Magazine article Verbatim

Phrenology and Language

Magazine article Verbatim

Phrenology and Language

Article excerpt

In 1767, a nine-year-old boy named Franz Gall was sent by his parents to attend school in the Black Forest of Germany. His schooling required extensive rote memorization. Young Gall worked hard at his lessons, but no matter how much he studied, he could never manage to recite Latin declensions and the catechism with the enviable accuracy and fluidity of two of his schoolfellows, who recalled words and phrases flawlessly after reading them through only once or twice. Gall noticed that both students had large, protuberant eyes--so much so that he and his friends nicknamed them "saucer eyes." This memory, unlike his Latin, would stay with him for the rest of his life. In his subsequent medical career, Gall used the physiognomy of his young rivals as an indication of a facility for words in each patient who came under his attention. Where he found the gift of a quick memory, saucer eyes seemed to peer back at him. Gall reasoned that if verbal memory has an external manifestation in protuberant eyes, then other characteristics should also have corresponding physical markers. In his later writings, Gall would recall that, before he was ten years old, he had located the organ of Language, the first organ in what would become the popular nineteenth-century interest of phrenology.

By the 1850's phrenology (from the Greek for 'mind'), the determination of human character by an examination of the contours of the skull, had spread all over Europe and the United States. Gall, and particularly his student Johann Caspar Spurzheim, thrilled audiences with public lectures on the popular science. They published several books on the subject, which were as popular as Spurzheim himself in America. The American obsession with race and reform, coupled with the American entrepreneurial spirit, offered fertile ground for this new European import.

Orson Fowler learned of phrenology through the writings of Spurzheim while still in college, and abandoned a career in the ministry to preach and practice this new Gospel. He was one of the founders of the New York publishing firm of Fowler and Wells, which shipped books as far as India and Africa. By the time phrenology had run its course in the 1890's, it had found its way into major social reform movements of the nineteenth century; it had influenced famous poets and novelists; and it had given the nineteenth century a new language to describe aspects of personality. The pique of an eighteenth-century German schoolboy would affect the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, two chapters of Moby Dick, and the publication of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

While the details of phrenology were as various as its practitioners, its basic principles remained constant, and many of these principles are still more or less accurate today. First, phrenology held that the brain controlled the emotional and intellectual functions of an individual: the brain was "the organ of the mind." Second, each of these functions was controlled by a distinct part of the brain. Neurologists explain that speech is controlled by distinct parts of the human brain, specifically Broca's area and Wernicke's area, discovered in 1861 and 1876 respectively. Phrenologists split the functions of the brain into the intellectual function and the affective, or emotional function. Specific intellectual and emotional functions such as memory or hate were called faculties, and the different physical parts of the brain that were the sources of these faculties were called organs. For example, a highly developed faculty of Language has its origin in the organ of Language, which is located in the part of the brain just above and behind the eyes. And third, an individual's larger organs show greater energy than his smaller organs; that is, the power and influence of an organ and its faculty are directly related to its size. Gall's schoolmates who exhibited developed faculties of Language, also exhibited prominent, protruding eyes, since an enlarged organ of Language evidently forced the eyes forward. …

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