Nursing Clio: Rediscovering “Good” and “Bad” Heads in the Phrenological Present, by Courtney Thompson

AHP readers may be interested in a recent piece at Nursing Clio from Courtney Thompson “Rediscovering “Good” and “Bad” Heads in the Phrenological Present.” As Thompson writes,

… every few months, a scientific study hits the news and the cycle begins anew as the world “rediscovers” or “reinvents” phrenology, the nineteenth-century science of judging character and potential based on the shape of the skull.

The most recent case of the reinvention of phrenology appeared just weeks ago in Nature Communications, in an article entitled “Tracking historical changes in trustworthiness using machine learning analyses of facial cues in paintings.” The authors, Lou Safra, Coralie Chevallier, Julie Grèzes, and Nicolas Baumard, a group of neuroscientists and social scientists, examined European portraits produced between 1500–2000, applying an algorithm they developed that “estimates trustworthiness based on a pre-identified set of facial characteristics.” Through the application of this algorithm to thousands of Western European portraits, they found that “trustworthiness displays in portraits increased throughout history,” and further that “trustworthiness displays increased with affluence,” with affluence preceding changes in trustworthiness. The authors tie this supposed rise in trustworthiness to the “decline of interpersonal violence and the rise of democratic values observed in Western Europe,” as well as to rising standards of living.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.