Popular Science

by Jena Osman

Amativeness, ideality, “God spot.” On the seductive promise of phrenology and its progeny.

“Popular Science” is part of “Common Minds,” a series of essays and conversations on the contemporary infatuation with the brain coedited by Dawn Chan. “Popular Science” was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Research Work project area, which receives support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. The author wishes to thank Matt Cohen, the Walt Whitman Archive, and Duke Special Collections for Whitman’s phrenological report, and Jeremy Tessiere for talking neuroscience.

IN 1849, SIX YEARS PRIOR to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman visited the Phrenological Cabinet of Fowler & Wells (at the corner of Beekman and Nassau Streets) to get his head examined. This method of discerning one’s character by mapping and measuring the topography of the skull first appeared in 1796, with the research of a German neuroanatomist named Franz Joseph Gall who went on to publish The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several intellectual and moral dispositions of man and animal by the configuration of their Heads.

According to Gall’s system, each hill and groove on the surface of the skull represents the location of specific mental faculties beneath; a person could be known simply through intent observation and gentle prodding of the cranium. In 1832 Gall’s collaborator, J. G. Spurzheim, introduced phrenology to the United States, where it was popularized by brothers Lorenzo and Orson Fowler, who were later joined by an associate, Samuel Roberts Wells. With offices in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and a publishing arm that produced books, pamphlets, self-help manuals, and journals, Fowlers & Wells made phrenology a national sensation. In addition to Whitman, those who presented their skulls included Margaret Fuller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Allan Pinkerton, Mark Twain, and Horace Mann.

According to Lorenzo Fowler’s report on Whitman, the poet’s

leading traits of character appear to be Friendship, Sympathy, Sublimity, and Self Esteem, and markedly among his combinations the dangerous faults of Indolence, a tendency to the pleasures of Voluptuousness and Alimentiveness, and a certain reckless swing of animal will, too unmindful, probably, of the conviction of others. 1

1 My emphasis. Whitman's character traits are used as an organizing principle in what follows.

Whitman reprinted this phrenological summary five times—once in an anonymous review of his own work. The tenets of phrenology (at least in this particular paragraph) happily confirmed his self-concept. However, it’s worth noting that Whitman never reprinted the concluding remarks of the report, which included the line “by practice might make a good accountant.”

Although Whitman’s love affair with phrenology eventually came to an end, traces of it are scattered throughout the drafts and final versions of his poems. “Song of the Broadaxe” (which first appeared in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, published by Fowlers & Wells in 1856) celebrates the individualized “shapes of America” as well as the faculties listed in Whitman’s own phrenological chart:

Never offering others, always offering himself,    corroborating his phrenology,
Voluptuous, inhabitive, combative,    conscientious, alimentive, intuitive,
   of copious friendship, sublimity, firmness,    self-esteem, comparison, individuality, form,    locality, eventuality,
Avowing by life, manners, works, to contribute    illustrations of results of The States

The poems “Faces,” “Mediums,” and “By Blue Ontario’s Shore” also make use of phrenology’s terms. Although Whitman is best known as a poet who celebrates and sings the body, the brain pulses in his work: “My brain, it shall be your occult convolutions”; “To feed the greed of the belly the brain is liberally spooning”; “All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain”; and “The pulses of your brain waiting their chance.”

As the nineteenth century doctrine of the skull gave way to the twentieth century doctrine of the neuron, the side-show spectacle of phrenology fell out of favor. But now, in the early twenty-first century, neuro-imaging technologies seem to have brought back the desire to attach behaviors and mental processes to specific cortical locales. Functional magnetic resonance imaging as well as positron emission tomography, electroencephalography, and computerized axial tomography make it seem all the more possible to gather concrete proof of various locational neuronal theories. William Uttal notes in his 2003 book The New Phrenology that the nineteenth century diagram of the phrenological head persists as “one of the most familiar icons of psychology,” and that the current “mentalist zeitgeist…has reified separate mental modules and their distinct cerebral localization.” The allure of localization (or as Uttal calls it, the “phantom” of modular mental activity) still holds sway.

Recently, while passing time at an airport magazine kiosk, I noticed several magazines with cover stories on the brain: Time had a cartoonish image riffing on Spurzheim’s diagram with a headline announcing the “Science of Optimism: Hope isn’t rational—so why are humans wired for it?” Scientific American Mind featured a story about the “weird” brains of creative people. Psychology Today’s main story, “Clues to Character,” listed a set of “stable traits” that can help one predict behavior, and suggests that knowing these traits could help one find a partner or evaluate a job candidate. The soft science of Whitman’s day—with its desire to attach character traits to specific regions of the brain—is alive and well in the popular press. Internet browsing confirms the trend:

Once again, an inverse association between wealth and learning appeared, with poor people displaying more increased activity in the midbrain and striatum when compared with the more affluent subjects. When we showed subjects the words “Democrat,” “Republican” and “independent,” they exhibited high levels of activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, indicating anxiety. fMRI purports to detect mendacity by seeing inside the brain instead of tracking peripheral measures of anxiety—such as changes in pulse, blood pressure or respiration—measured by a polygraph. NoLie MRI, whose name evokes the casual familiarity of a walk-in dental clinic in a strip mall, suggests that the technique may even be used for “risk reduction in dating.” A 2005 twenty-person study using fMRI found that for women the left-prefrontal cortex was more active than in men when they were shown the same funny cartoons. Researchers have used fMRI to draw bold conclusions about face and word recognition, working memory and false memories, people anticipating pain, mothers recognizing their children, citizens pondering ethical dilemmas—not to mention why many consumers buy Coke even though they really prefer the taste of Pepsi.

The link of location to behavior provides a seductive narrative structure of legible cause and effect. The power of that structure is just as evident today as it was in Whitman’s phrenological era.

Illustration 1: Friendship

Situated on each side of Concentrativeness, higher up than Philoprogenitiveness, just above the lambdoidal suture. The medial prefrontal cortex signals someone of value. Frontal systems linked with limbic circuits facilitate love of friends. Coping with frenemies. Judgments about the close others increased blood oxygenation level-dependent response along the frontal midline. I have seen boys, also, walk in the street with their arms twined around each other’s necks, and always in each other’s society. They say they love each other very much. Social closeness is the primary factor, rather than shared beliefs, as previously assumed. It is right, children, to exercise this organ. Regions that respond to information about friends are shown in orange; regions that respond more to strangers are in blue. While in the scanner they played “The Newlywed Game”: would a friend or stranger prefer an aisle or window seat? Sheep skip and play together in the open field. This is true of almost all animals, and they, with us, have a little prominence on their skulls, caused by the development of the brain, which we call Adhesiveness. Sure enough, the bigger the amygdala, the larger and more complex a person’s social network tended to be. Mlle. N. “was so tenderly attached to a lady of her own age, that neither marriage nor the solicitations of her mother could induce her to leave her.” This finding is exciting because it opens a window into exploring abnormalities in the amygdala. The organ is large in Mrs. H. and Mary Macinnes—Established. For more on how experience changes the brain, check out my new book.

THE SAME YEAR AS WHITMAN’S exam, in an article published in the American Phrenological Journal, the Fowler brothers wrote “Our present desire is this—to PHRENOLOGIZE OUR NATION, for thereby it will REFORM THE WORLD.” 1849 was also the year when the United States Department of the Interior was established: manifest destiny in full force.

In this world of phrenological measurements, bigger was always better. If an organ area was found to be “small,” the Fowlers provided tips on how to exercise the region so as to promote its growth. The brain, like the body, was a muscle to be worked.

According to Samuel Wells in How to Read Character, “the organ of Mirthfulness is situated on the side of the upper part of the forehead.” 2 The previous illustration is presented as proof, with a footnote stating “Mr. Charles F. Brown, better known as ‘Artemus Ward,’ was one of the most noted of American humorists.3 Mirthfulness is seen to be very well developed. The contrast between his head and that of the Indian Chief is very striking.”

2 My research tells me that the frontal lobe is the only part of the brain where a phrenological faculty coincides with a contemporary assignment of functional location; the faculty of “mirthfulness” is said to be exactly where the left prefrontal cortex lights up on fMRI scans when people are happy.
3 Mark Twain had his skull read several times; his first reading (under an assumed name) revealed a cavity that “represented a total absence of the sense of humor.” When he returned for a second reading a few months later (this time with a calling card stating his real name), the cavity suddenly transformed into a lofty bump of mirthfulness.

It would seem that if the Indian Chief wished to cultivate his sense of humor, he would simply need to follow these instructions,as outlined by Samuel R. Wells in How to Read Character:

The facetious aspects of things and subjects should be contemplated, and the idea that dignity and self-respect require perpetual seriousness must be resolutely combated. The company of mirthful people should be sought, for nothing is more contagious than genuine jollity. There is a time to laugh as well as a time to weep, and laughter is promotive of health and longevity. The injunction to “laugh and grow fat!” is not without a physiological reason, nor is the Shakesperian adage that “a light heart lives long,” a mere poetical flourish.

According to the tenets of phrenology, interior traits are legible, an open territory to be read and analyzed. The head is a map of self-help; all flaws can be conquered, rewritten, perfected. As Walt Whitman wrote in response to first hearing a lecture by Orson Fowler, “If the professor can, as he professes, teach men to know their intellectual and moral deficiencies and remedy them, we do not see that our people may long remain imperfect.”

But “our people” was a category limited to those with white skin. The instructions above were not intended for the Indian Chief; rather, it was the white person who could benefit from the brain’s flexibility and all others were stuck with an array of imperfect presets. Thus, the discourse of phrenology attached itself to a long history of discriminatory nationalisms and racist essentialisms, as seen in Wells’s work:

The special organs in which the Caucasian brain most excels, and which distinguish it from those of all less advanced races, are Mirthfulness, Ideality, and Conscientiousness, the organs of these faculties being almost invariably small in savage and barbarous tribes.

The breadth of the wings of the nose next to the face indicates Secretiveness.This is in accordance with the physiological action of this faculty which tends to shut the mouth and expand the nostrils. This sign is large in the Negro, the Chinese, the North American Indian and in most savage and half-civilized tribes.

Illustration 2: Sympathy
(i.e., Benevolence)

Directly in front of Veneration is a piece of brain that induces us to be kind hearted. Some people lack those feelings and may behave in anti-social ways that can be extremely costly to society. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” because it encourages trust, cooperation and social bonding. Suppressed when the story content and expression were mismatched; having a person smile while telling about his mother’s death. You can restrain excesses, and can cultivate deficiencies. You may be intellectual, you may be social, but the moral nature is the “crown of glory”, and nothing can atone for the absence of it, or supply its place. Activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and superior frontal gyrus, regions that deal with social conflict. Men have more of this working Benevolence than women, and it is proper they should have, as their power to help is greater; but women are more sympathetic and more readily touched by pity. Murderers generally have the forehead “villainously low” in the region of Benevolence. People with low activity in the orbital cortex are either free-wheeling types or sociopaths. When Destructiveness is large and this organ small, cruelty may result. Dutch men who inhaled oxytocin were more likely to associate positive words, such as joy and laughter, and complex positive emotions, such as hope and admiration, with Dutch people than with Germans or Arabs. It has been objected that Nature cannot have placed a faculty of Benevolence, and another of Destructiveness, in the same mind; but Man is confessedly an assemblage of contradictions. All can improve if they have the desire; restrain your feelings that that organ will increase in size; the brain will enlarge, and will press out the skull. A very basic way we connect to other people.

IN 1838, ORSON FOWLER OPENED a Philadelphia office with his brother-in-law at 210 Chestnut Street. According to Madeleine Stern, in her book Heads & Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers, this “phrenological museum,” contained the “rarest assemblage, perhaps, on this continent of unique skulls, and casts of persons now living…nearly, if not wholly, unparalleled in the series of cranioscopal formations.” Around this time, Fowler began to publish The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany which almost instantly plunged his practice into financial ruin. The office closed in 1842; however a new office and bookstore opened in 1854 (this time in partnership with Samuel Wells) at 231 Arch Street.

I decided to visit the sites of these former offices. The United States Custom House (built during the Depression) sits at the location of Orson Fowler’s first office, and is currently being renovated thanks to government stimulus funding. On what I believe to be the site of the second office is a red brick building, with the name “Berger Brothers Company” just barely visible above the first floor. Berger Brothers was a supplier for tinners and roofers in the 1920s.

After mapping these coordinates, I learn that all of the street numbers in Philadelphia were changed in 1857 and my conclusions regarding the sites of the phrenological offices were entirely misinformed. I had tried to understand historical events through location, driven by the belief that if I could see the architectural skeleton, the ghosts of intrinsic structure, perhaps I could understand what had happened at a moment in time. I had placed my hopes on a regional genealogy, on the pleasures of equating that with this.

Illustration 3: Sublimity

Situated on the side-head, directly above Acquisitiveness and behind Ideality, the doughnut-shaped machine swallows the nun. A high-tech attempt to read her mind as she communes with her deity. The vast, the grand, the majestic: Is there a God spot in the brain? Pin down what happens in the brain when people experience mystical awakenings. One with large Sublimity would enjoy scenery similar to that represented in the cut. When the Buddhists lost their sense of existence as separate individuals, the researchers injected them with a radioactive isotope that is carried by the blood to active brain areas. It is designed to represent the waters rushing and tumbling over the rocks at the Falls of Niagara. A large drop in activity in a portion of the parietal lobe, which encompasses the back of the brain, and an increase in activity in the right prefrontal cortex, which resides behind the forehead. They love the cragged precipice, the snow-capped mountain, the raging cataract, the burning volcano. Because the affected part of the parietal lobe normally aids with navigation and spatial orientation, the neuroscientists surmise that its abnormal silence during meditation underlies dissolution of physical boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe. Some would like to sail on the mighty ocean when the angry waves and billows rise around their tempest-tossed ship. fMRI scans of several hundred Buddhist brains from around the world. Sublimity enables us to appreciate mountain scenery, the vastness of the ocean, the grandeur of a thunder-storm, the roar of artillery, the clash of armies, etc. It is possible some people’s brains will resist succumbing to the divine. Nature deficit disorder.

THE LANGUAGE OF CURE IS the language of knowing where you are on the map. A bump on the head, a signal of electrical activity, moving down the line from fault to perfection. This is the physical script, the narrative arc of see-then-solve.

In opposition, a figure wanders in convolutions, merging with a crowd just leaving a stadium. A figure moves in response to all the other moves, changing and shifting in relation.

Illustration 4: Self Esteem

Situated at the vertex of the top-head, where the coronal surface begins to decline. She called on God on every occasion, as if he took a special interest in her affairs. The drive system can turn to the system that will give it a proverbial spanking or the system that will give it a hug. We may attack ourselves. Children with this organ large, think they can do as much as their parents; and often feel as though they were too old to render obedience to their requests, running on oxytocin and intrinsic opiates. Someone is always the head, the captain, or the ruling spirit, and all the others do as he dictates. This makes sense to me from the sociometer perspective. The imposter phenomenon. See the cut. One man always rules, and another serves; one man makes the laws of the nation, and another obeys them. If a person speaks to another at all disrespectfully, the latter feels that he must challenge him to fight a duel, and endeavor to take his life. Anatomy-based diffusion tensor imaging. Sometimes the organ is too large, and gives a haughty domineering spirit, as is manifested in the cut. She spreads out her beautiful feathers. He saw his violent clients as egotists with a grandiose sense of personal superiority and entitlement. There are persons who are exceedingly censorious, whose conversation is habitually directed to their neighbours’ faults, who feel sore when others are elevated, and experience great pleasure in bringing them down. Many schools havestudents make lists of reasons why they are wonderful people or sing songs of self-celebration. Children in hooting and pelting an idiot. Positively correlated with the degree of self-reported social distress experienced during a game of cyberball. Their chief motive is a strong sense of their own superiority. She held her head high and a little backwards. Your brain maintains complex maps for the “pecking order” of the people surrounding you. Self-Esteem corresponds in some measure to the Desire of Power of the metaphysicians. They could see an avatar. It disposes to the use of the emphatic I in writing and conversation. “I am a man,” Black Hawk said to Jackson. Changes in pecking order bring about changes in how millions of neurons are connected. When the organ becomes excited by disease, the individual is prone to imagine himself a king, emperor, or a transcendent genius, and some have even fancied themselves the Supreme Being. The organ is large in Haggart, the Hindoos, Dempsey; moderate in Dr. Hette, and the American Indians.—Established. Cross-lagged analysis. With more dopamine and other “happy” neurochemicals, an increase in status increases the number of new connections made per hour in the brain.

EDGAR ALLEN POE MOVED TO Philadelphia in the same year Orson Fowler opened his office on Chestnut Street. In fact, Poe’s publisher worked out of the same building. Although they never met, I imagine Poe and the phrenologists walking the same streets, drinking in the same bars. The result of Poe taking one path while the Fowlers take another creates a circuit in the atmosphere, cells only, pulsing on a matrix of currents.

References to phrenology can be found in a number of Poe’s stories (see “Imp of the Perverse,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “Ligeia”), though there is no evidence that Poe ever submitted his skull to be analyzed. And though the Fowlers may not have known Poe, they used him (and not Walt Whitman) as the embodiment of the “poet’s temperament”—nervous and high-strung. After Poe died, the Fowlers released a conjectural phrenological report. His strengths were in the faculties of Ideality, Sublimity, Spirituality, and Language. His weakness was Bibativeness (situated in front of Alimentiveness, near the ears):

The wine-cup was the bane of his being, and brought out the worst phases of his character; and although his friends claim that this one fault was the procurer of all his waywardness and gained him all his enemies, yet we believe that, artificial excitement aside, he was from the very nature of his organization a wandering star, which could be confined to no orbit and limited to no constellation in the empire of mind.

At the newsstand I see reports of various stars breaking out of rehab. In Scientific American Mind, I find an updated location for bibativeness:

An alcoholic’s problems with social cues are consistent with the “frontal lobe hypothesis,” which postulates that damage to the prefrontal cortex—known to be vulnerable to alcohol’s toxic effects—leads to behavioral deficits.

Illustration 5: Alimentiveness

Regions of the brain linked with pleasurable emotions and sensations—particularly the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum. Nearly parallel with the zygomatic arch, exactly under the organ of Acquisitiveness, and before that of Destructiveness. When the teenager was given normal levels of the hormone, brain imaging showed greater activity in the striatum, an area associated with reward. When the organ is large, the head is broad at this part, resulting in an overlapping of flabby integument, which gives a gross animal look to the face. Some appear to have fewer dopamine D2 receptors in key reward regions of the brain than other people—much like drug addicts. Which must not be confounded with high cheek-bones. One should make his table and its belongings as attractive as possible. These brain scans are of an obese teenager whose fat cells were unable to secrete leptin. In the cut, you will see two men very busy with their knives and forks, etc. Thus, it is possible that the relationship between reward neurocircuitry and obesity follows the Goldilocks principle. The perversion of this faculty leads to more misery and unhappiness than almost any other thing. Using fMRI, his team scanned the brains of adolescent girls. The appetite which asks for “Rum, rum.” Ratcheted down in our obesogenic world. We may eventually be able to figure out who needs their dopamine cranked up. It exhausts the saliva.

Illustration 6: Voluptuousness (i.e., Amativeness)

This organ is located at the back of the head, behind the ears and gives fulness to the neck. A computer-generated map of particularly active areas showed hot spots deep in the brain, below conscious awareness, in areas called the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area, which communicate with each other as part of a circuit. To find it, feel on the middle line toward the base of the skull, at the back part of the head, and you will discover a small bony projection called the occipital process. Close your eyes for a minute and envision all the romantic parts of the human body. Another area that lit up produces dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that affects pleasure and motivation. Considerable humidity of the lip. Her front brain is telling her he’s trouble, but her middle brain won’t listen. Aaron Burr, third Vice-President of the United States, was noted for his debauchery in private life, as well as for his unscrupulous conduct as a statesman. Bet you didn’t think about the caudate and the ventral tegmental areas, did you? The men had quite a bit more activity in the brain region that integrates visual stimuli. This isn’t surprising considering that men support the porn industry and women spend their lives trying to look good for men. Besotted volunteers in a brain scanner. Anyone desiring to cultivate Amativeness, then, should go into society as much as convenient, make it a point to be agreeable as possible to those persons of the other sex. You can almost imagine a time where instead of going to Match.com you could have a test to find out whether you’re an attachment type or not. If this organ be perverted, or used improperly, it is the means of making men and women very unhappy, and very wicked. Being dumped actually does heighten romantic love, a phenomenon called frustration-attraction. Little blind boy Cupid with a bow and arrow. M.R.I. images, in the caudate nucleus. Excesses are by no means always referable to the organ in the brain. The true cause is often gastric irritation.

An Alternative Pattern

LETTER TO THE EDITOR of the New York Times, November 14, 2007, signed by seventeen cognitive neuroscientists:

We know that it is not possible to definitively determine whether a person is anxious or feeling connected simply by looking at activity in a particular brain region. This is so because brain regions are typically engaged by many mental states, and thus a one-to-one mapping between a brain region and a mental state is not possible.

Whitman wrote “the pulses of your brain waiting     their chance”

they seep between regions and cover the entire    cortical surface
with a faint blue veneer

they swarm, flock, shoal

as crickets sync
they merge and sing in a changing cycle
femurs against forewings

aggregate choruses, temporary unisons that
    then move on
a glacier of fluids,
the coincidence of their calls

the pulses of the brain await their chance
as bodies of starlings in cloudstorm
form, splay, and re-form

pulled together by the simplest of rules:
don’t get too close,
don’t get too far from your neighbor

everyday agents sufficiently stirred by the
    earth’s rotation
wandering stars, confined to no orbit

a pattern imposed on flow
a swarm of small causes in the tent city of
protesting at the edges of cities, within private
beside city halls, on campus lawns

the pulses travel the same currents
the smallest interaction can change “the results of The States.”


George Combe. Elements of Phrenology. John Anderson Publisher, 1828.

Lydia Folger Fowler. Familiar Lessons on Phrenology. Fowler & Wells, 1847.

O. S. and L. N. Fowler. New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology. Fowler & Wells, 1859.

Edgar Hungerford. “Poe and Phrenology.” American Literature 2 (November 1931): 209–31.

Kyle Kirkland. “High-Tech Brains: A History of Technology-Based Analogies and Models of Nerve and Brain Function.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45 (Spring 2002): 212–23.

Nathaniel Mackey. “Phrenological Whitman.” Conjunctions 29 (Fall 1997): conjunctions.com/archives/c29-nm.htm.

James Salazar. Bodies of Reform. New York University Press, 2011.

Madeleine B. Stern. Heads and Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers. University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

William R. Uttal. The New Phrenology: The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain. MIT Press, 2001.

Samuel Robert Wells. How to Read Character. Fowler & Wells, 1899.

Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass: A Volume of Poems Just Published.” In Walt Whitman, ed. Horace Traubel. David McKay, 1893.

And the countless articles from Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, and other publications and science blogs that have been used as source material.