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The Personality and the Brain

hmarcia's picture

Herman Marcia

Professor Grobstein

Neurobiology and Behavior


Second Web Paper


Personality and the Brain


Lobotomy, preformed mostly during the earlier half of the 20th century, was a form of phychosurgery in which surgeons would scrape at the frontal lobes of the brain through various surgical methods.  The idea behind these surgeries was that the nerves in the frontal lobe of the brain were somehow damaged or malformed, and this led to various problems from mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, to something as physical as back pain (About.)  Neurosurgeons believed that by scraping at these damaged or malformed frontal lobes, they would regenerate to a healthier state (About.)  The neurosurgeons then thought that once these frontal lobes healed, the patient would no longer experience any of the problems caused by the malformation (About.)  Besides the problematic ethics performing lobotomies, the results themselves proved problematic.  None of the patients that underwent lobotomy showed signs of improvement from their symptoms. Instead, they underwent radical changes in behaviors and attitudes, such as extreme passivity, which surgeons interpreted as improvements.  Through lobotomy, neurosurgeons began to understand how certain parts of the brain worked, and the effects of altering the brain, and therefore establishing the connection between the physical brain and the personality.                                                                                                                    

The first lobotomy occurred around 1890, when Friedrich Golz, a German scientist, removed portions of his dogs temporal lobes and found them to be less aggressive and calmer (Boeree.)  This new form of phychosurgery was followed by surgeries conducted by Gottleib Burkhardt, head of a Swiss mental institution, on six of his schizophrenic patients (Boerre.)  Some of Burkhardt patients became calmer as a result of the surgeries, and were therefore considered "cured", even though two of his patients died form complications that resulted from the surgeries (Boerre.)  Another surgeon, Antonio Egaz Moniz, popularized the use of lobotomy as a means of helping patients with mental illnesses (Boerre.)  In his research on lobotomies, Moniz found that cutting the nerves that run from the frontal cortex to the thalamus ended constant repetitive thoughts experienced by mental patients (Boerre.)  From Moniz's research, lobotomy became more and more respected and used in dealing with mental patients.  By 1949, Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on lobotomy (Boerre.)  

In the US, Walter Freeman, an American physician, became so satisfied with the results of his lobotomy surgeries that he went on to do many thousands more and began a campaign to promote its use (Boerre.)  Freeman recommended the procedure for everything from psychosis to depression to neurosis to criminality (Boerre.)  He invented a particular method of lobotomy called the ice pick lobotomy (Boerre.)  Impatient with the period's surgical methods, Freeman found that he could, with only local anesthetic, insert an ice pick above each eye of a patient, drive it through thin bone, which divides the brain from the optical nerves, with a light tap of a mallet, and swish the pick back and forth like a windshield wiper (Boerre.)  Freeman's procedure made lobotomy easier to conduct and as a result, lobotomy became more popular.  Between 1939 and 1951, over 18,000 lobotomies were performed in the US.  By the 1950s, people began protesting against the prevalence of lobotomies, and newer research at time questioned the merits of the procedure.  The general statistics provided by the research at the time showed that roughly a third of lobotomy patients improved, a third stayed the same, and the last third actually got worse (Boerre.)  By the end of the 1950's, doctors no longer saw lobotomy as a legitimate response to mental illness.                                                                

Although lobotomy was horrible, it does provide clues about the relationship between the brain and personality.  The research concerning the results of lobotomy found that 2/3 of the patients experienced changes in their personality.  The importance of the frontal lobes of the brain in relation to our personalities becomes noticeable in the effects of a lobotomy.  Some of the changes that occurred involved thinking processes.  Researchers found that some patients that underwent lobotomies were slowed in thinking and acting, became dull, lacked at times complete emotional expression, showed a reduction in interest, and loss in driving energy (Dewey.)  Other patients were found to be the opposite, they were uninhibited and euphoric (Dewey.)  However, a common trait that researchers did find was that the patients pursued immediate gratification without regard for consequences.  This in turn lead to many of the patients becoming fat. If food was set in front of them, they ate whether they were hungry or not.  Another common effect that the researchers recorded were that few of the lobotomy patients could plan effectively for the future or sustain goal-oriented activities. A goal requires that complicated plans be created, and this was beyond the capacity of most lobotomy patients, who tended to be distracted by immediate stimuli.  Interference with the frontal lobes of the brain led to all of these drastic changes to occur in the patients, which changed their thinking patterns and personalities.  Physical damage to the brain, in turn alters (or damages) non-tangible characteristics such as personalities. A starking example of an alteration that occurred after lobotomy comes from Sweden.  Dr. Gosta Rylander of Stockholm described a patient who he employed as a cook after the patient recovered from a prefrontal lobotomy.  Prior to the surgery, the patient was very innovative in the kitchen, but after the operation she began to display difficulty in using new recipes and made ridiculous mistakes while cooking.  When going out to buy food, the patient frequently disappeared for long periods, distracted by shop windows and often forgetting to buy the food.                                                                                                             

The effects on the patients appear to suggest that reduction of brain tissue, and number of neural circuits, is responsible for the effects of lobotomies.  It seems possible that one requires a certain number of healthy, unaltered brain nerves to conjure abstract, intangible things like goals, morals, intentions to diet, or even intentions to buy food.  Other research also points to the conclusion that neurological effects of lobotomies are caused not only by damage to the frontal lobes but also damage of large amounts of brain tissue almost anywhere in the brain. Lobotomies provided evidence that there was something special about the frontal lobes of the brain.  CAT scans have shown that the frontal lobes of the brain are activated when people exercise will power, make plans, or do creative thinking.  Our physical state of our brain is important to other aspects of our selves, such as personality.  Patients of lobotomy highlight this connection between the brain and the self.         







Work Cited 


"About Lobotomy."  3/20/10.  


Boerre, George.  "A Brief History of Lobotomy." 2001. 3/20/10. 


Dewey, Ross.  "The Effects of Lobotomy." 2007.     3/20/10.  



Serendip Visitor's picture

Chemical Lobotomy

Anti-psychotics and psychiatric so called 'medications' are chemical lobotomies. They have destroyed my brain permanently.

Biological psychiatry is the most evil thing in the world.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Recovery from severe depression + sleep deprivation + personalit

A few months ago, I had a manic episode. Scary, but dealable. Afterwards, I spend 6 weeks recovering at my parents' house, got on lithium, and felt good. I thought: this is manageable; I'm out of the woods. Then a month later, back at my home, I started getting depressed. I know this is a normal part of the bipolar cycle, but I thought I could "handle" it. I did some therapy, and rooted around for a psychiatrist, but didn't nip it in the bud. I also started waking up at 4 or 5. Then 2 or 3. I felt worse and worse (increasing depression and increasing sleep deprivation). I stopped feeling connected to the people around me. I saw a doc and tried a few medications for sleep (trazodone and doxepin). Trazodone (plus the lithium I'm on) made me feel ill, and doxepin (plus lith) made me feel screamingly anxious the first time I took it, then ill the second time. I vowed not to take it again, but got so desperate for sleep that I did, and woke up feeling confusion and disorientation.

Over the next six weeks, my mental health and ability to sleep deteriorated such that I ended up back at my folks' house, and will be seeing a doctor and therapist here next week.

I realize I managed this really badly. There's a lot I should have done differently, but here I am. And I'm terrified that I'm stuck with this new "self." I'm currently experiencing: no emotion; little sleep; loss of my personality from outgoing, intellectual, and joy-filled to flat, emotionless, and stupid; inability to form complex thoughts or conversation; inability to think about anything but this problem. No memory. Disorientation.

I also feel like my "inner life" is gone. I used to have a running commentary inside, and now there's nothing. I don't have preferences or emotion or taste. This is the scariest thing: my inner thoughts, and inner life, are gone. And I don't have an emotional connection to the world: I don't *feel* what I used to feel about friends, family, birds, trees. I can't think clearly or deeply. I feel aimless from the moment I wake up to when I go to sleep, with nothing pulling me in a direction. I don't have a sense of rootedness. I feel like I'm floating and my old self is gone. I don't have a sense of direction in my day, or in each hour, or minute. It feels like the frontal lobe of my brain got damaged somehow. I feel like I'm looking at the world through a sheet of glass, unable to connect with it.

Frankly, I don't recognize myself-- I feel like I've become a different person, who I don't like. My life feels like it happened to someone else. I had coffee with a friend yesterday, and I couldn't feel anything. She was so full of life, and I could only talk in short sentences. And I didn't even feel pain about it-- just blankness.

I know people recover from depression (I have in the past), but this somehow feels like more than depression, because there's no inner rumination and there's a complete loss of personality/identity. I'm afraid I've hurt my brain with the severe sleep deprivation/depression and maybe with the combination of medications (the waking confusion was alarming to me). I'm scared my brain has shifted into some other homeostasis and this zombie-self is permanent.

I know the brain is plastic, but this feels permanent. Do people recover from things like this? Can I get back to myself?

tammy b's picture

my testimony to Antidressants


Serendip Visitor's picture


I had 'psychosis' three years ago.

Went into a hospital. Didn't tell me anything and just sent me to a mental hospital.

Where I began taking meds. ( risperdal , Prozac , busebar , and even some of the meds you mentioned up there ^)
And when I first got to the hospital I was in a state of disillusion , and panic. I could think clearly , but just felt all that shit. But when I started taking those bullshit meds. I started to feel different. In a BAD way. You completely described how I feel in your comment... I've took those meds for about 3 years and just recently stopped them all together. ( would have quit sooner but I was below the age of 18 and my parents uses the leverage of throwing me in a mental hospital for a long time against me.. But anyways , I have been off those gay ass meds for like .. 2-4 months. And I feel like I am still a zombie.

My theory is that these meds have wanted adverse effects.. By doctors.. I'd enjoy talking to you more , email me or something.

Serendip Visitor's picture

My friend believe what you

My friend believe what you may, but you need Jesus. He died for your sins because he loves you. He will restore you and give you purpose. Because you have a purpose! You have special gifts inside of you that only you can do and the world needs them. We feel lost when we are not living with purpose. Only with God can anything have purpose. Don't take my word for it, try it your self. What do you have to lose? Sounds like nothing to me. Ask him he's listening.

Paul Grobstein's picture

frontal lobes: personality, will, creativity

Interesting mix of things.  What are the relations among personality, will, and creativity?  Should we interpret the observations as an indication that all three things are being done by the frontal lobes?  If so, why these particular three?  An alternative possibility is that the frontal lobes are involved in some function that contributes to all three.  What might that function (or functions) be?