On January 11th, 1965, at an art happening in Amsterdam’s Dam Square, failed med student turned New Age medical revolutionary Bart Huges slowly began to uncover his self-inflicted head wound. Though his audience was composed of some of the grooviest, most psychedelically-minded people in Europe, few could have been prepared for what lay beneath the thirty-two meters of day-glo surgical gauze: a gaping, pulsating hole boring directly into the outer layers of Huges’ brain!
Trepanation, the act of drilling a hole into one’s skull, has its roots in the mystical/therapeutic practices of prehistoric civilization. Archaeologists have unearthed trepanned bone fragments in every continent except Antarctica, with some samples dating as far back as 10,000 BC.1
Greek physicians like Hippocrates performed trepanations in cases where traumatic head trauma had damaged a patient’s skull.2
The Roman surgical pioneer Galen used the procedure to relieve intracranial pressure caused by brain hemorrhaging.2 A similar surgery is still controversially employed today under the term “craniectomy.”3
Huges, however, did not drill a hole in his head to relieve any acute physical trauma. He was, from a purely physiological standpoint, healthy. So was his disciple Joe Mellen, who chronicled his own self-trepanning experience in the autobiography “Bore Hole.” So was Joe’s wife, Amanda Fielding, whose trepanation was the subject of the terrifying short film, “Heartbeat and the Brain.”
Their desire to crack into their own skull was born out of a longing to restore their mind’s youthful vitality.
After all, we’re all born with holes in our head. Evolution has sectioned the infant skull into a series of jointed plates, so we can flex and squeeze our heads through mom’s narrow birth canal.
Soft spots on the head (called fontanels) visibly throb to the baby’s heartbeat, revealing cavities where bone has yet to form. As we mature, these fontanels close up. Our mind loses its pulsating vitality, Huges claims, as precious blood is literally squeezed out.4 Our brain suffocates inside our own skull!
Since intracranial pressure in a healthy adult is between 7-15mmHg5, and atmospheric pressure is around 760mmHg, Huges theorized that cutting a hole in his skull would raise the pressure inside his head. This in turn, would squeeze out a portion of the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), thus increasing what he termed “brainbloodvolume,” or the ratio of blood to CSF in the head.6
Greater brainbloodvolume means more oxygen to the brain. More oxygen means more brainpower, more mental energy, and a faster cerebral metabolism.7
Similar benefits could be achieved by standing on one’s head, which Huges’ claims his father did every morning—“to keep fit.”6
Psychoactive drugs can also dramatically speed up the brain’s metabolism, though the effects wear off quickly.7 Huges promoted the use of “psychovitamins” like pot and LSD (guy named his daughter Maria Juana).6 But he cautioned that massive increases in brainbloodvolume necessitated the ingestion of massive quantities of glucose. For an ordinary acid trip, the recommended dosage is no less than a pound of sugar!6
All this making sense so far? Huges was surprised by the profoundly negative reaction many scientists and journalists had to his work, which was first published on a scroll entitled “Homo Sapiens Correctus” (brief note for aspiring mad scientists: if you want to convince skeptical academics of a revolutionary theory, it’s probably best not to reveal your findings in scroll form).
He believed the mark he bore on his forehead was the herald of a revolution. “Gravity is the enemy. The adult is its victim – society is its disease…I think that no construction of adults can work optimally unless each adult in the construction is trepanned.”6
Unsurprisingly, Huges convinced few to follow him on this oddly brutal path towards hippie enlightenment. But the supporters he did gather were extremely devoted to the cause. Amanda Fielding twice ran for British Parliament on the platform that trepanation should be freely available for all citizens. She got 139 votes in her local district in 1983.8 Peter Halvorson founded the International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG), which promotes scientific research into the benefits of the procedure.9
Most neuroscientists will tell you, out of no animosity towards Huges, that his theory is total bunk. That’s right you heard me—BUNK! It’s blood flow not blood volume that is implicated in brain function.9 And, according to associate professor of neurosurgery at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston J. Bob Blacklock, “there is no reason to believe drilling a hole in the head will increase blood flow to the brain.”9
However, in the spirit of anti-skepticism that this blog is, I guess, founded on, I should note that there is some apparently scientific support for Huges’ theory. In a study funded by the ITAG (translated pdf here), and published in Fiziologiya Cheloveka (which as far as I can tell is a real sciencey-type journal), researchers found that trepanned skulls did experience an increase in intracranial blood volume “during systolic elevation of arterial pressure increases” (i.e. they throbbed viscerally during heartbeats).10
Take it with a grain of salt…or a pound of sugar. Whether the theory’s true or false doesn’t make it any less insane. Huges, as an unlicensed, amateur science blogger, it’s my solemn duty the bestow upon you a most grave diagnosis: incurable science-madness!
1. Kim, D.J. (2004). The appeal of holes in the head. W.A. Whitelaw (Ed.), Proceedings of the 13th Annual History of Medicine Days, 17-24.
2. Missios, S. (2007). Hippocrates, Galen, and the uses of trepanation in the ancient classical world. Neurosurgical Focus, 23(1):E:11, 1-9.
3. Kudo, H., Kawaguchi, T., Minami, H., Kuwamura, K., Miyata, M., Kohmura, E. (2007). Controversy of Surgical Treatement for Severe Cerebellar Infarction. Journal of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, 16(6), 259-262.
4. Mitchell, J. (1999). Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press.
5. Steiner, L.A., Andrews, P.J.D. (2006). Monitoring the injured brain: ICP and CBF. British Journal of Anaesthesia, 97(1), 26-38.
6. Mellen, J. (1966-1967, Winter). The hole to luck – interview with famous self-trepanner Dr. Bart Huges as questioned by Joe Mellen. The Transatlantic Review, 23. (It’s worth a read: http://lundissimo.info/docs/trep/luck_hole.html)
7. Mellen, J. (n.d.) Mind at large – the mechanism of brainbloodvolume. Retreived Jan 7, 2011, from http://joemellen.net/brainbloodvolume.html
8. Turner, C. (2007-2008, Winter). Like a hole in the head. Cabinet, 28. (url: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/28/turner.php)
9. Colton, M. (1998, May 31). You need it like…a hole in the head. The Washington Post. (url: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/features/trepan.htm)
10. Moskalenko, Y.E., Weinstein, G.B., Kravchenko, T.I., Mozhaev, S.V., Semernya, V.N., Feilding, A., Halvorson, P., Medvedev, S.V. (2009). The effect of craniotomy on the intracranial hemodynamics and cerebrospinal fluid dynamics in humans. Fiziologiya Cheloveka, 34(3), 41-48.