It makes interesting reading, but it’s all nonsense (except the bit about men with shaved heads). 

In 1798, Franz Gall, an Austrian physician, wrote to a friend:

I have at last the pleasure of presenting you my treatise on the functions of the brain … to show that it is possible by observing various elevations and depressions on the surface of the head to determine the degrees of different aspects of the personality. This work will be of the first importance to medicine, morality, education and the law – indeed to the whole science of human nature.’

The 10-page letter, which was published in a German journal, marked the beginning of phrenology (phrenos is Greek for the mind), the study of the shape and size of the head to determine a person’s character and mental abilities.

Gall made two major assertions. First, he believed that different mental functions are located in different parts of the brain, called organs. Second, he argued that the growth of the various organs is related to the development of associated mental faculties. As this growth would be reflected in the shape of the skull, personality traits could be determined by reading bumps or indentations on the skull.

He even boasted that phrenology would be of the first importance to medicine, morality, education and the law — indeed to the whole science of human nature.

Gall identified 27 discrete organs of behaviour; this number increased over time as new organs were ‘discovered’. If you move your finger on the back of your neck, you will notice a bump formed by the base of your skull. This bump, according to Gall, marked the location of the organ of Amativeness, the organ that defined the attachment of sexes to each other. If a person’s head showed a comparatively large organ of Amativeness, the person was sexually unrestrained. A comparatively small organ of Amativeness showed indifference towards the opposite sex.  

Phrenology is, of course, quackery, but in the early 19th century it was a respected science. People sought the advice of phrenologists not only for diagnosing mental illness, but for hiring employees, or even selecting marriage partners. Even Herman Melville made Ishmael, his Moby Dick (1851) narrator, an amateur phrenologist. Fans of phrenology could practise their skills on characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

The present urban ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ myths — we use the left brain for logical, analytical thinking and the right brain for intuitive, artistic thinking — can be traced back to the days of phrenology. The crude bump-reading nonsense has now been replaced by sophisticated brain-imaging techniques.

While we are on the subject of the head, Albert Mannes of the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton business school says that men with shaved heads are perceived as more masculine, dominant and even with the greater leadership potential. He ran tests in which he showed people photos of the same men in two versions: one showing the man with hair and the other showing him with his hair digitally removed. His subjects reported finding men with shaved heads more dominant, taller and stronger than those with full heads of hair. The growing trend of power buzz haircuts seems to support this assertion. Incidentally, Mannes sports a shaved head.

Bald men definitely don’t have bad hair days, but there are not necessarily more virile as the urban myth whispers.

© Surendra Verma 2016

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