More than a hole in the head – the leaking of modern minds

5 minute read

Boring holes in some poor sod's head to release demons has come a long way as a surgical technique


The expression ‘a hole in the head’ has more application than one could imagine.

Trepanning, the process of drilling a hole in the skull, holds the distinction of being the oldest surgical operation. Circumcision admittedly may have beaten it but, as discarded foreskins are oddly reluctant to fossilise, it will remain an open question.

Archaeological evidence for trepanning goes back at least 5,500 years (some say 10,000 years), a time when shamans, witchdoctors and spirit healers saw illness as possession by demons who had to be released from the afflicted person.

Trepanning was done by drilling, scraping or boring through the bony skull to the soft protective membranes lining the brain. Thus were released the invading demons.

This evolved into trephining, the modern surgical procedure to relieve pressure on the brain from bleeding caused by a blow to the head.

Recent studies, ranging from the Aztecs to New Guinea, show that the ancient head borers were doing just the same thing.

The holes were located in the right place to let out the imprisoned blood – something that requires accurate neurological diagnosis –  the plant and herb products used for plugs maintained a sterile field free of infection and there was an excellent recovery rate comparable to modern aseptic surgery.

In its museum collection, Sydney University has some fine examples of the instruments used for trepanning by the Toltai people of New Guinea.

Now that surgical trephining is a routine procedure, you would think that trepanning is an artifact left for archaeologists and anthropologists to coo and murmur over. Think again – and then again.

Remember the age we live in: one where the irrational, the mystical, the magical and the millennial is embraced, if not worshiped by millions of vapid, self indulgent and sub-threshold educated social media junkies; the ineffable in pursuit of the unattainable: wellness.

Showing that humourists are adept at tapping into future trends, the 1982 book ‘Do-it-yourself brain surgery & other home skills’ gave detailed illustrated instructions to the wannabe neurosurgeon using easily available tools like electric drills and benchtop vices.

This, as even the most superficial perusal will show, was meant to be funny but the one thing the wellness set do not possess is a sense of humour.

What part the book played in a new lifestyle choice is unclear but a group of people became enthusiasts for opening up their skull to increase the blood flow to the brain, expanding consciousness and improving mental health.

The theory – and there is always a crackpot idea that attains the status of holy writ – comes from the Dutch doctor Bart Huges.

In 1962 he had the stunning idea that our level of consciousness depends on the volume of blood in the brain. From this it was deduced that as the skull cannot expand after early childhood, a hole in the bone would improve blood flow as well as allow the toxins to be removed by cerebro-spinal fluid.

Huges proceeded to drill a hole in his skull, experienced a revelation and began to proselytize the virtues of cranial trepanation as an alternative to psychedelics. Unimpressed, Dutch authorities tipped him into a house for the insane for a while but he was assured of a hit with the crank folk by dropping the magic word ‘toxins’.

Huges soon became a guru figure for a London upper class set including aristocrats and rock stars.

One of them was Joe Mellem who was very taken by Huges’ ideas on the use of LSD. He decided to take the next step of opening his skull and went ahead with this, nearly killing himself in the first attempt. He was to describe his experiences in the book Bore Hole, a title that is subject to multiple interpretations.

The enthusiasm passed on to his partner, queen of the head holers, Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wemyss and March.

Unable to find a cooperative doctor (strangely enough), in 1970 she did the job herself with the kind of equipment you can get at any hardware store – it is unknown whether she used the book as guide – claiming to experience a remarkable improvement in awareness and making a film of the procedure.

Feilding is a director of the Beckley Foundation, an organization to investigate consciousness raising. Her enthusiasm led her to run twice for parliament on the platform “Trepanation for the National Health” – surely the most original slogan in democracy – and, as proof of its pulling power, getting 49 and 139 votes. Her platform must have led to some great stump speeches.

Feilding continues to get trepanned, saying that as the hole grows closed, she needs to get re-bored – the plumbing analogy is striking. Happily, she found someone in Egypt to do the job.

What the authorities think of this remains to be seen. For the rest of us, trepanning is definitely one of those activities for which a consumer warning is required: do not do this on yourself under any circumstances.

There is a message in this somewhere.

We live longer and are healthier than at any time in history. The standard of living has never been higher and material life is growing all the time. Yet for some people, this is not enough.

Minatory anti-intellectualism and internet-fed auto-didacticism combines with rampaging narcissism to create a pullulating caucus of wellness fanatics.

Their causes are multiple, anti-vaccination being just one; and it won’t be long before illness terrorism, the demi-monde of the movement starts to take lives.

Forget about absence of humour; the one thing they cannot tolerate is any view that does not accord with their own.

Totalitarianism, as if it needed it, has found a new home.


Everybody needs a hobby. Robert M Kaplan likes to write about doctors, patients and illnesses. The consequences have been dire, reducing him to long conversations with his birds Puddle & Puke.

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