Brain MRI proves phrenology is—still—not science

A group of Oxford researchers repurposed MR technology to image the skull, rather than just the brain, in a study designed to rigorously test the dated pseudoscience of phrenology.

The foundations of phrenology claim the shape of the skull somehow determines brain function. It can be traced back to the late 18th century, with dark ties to support racism, including a memorable scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 movie “Django Unchained.”

In the study, published on bioRxiv, researchers used brain MRI data from 5,724 subjects taken from a large imaging study in the United Kingdom. The group looked at original scans separating the outer surface of the head from images of the brain to search for statistical relationships between local head shape and lifestyle measurements taken from the functions associated with phrenology.

Demographic and lifestyle data were also taken along with language and cognitive tests from study participants.

Scientists chose 23 measures from this data that most closely related to the 27 personality factors found in phrenology. Examples of this were: “aptness to receive an education” which was modernized to “age completed full-time education.” Also, “tune” for musical talent equated to “music profession.”

“Although we did not expect to find any significant effects between lifestyle measures and head shape, we believe it is important for scientists to test ideas, even unfashionable or offensive ones, and not to be content dismissing them out of hand,” wrote corresponding author Oiwi Parker Jones, MD, at Oxford Center for Functional MRI of the Brain at John Radcliffe Hospital.

There were no “statistically significant or meaningful effects” when it came to the relationship between the shape of the skull and the 23 personality traits that served as the bedrock for phrenology, wrote Jones et al.