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T h e_.h o l e _s t o r y

Drilling your skull: Is it the way to bliss or just extremely dangerous? 

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By Jon Bowen

April 29, 1999 | Feeling depressed? Lethargic? Shell-shocked by life's little bombardments? You could try meditation. Or yoga. Or color therapy. Or herbal remedies. Or, if you prefer drastic measures, you could drill a hole in your head.

The practice of making a hole in the skull, known as trepanation, has been around since the Stone Age. Along with circumcision it's one of our oldest surgical procedures -- archaeologists have found trepanned skulls dating back to 3000 B.C. Hippocrates, in his classic medical text "On Injuries of the Head," endorsed trepanation for the treatment of head wounds. During medieval times, the procedure was thought to liberate demons from the heads of the possessed and, later on, Europeans did it to cure a hodgepodge of maladies ranging from meningitis to epilepsy.

The procedure, from a technical standpoint, is simplicity's model. An instrument called a trepan is used to make the hole. Throughout history, the trepanning tool has developed dramatically, evolving from a crude hunk of sharpened flint in prehistoric times to a hand-cranked auger in the first century to, nowadays, an electric drill. Anyway, the trepan goes into your skull and a chunk of bone is extracted. You bandage yourself up and eventually the skin heals over, leaving only a small indentation to show for the hole in your head.

But why -- with all of today's sophisticated therapies -- go for the hole? The idea is to pump up your "brainbloodvolume," a term coined by Dutchman Bart Huges, the guru of modern-day trepanation. Back in the psychedelic '60s, at the height of the age of mind expansion, Huges decided to expand -- literally -- his own brain. Your level of consciousness, goes Huges' theory, is directly related to the volume of blood in your brain. Babies have naturally high brainbloodvolume, being born with a soft spot at the top of their heads -- the fontanel -- that gives the brain room to pulse. (When you look at a baby's head, you can actually see the pliant tissue at the fontanel throbbing with the baby's heartbeat, pumping oxygen through the brain.) Within the first year, though, that soft tissue hardens into bone.

And therein, says Huges, lies the problem. Once the fontanel seals off, your brain has no proper vent through which to breathe. To make matters worse, the upright stance you adopt as a toddler allows gravity to pull blood away from your head -- the beginning of a lifelong drain. Pulsation decreases. Brainbloodvolume plummets. You get lethargic, estranged, depressed. What can you do?

You can dabble in one or all of modernity's modest remedies, or you can do like Bart Huges and get yourself trepanned. By opening up that hole -- a sort of do-it-yourself fontanel -- you reverse nature's wayward development and return your skull to its original condition. As a result, trepanners say, you'll be happier, more energetic and less prone to crippling bouts of ennui. You'll ascend to the child's plane of acute consciousness from which you disembarked to enter the lowly malaise of adulthood. Basically, you'll feel like a kid again.

Just listen to Pete Halvorson, a Huges disciple who now directs the International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG): "With trepanation, you can willfully and deliberately accelerate your brain metabolism. You have a higher level of consciousness. You're optimistic and upbeat. You look at problems as a source of entertainment. You'll feel good your whole life."

 Next page | "Absolute, unequivocal bullshit"

Illustration by Melinda Beck

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