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Trepanation

Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D.

The camera closes in on the electric drill boring a hole through the skull. Blood gushes from the wound and splatters everywhere. The latest horror movie? No. This scene is from a 1970 "documentary" called "Heartbeat in the Brain," a true cinematic classic. The message of the film is clear: if you want to achieve a higher degree of consciousness, you need a hole in the head!

In this case the hole belongs to Amanda Feilding, a British artist who calmly shaves her head, makes an incision with a scalpel and then attacks her skull with an electric drill. Joey Mellen, the cameraman, is a veteran of self-administered surgery and already sports a hole in his head. Why did these two decide to ventilate their brains in this fashion? Because they bought into a truly remarkable theory advanced by Bart Huges, a Dutch medical student who failed his finals and never managed to get his degree. Perhaps, given his ideas about brain function, we shouldn't be too surprised at Huges' lack of academic success. Plainly stated, according to this Dutch "savant," the enemy of clear thinking is gravity! Much of man's misfortune, he claims, can be traced to the time when the "ape first stood upright." We'll ignore for now the fact that while we may have evolved from a common ancestor, we did not, except maybe for Huges, descend from apes. In any case, Huges contends that when man became upright, there was a loss of blood from the brain because the heart now had to propel blood against the force of gravity. To avoid severe consequences, the brain had to take emergency measures to ensure that the parts essential for survival received sufficient blood. Capillary vessels, leading to less important areas of the brain were constricted, reducing blood flow and, as a consequence, the delivery of glucose and other nutrients. Thinking, it seems, is not one of the brain's more important functions. Luckily, though, there is a remedy for brain activity that has been impaired by gravity!

According to Huges, if a proper level of consciousness is to be reached, blood volume in the capillaries has to be increased. The most obvious way to do this is to stand on one's head and allow gravity to undo the mischief that it caused in the first place. (If this were true, bats would be among the most intelligent of creatures on earth.) Jumping from a hot bath into cold water also does the trick. So do certain drugs, such as LSD. This substance, Huges says (without any evidence), constricts the veins in the neck, impeding the exit of blood from the brain and thereby makes us smarter. But these are temporary measures. A permanent higher level of consciousness can be achieved by boring a hole in the skull, technically known as trepanation! The convoluted theory explains that if the brain in not constricted by the skull, the heart can more easily pump blood into it. Huges refers to babies' skulls which are not yet closed and where the "pulsation" of the blood in the brain with each heartbeat can be clearly seen. Not clearly seen though, is the relevance of this argument. Neither is it apparent why people who "unseal" their skulls for "psychic buoyancy" feel that their rationale for doing this is buttressed by the discovery of trepanned skulls around the world.

It is certainly true that skulls with holes in them have been dug up by archeologists. Some of these date back to the Stone Age. But this hardly means that our ancestors fortuitously discovered the secret to enlightenment. It does mean that some primitive people did have surprising surgical techniques when it came to treating skull fractures caused by slingshots or clubs. Bone fragments were neatly excised to prevent brain damage. Careful examination of the bone structure around these wounds shows that in some cases the bone healed and the patient survived! Perhaps in some cases such surgery was intended to release evil spirits thought to be responsible for mental illness.

Can there be anything to the suggestion that a hole in the head is good for us? Brain function is actually related to blood flow, not blood volume. And drilling a hole in the skull does not increase blood flow. Many patients of course have had holes drilled in their skulls for various types of brain surgery but none of them report any sort of enhanced mental clarity. A typical example would be temporary removal of part of the skull after aneurysm surgery to accommodate swelling of the brain. In one fascinating Australian case, the surgeon misplaced the bone that was removed and eventually the hole was covered with a titanium plate. The patient sued the hospital because she said she couldn't get over the feeling that part of her skull had been fed to a dog. Maybe if they had left the hole uncovered she would have reasoned with more mental clarity.

And just what kind of enhanced wisdom did Amanda Feilding achieve? Hard to say. Perhaps not a great deal if we judge by the fact that in 2000 she felt the need to repeat the trepanation. But maybe she had gotten a boost in intellect from the original hole because this time she found a neurosurgeon in Mexico City to drill her skull. One has to wonder if he too had a hole in his head. Amanda also ran for Parliament twice (a hole in the head of course is not a disqualifier in this pursuit) on a platform that trepanation should be covered under the British National Health Plan. She garnered 49 votes the first time and 139 the next. Obviously, a number of voters in Britain should have their head examined. And some on this side of the pond as well.

Peter Halvorson, a trepanned American, runs an Advocacy Group to promote holes in the head. He does have some comforting thoughts though. Apparently, in about 10% of the population the intracranial seams that we all have as children do not heal and the natural openings provide for enhanced brain function. John Lennon, he says, was an example (not a particularly good one I would think), as are physicians! It is their positive pulse pressure that allows them to get through the extensive education required to become a doctor. An education that I imagine prevents them from mangling their skulls. I don't know where Halvorson stands on chemists who write newspaper columns. I'm pretty open-minded about things, but still, I don't want my brain falling out. So I'll leave my skull the way it is. But maybe I'll try a few headstands or jumping from a sauna into cold water. You be the judge -- see if my future columns are more enlightened than this one.

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This article was posted on April 28, 2003.