Modern Trepanation Practices

This entry is part 4 of 19 in the series Countercultural History

Over the last few decades there has been a small but fascinating resurgence of the ancient practice of trepanation in the West. Trepanation has been called “the oldest operation in the world”, with the oldest examples dating back to Neolithic Europe (around 8000 years ago).

Put in the simplest terms, trepanning is the process of creating a hole in the bone of the skull, usually with medicinal or spiritual intent. By 3000BC it was widespread around the world, practiced from Western Europe to China, Kenya to South America. For years this and amputation were pretty much the only forms of surgery going, being used to cure headaches, insanity, treat cancers, release demons and a lot more besides. Holes up to four inches in diameter were made in the skull of the unfortunate patient, with the likely outcome either a nicely healed cranial air vent or a swift death. Some poor people were even trepanned up to thirteen separate times!

The early practitioners were educated enough to avoid cutting into areas of the skull covered in muscle, tendon, blood supply or nerves, resulting in holes most commonly bored into the top areas of the cranium. The lengthy (unanaesthetised) process must have been horrendous, with around sixty percent of patients dying either during or shortly after the operation. By the sixteenth century A.D. the Incas had managed to improve the survival rate to about seventy-five percent; an impressive feat considering that modern Western medicine couldn’t do any better until the discovery of antiseptics during the latter part of the last century. “Around the time of Christ”,” the Roman physician Celsus publicised his variation on the technique, which then became predominant throughout the Middle Ages until relatively recently.

Trepanation and other forms of skull-binding have often been practiced by the priest-hoods of the majority of the world’s religions, with the classic Christian monk’s “Toncha” haircut said to be a relic of the art. The procedure has steadily declined in popularity over the past two hundred years, the last known examples being from Papa New Guinea and parts of Africa.

As far as is known, around twenty Europeans and Americans have so far quite literally “broken open” their heads. Some of these are active campaigners for trepanning, often citing their (unsubstantiated) belief that they have permanently increased the volume of blood in the brain, thus “raising consciousness” and resulting in a permanent high.

Notable trepanees include:
Bart Hughes – an eccentric and intelligent Dutch research librarian who first trepanned himself to prove his Brain Blood Volume theory.
Amanda Fielding – upper class British artist who filmed her 1970 self-surgery, now Lady Neidpath, campaigning for research into Psilocybin mushrooms as a depression cure.
Joe Mellen – self-trepanned advocate and art dealer from the UK.
Dr. James Neidpath – An Oxford don who underwent surgery in Cairo.
Jenny Gathorne-Hardy – English self-trepanee
Peter Halvorson – self-trepanned American.

Check Eli Kabillio’s “A Hole in the Head” and Amanda Fielding’s “Heartbeat in the Brain” documentaries if you’re interested…

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