Bumps in the Night

Fairground - Phrenologist

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, phrenology is “the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character.” I love the idea of having bumps on my skull that can be read carefully enough for “character analysis” (i.e., to explain my questionable behavior?) Reading bumps is as good a way as anything to explain the unexplainable, I guess. We love to understand things, even if we invent silly ways to do so.


As the English writer William Hazlitt once said,”The origin of all science is in the desire to know causes; and the origin of all false science and imposture is in the desire to accept false causes rather than none; or, which is the same thing, in the unwillingness to acknowledge our own ignorance.”

Should these bumps and grooves correspond to the “map” drawn by L.N. Fowler for his famous 19th-century “Phrenology” bust?  It includes Ideality, Sublimity, Cautiousness, Constructiveness, Causality, Hope, Acquisitiveness, Combativeness (hmmm…I can think of a few politicians lately that might have large bumps in particular areas of the skull….)


As authors, we know how important it is to examine a character’s motivations, so it wouldn’t be satisfying to our readers if we said that someone like Anne of Green Gables had a bump right where the “Friendship” area is. We want a little more than phrenology to explain a character’s personality and actions. Otherwise, a novel would be built only on plots and bumps.

When I put my fingers up there – on my own cranium-  I’m not quite sure what I feel. How tiny or large must a bump be to qualify as a readable bump? Inquiring minds want to know. Let’s see…I think I feel a bump in the area marked “Gesture” and “Mimicry.” Mr. Fowler (first name: Lorenzo!) or the woman in the country-fair tent pictured above (“She will tell you what you want to know”) might suggest that a bump in that area means I have imitative tendencies. Do I lack originality?  Do I imitate? Or do I have an even larger bump within the section marked “Self-Criticism” that makes me believe I’m akin to a parrot?

Close-Up Phrenology

Sigh. I was hoping to find a bump just a little farther back, in the sections marked “Liberality” or “Hope.” A bump in “Wit” would be wonderful. Or maybe a bump by “Wonder.” Now a bump there  would be a good bump.

Sometimes late at night, with my head on the pillow, I feel a bump towards the far back behind my left ear. It’s near an area labeled “Extermination” and “Destructiveness” but that can’t be so. Maybe, maybe, I feel it slightly farther back and up….ah, yes…up past “Evasion” and into “Repose.”  A bump in “Repose” means I can stop worrying about bumps and fall asleep.


Apparently, the silly phrenologists got some things right – the area we now know as the parietal lobe is involved with calculation, the area of the hypothalamus has something to do with appetite, the amygdala goes hand in hand (or bump in bump) with combativeness.  Ambrose Bierce had a less generous approach to advocates of phrenology when he defined it as “The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.”

Still, Walt Whitman had his head “read,” as did Mark Twain and Clara Barton. Maybe at the time they did it for goofy fun, the way a group of friends would get Tarot readings now, though Clara was not known to be as goofy as Mark and Walt. Another goofy soul, Steve Martin, inspired his own “map”:


My sister gave me a ceramic Phrenology-by-Fowler head which I now keep on my desk, just in case I feel a bump when scratching my head in puzzlement about some writing project I’m involved in. I want to feel a huge bump in the area Steve Martin labeled “Author.” No luck so far, but I’m wondering now whether it counts if the bump is self-inflicted…? I’d have to aim it really carefully to hit the right area, otherwise I might just end up being a Human Cannon Ball.

9 responses to “Bumps in the Night

  1. What a fun post, Julie – and thanks for all the visuals, too! Phrenology comes up in my friend Lynn Cullen’s recent novel, MRS. POE. It was quite the rage 150 years ago, wasn’t it? [My hubby’s a psychiatrist, but that took a whole lot of years of med school. ;0)]

  2. I’ll look for Lynn Cullen’s book, Robyn – thanks for the heads-up.

  3. I’ve often thought it would be great to shave my head to see the bumps, Julie. As you said, I want to know! But that “bump” label below the eye. Does it indicate those with high cheekbones might be great actors? Now I’ll have to really examine the great actors cheeks! Love your wandering wonders.

    • “Verbal Memory” and “Verbal Expression” – could be actors, or…writers! Time to go to the mirror and check out how pronounced (or not ) our eye sockets are!

  4. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia

    That was amazing and amusing, Julie! The “wonder bump” – sounds like a great title for a kids’ book!

  5. I think this theory has been de-bumped. Or perhaps I have a smooth head, shaved smooth of bumps.

    • De-bumped! Yes, indeed – much wishful thinking involved here (re: a bump for creativity, energy, talent, etc.!) It’s fun to think of ways this might have entered the language, as in “I’m feeling smooth today,” meaning a lack of energetic-type bumpiness….or “Gad, my bumps are exhausting me.” 🙂

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