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Great Myths of the Brain by Christian Jarrett

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2Myth-Based Brain Practices

Since the dawn of history, mythical ideas about the brain have informed various neurosurgical and psychological practices. This chapter documents three that have entered psychiatric and neurological folklore: trepanation, phrenology, and lobotomy. True to their mythical status, these practices refuse to die away. Trepanning appears in contemporary films and is advocated by Internet eccentrics; phrenology busts stare out from bric-a-brac shops around the world; and lobotomy has evolved into more advanced forms of psychosurgery, such as deep brain stimulation and the implantation of stem cells.

Myth #5 Drilling a Hole in the Skull Releases Evil Spirits

Trepanning or trephining – a practice that began in prehistoric times – is the deliberate creation of holes in the skull (see Plate 9). The procedure is still performed by surgeons today for exploratory purposes, to relieve intracranial pressure, or to remove blood clots on the surface of the brain. However, its historic use without anesthesia has often been based around mythical beliefs about the brain, including the release of evil spirits or demons. Even today, some people – including remote tribes peoples and misguided eccentrics – continue to perform trepanation for scientifically unfounded reasons.

Archaeological evidence suggests trepanning was used in preliterate cultures all over the world from the Americas to Arabia.1 The earliest confirmed trepanned skull was found in France and is estimated to be ...

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