Toward the end of the 18th century, an influential Austrian neuroanatomist named Franz Joseph Gall developed a theory that suggested distinct areas of the brain’s cerebrum physically housed distinct mental faculties, such as emotions, moral impulses and intellect. Gall believed that these areas grew and shrank with use, resulting in bumps on the skull that could be felt, measured, analyzed and mapped.
The resulting study of phrenology became wildly popular for a time – and notorious as people used it to wrongly label others as “criminals” or to justify racist notions. Phrenology was eventually dismissed as quackery, but Gall did introduce the first modern theory ascribing different mental functions to different parts of the cerebrum. He got the details wildly wrong, but the overall concept was headed in the right direction. Today, researchers use a variety of technologies to map the location of cognitive functions throughout the brain, not the skull.
Photo courtesy of Eszter Blahak at the Semmelweis Museum in Budapest, Hungary.