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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

Trepanation, Spirituality and Loneliness

Lara Kallich

The search for a "higher level of consciousness" is one that seems to be as old as consciousness itself. Practices such as the ritualistic or religious consumption of peyote, ayahuasca, psilocybe mushrooms or other such naturally-occuring hallucinogenic drugs, self-deprivation and transcendental meditation are just a few of the countless ways in which mankind has sought to expand the limits of human experience; these practices are still a mainstay in many modern countercultures. They are also very well-known and documented practices. There exists, however, a radical surgical procedure, as old as the aforementioned practices but far less notorious in the general public, which purports to result in the same sort of enlightenment: trepanation, also known as trephination.

(Be prepared: likely, the primary reason that trepanation has not received so much attention from popular culture is that it is far more extreme than the other methods mentioned above.) What is trepanation? Strictly speaking, it is the practice of drilling, scraping or in any other way creating a small hole in the skull down to, but not through, the dura mater, or the thick, tough membrane that contains the brain. Archeological evidence tells us that it was performed by ancient cultures on every continent; the oldest trepanned skulls that have currently been found date as far back as 3000 B.C (approximately). In almost all cases, the evidence points to the trepanation having been performed with skill and a great deal of precision - it was clearly a procedure that had ritualistic import. (1)

What purpose could this operation possibly serve? In early documented incarnations, trepanation existed as a cure for mental illness - it was believed that mental illnesses were the result of demons living within the skull, and thus a hole was made in the skull through which these demons could escape. The more modern perspective on trepanation as a means of expanding consciousness was started in by Bart Hughes when his text "The Mechanism of Brainbloodvolume ('BBV')" was published in 1962. (1) Bart Hughes' theory can be summed up as follows: " we mature and age our skulls harden, restricting blood flow to the capillaries of the brain....children, especially babies with their "soft spot", had a clearer outlook on the world because their brains were free to receive more cerebral blood volume than...our adult brains with hermetically-sealed skulls." (1) There are many ways to increase brainbloodvolume (the self-explanatory term coined by Hughes, hereafter referred to as BBV) temporarily, such as standing on one's head, quickly moving from a hot to a cold bath, or the consumption of psychedelic drugs; however, according to Hughes trepanation is the only way to increase BBV permanently. (2) The supposed result of this permanent increase in BBV is greater mental acuity and stamina, amplified sensory experience, relief from nameless anxiety; overall, a far improved sense of well-being. (3) In 1965, Hughes became the first person ever to successfully trepan himself. (4)

Since that time, the concept of trepanation as a route to spiritual awakening as championed by Hughes has been publicly lambasted by licensed medical professionals, who claim that all the positive changes noticed by those who have been trepanned can just as easily and plausibly be attributed to the placebo effect; Hughes himself has been denounced as dangerously insane, having at one point been forcibly detained in a hospital for three weeks. (1) However, he accrued a following despite the odds. Amanda Feilding and Joey Mellen are contented self-trepanned owners of an art gallery in London; they lecture all over Europe, showing the film that Mellen made of Fielding's self-trepanation called Heartbeat in the Brain. (2) Furthermore, there exists an organization called the International Trepanation Advocacy Group, of which Bart Hughes is a member, devoted solely to promoting the benefits of the procedure. The group owns a facility in Mexico where volunteers can be trepanned.

Not all those who have been trepanned have the same glowing response to it, however. One individual (whose name was not given either by himself or his interviewer) wrote a detailed account of his trepanation, which was performed by a close friend with several witnesses, and his experiences during the month that immediately followed it. At first, he experienced all of the changes that the literature on the operation promised - increased alertness and sensory perception, higher sense of well-being, and so on. However, his account ends with a rather abrupt about-face: he writes that, after some serious consideration, he realized that everything he experienced could be attributed either to the placebo effect or to the fact that he was already observing his feelings, thoughts and perceptions extremely closely in order to observe the possible results of the operation. (3) He concludes with the following statement: "Trepanation has no more physiological effect than any other trauma. I believe it is possible to so thoroughly convince yourself you feel different that you will, but I don't believe there is any pronounced or otherwise verifiable physiological improvement.... I enjoyed life more afterward because of the simple fact that it was still happening and I didn't kill myself. This kind of renewed vigor could be created by any survival of a possibly near-death experience. I conclude it does not do what many hope it will." (3)

What is interesting to note about this individual's account is that, despite the negative conclusions at which he was forced to arrive, he wrote that he did not regret his trepanation. Why? Because, although it did not have for him exactly the lasting physiological effects that he had hoped for, he felt that it did help him to a sort of spiritual awakening, due to the fact that in the month following the procedure he was extremely focussed on his thoughts and senses.

We have so far spoken a great deal about spirituality without explaining it, so at this point we should ask the question "What is spirituality?" Essentially, we can understand it as a state of mind in which one feels more connected with "soul" or some higher, deeper form of being; also it can be the practice or study which has that connectedness as its goal. Religion is an organized, formalized subset of spirituality; one can be spiritually-minded without being at all religious (one can also be religious without being spiritual, but that's a different matter). Spiritual awakening, supposedly, is the all-important "moment of realization" - though the term "moment" is used very loosely here, for many traditions hold that spiritual awakening is a life-long process. It is the point at which one finally becomes conscious of the connectedness of which we just spoke, the point at which the individual breaks through the barrier between his own bundle of thoughts, feelings and perceptions and the "higher level". "Expanded consciousness", "elevated level of being" - although true seekers of these sorts of states might argue that they are not precisely the same as spiritual awakening, for our purposes we can understand these kinds of terms as meaning something very similar.

But here we come to another question: "What is the self?" As we said above, the self is composed of a single bundle of thoughts and feelings and perceptions. However, we must mention further that that bundle comprises all that can ever be experienced and conceived of by the individual. All that we know and believe comes from that bundle, for it is all that we can access; it is un-transcend-able, in a manner of speaking. I may be able to comprehend another person's perceptions or thoughts or feelings because, when he speaks of them to me, I find that they are like my own on some level, or at least that they seem to be the results of similar experiences that I have had. However, I can never have another person's perceptions; I can never think his thoughts or feel his feelings. More significantly, by the same token, we can never see things from the perspective of a higher, objective entity. In this sense, therefore, we as individuals are completely isolated from one another and from whatever higher form of being there might be.

This is a very lonely state of affairs. If this knowledge were an integral part of everyday human consciousness, most would not be able to function.

Which brings me to my point: the individual who comes to this realization must act in whatever way possible so as to lessen or eradicate the pain that accompanies it in order to continue with his life. The ways in which one can accomplish this are infinite; the individual would select a course of action that is compatible with his overall disposition. Certain people who are so inclined, therefore, will choose to pursue what we have called spiritual awakening. One way to ease the pain of being an isolated unit is to maintain the belief that one's current isolation within the self does not necessarily entail that there is nothing that exists beyond the self; if one takes action to forcibly alter the self - that is to say, to forcibly alter that which one thinks, perceives, and feels - then one may have a chance at accessing that which is beyond.

Where does trepanation fit into all of this?

Depending on the individual, the realization that we are isolated units will come with varying degrees of intensity. For some, it may only take the form of a nagging doubt in the back of the mind; for others, however, it may appear as a glaring, inescapable reality. The more intense the realization, the more radical the reaction must necessarily be. I argue that the existence of the modern practice of trepanation as a route to spiritual awakening is excellent evidence of this fact. The individuals who have undergone trepanation are - I would venture to say without exception - individuals for whom the pursuit of higher consciousness has been a life-long endeavor; having found that other routes, such as the consumption of hallucinogens, were unsatisfactory, they eventually came upon trepanation. It was the most radical action available; in other words, it was an act of desperation. Those who choose to be trepanned are those to whom the realization described above is nearly intolerable; they will take any action, even one as extreme as the act of physically drilling a hole in the skull, if it is promised to them that the result will be a more spiritually awakened life - i.e. a life in which the pain of being alone has been lessened.


1. the International Trepanation Advocacy Group's website; contains or at least gives you access to pretty much everything there is to know about the practice of trepanation

2. excerpt from the book Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions; contains information about Amanda Feilding and Joey Mellen

3. detailed firsthand account of an individual who was trepanned

4. an interview with Bart Hughes conducted by Joey Mellen; also contains a detailed explication of Hughes' theory

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