History of trepanation

Trepanation is the practice of removing a piece of the skull to expose part of the brain. It's one of the oldest known surgical procedures, dating back at least to 6500 BC. It's still practiced today, for medical reasons and also voluntarily to achieve enlightenment. Ten years ago, I wrote an article for bOING bOING Digital about Peter Halvorson, a guy who drilled a hole in his head to yield a permanent high. Peter is now the director of the International Trepanation Advocacy Group. For even more on trepanation through the ages, check out "An illustrated history of trepanation" newly posted to the Neurophilosophy blog. From the article:
 Neurophilosophy Finger Fig01M Small In the earliest European trepanned skulls, the holes were made by scraping the bone away with sharp stones such as flint or obsidian; later, primitive drilling tools were used to drill small holes arranged in circles, after which the piece of bone inside the circle was removed. The late Medieval period saw the introduction of mechanical drilling and sawing instruments, whose sophistication would continue to increase for several hundred years.

There is a great deal of speculation about why ancient civilizations used trepanation, as it was - and still is - carried out in the absence of head trauma. However, it is almost certain that all those who used it did so because they somehow linked the brain with behaviour. Some anthropologists suggest that trepanation was performed as part of tribal or superstitious rituals. Other researchers believe that the procedure was used as a treatment for conditions such as headaches, epilepsy, hydrocephalus and mental disorders. These were presumably attributed to possession by evil demons, such that a hole in the skull would have provided the spirits a passage for escape. Although the reasons for trepanning and the instruments used for the procedure differ with time and from culture to culture, the result is always the same: a hole in the head, usually made when the individual was fully conscious and, often, unanaesthetized.
Link to Neurophilsophy blog, Link to my article on bOING bOING Digital

16

  1. “In 1632, Joannis Scultetus, who was one of the most accomplished seventeenth century surgeons, described an instrument called a trioploides, which he used for raising depressed skull fractures.”

    For some reason, upon reading this sentence, I immediately thought of this: http://tinyurl.com/2ttnfh

  2. My last name is Trepanier and I have been hoping to find an insane surgeon somewhere in the origins of the name, but nothing yet.

    Does anyone know if the name came from the procedure or the procedure from the name?

  3. Trepanation is… still practiced today, for medical reasons and also voluntarily to achieve enlightenment.

    The only “enlightenment” you’d get from putting a hole in your head is from the photons that might seep into your brain cavity.

  4. I guess it’s a sign of the “new” BoingBoing that there are scores of people who have nothing better to do with their time than to drill holes in their heads.

    Why do you hate America so much?

  5. Trepanned skulls figure prominently in The Golden Compass (the book; I assume it’s not in the movie). The obvious reason to do it is to let Dust in or out.

  6. I met a man named Ben in Oaxaca city, it was on Day of the Dead, no less. Ben was on his way to Brazil to meet his great friend, Ahuayasca. Ben had drilled a hole in his head once. I will post the entire story here sometime. One of the strangest stories I’ve ever heard. So strange that I forced myself to write it all down before I went to sleep that night.

  7. The article states that trepanation was done while the subject was awake and without anaesthetic. I wonder how that is known. I can believe there’s no evidence to the contrary, but then what would one expect to find, a video of the procedure from the dark ages?
    It’s widely suspected that while we may not know what exotic combinations of chemicals and other manipulative techniquest being used back then to make the subject tractible during the operation, I’d be surprised if, at the very least, the local harvest of mushrooms or other natural intoxicants weren’t somehow involved.
    And for those of you who’ve never had a really really …I mean REALLY bad headache, you might not understand that the idea of somehow carving into one’s own skull can sound like a good idea.
    Also..the entire nature of pain and its connection to our perception of it is so poorly understood that when it comes to body manipulations, injuries and practices that seem painful, I have to believe the greatest pain is the result of the empathy in the observer.
    I would suppose once the trepination wound is healed there could be some interesting effects achievable by placing ones finger on the spot…in a “knowing” way.

  8. #15: And for those of you who’ve never had a really really …I mean REALLY bad headache, you might not understand that the idea of somehow carving into one’s own skull can sound like a good idea.

    I suffer from severe migraine and chronic sinusitis. I have, at times, considered at great length drilling holes in my head in the vague hope that it would help.

    I wouldn’t say I was entirely serious with my plans, but they always remind me of the way a seriously suicidal person often goes through a long planning period and possibly “dry runs” before going through with the act.

    If I hadn’t got my sinusitis and my migraines under control, I would not be surprised if I had eventually ended up with a hole in my head out of desperation. Kill or cure…

Comments are closed.