit disorder to heart disease. The idea is that by massaging the head to balance the craniosacral system you can reap numerous health benefits. I don't know if this works or not, but it certainly sounds interesting.

By Sara007 — On Jun 24, 2011

If you have children or know a lot of people that do you may have heard about craniology being used to treat flat and misshaped baby heads. The term craniology has actually been picked up by the plastic surgery industry and they are now using it to help families fix the unusual shape of a child's head when they are young.

Often babies are fitted with a special helmet that helps to round out the head quicker than in nature. While most children's heads will naturally round by age two, for those who are concerned the helmet treatment could work for you. The treatment can be expensive, but in many cases health insurance will cover some or all of the costs.

By B707 — On Jun 24, 2011

@BoniJ - I agree with you. This was a real low point in our research on the brain and also on psychology to improve mental health.

I'm just appalled at how it was used. To think that they actually screened babies and young children and based their future on this theory. I'm sure some kids were denied an education because they scored low on the exam. They also screened those applying for jobs using phrenology.

And to top it all off. Proponents of craniology also misused this theory to use racism against blacks. The Nazis used phrenology to justify their treatment of the disabled and the Jewish people.

By BoniJ — On Jun 23, 2011

I remember in high school, one of our textbooks had a phrenology chart, showing the outside of the skull divided up into sections labeled with the areas of the brain that regulated different personality traits and tendencies. I was intrigued by all this.

I half way believed this idea, I guess because the average person at that time knew very little about the human brain.

We now know so much more about the brain. My aunt had a stroke and can't talk. The doctors know what part of her brain was damaged.

I can't believe how someone would put together a practice like craniology. He did a terrible disservice to society. Boy! Measuring the head and feeling for raised and lowered spots, to determine intelligence and other traits. My mom once told me that when someone told you to, "Go get your head examined," they were telling you to go to a craniologist.

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt
With a Master's Degree in English from Southeast Missouri State University, Sara Schmidt puts her expertise to use by writing for WiseGeek, plus various magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She published her own novella and has other literary projects in the works. Sara's diverse background includes teaching children in Spain, tutoring college students, running CPR and first aid classes, and organizing student retreats, reflecting her passion for education and community engagement.
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