Reading the bumps

Natasha Moore reflects on phrenology, personality, the possibility of change, and what makes us valuable as human beings.

Today my phrenology head arrived in the mail – a belated birthday present. (Don’t worry, I requested it. It’s not some creepy unsolicited skull.)

If you’re unfamiliar with the art of “reading the bumps”, phrenology was a theory popular in the 19th century. It maintained that the brain was made up of various “organs” that determine personality, and you could detect which traits were more or less prominent in someone by feeling the contours of their skull for areas that were enlarged or indented.

Atop the head, for example, we find benevolence, veneration, firmness; at the temple, mirthfulness; an inch above the left ear, hoarding. I’m not too sure but, pressing fingers over my own head, I think it’s telling me I’m strong on ideality and defiance; also desire for liquids. My agreeableness and contrivance could both use some work.

The phrenologists’ intuition that different areas of the brain have different functions was correct, as neuroscience has since confirmed; their idea that the skull conforms to the brain surface really wasn’t (an Oxford team even tested this a few years ago to make sure).

Phrenology turned out to be pseudoscience. Though it doesn’t offer a window into our personalities, it does serve as a window to its time – and also to the timeless human yen for self-knowledge.

What am I like? Why am I like this? We get our answers by questionnaire rather than head massage these days; the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs offer to interpret us to ourselves.

But maybe what we actually want is change. Whether it’s written in the stars or on our skulls, we fear that personality is destiny.

Am I valuable as I am? And at the same time, can I truly change? To both questions, a full-throated yes is to be found in Christianity.