There are plenty of ways to achieve a higher state of consciousness. Most of them involve ingesting some kind of psychoactive substance, a couple are based around getting in a white tank filled with water and a few more derive from sitting in front of a flashing light, sober, while listening to trance. But, as far as I know, only one requires you to drill a hole into your forehead.
Trepanation, a procedure where a small hole is drilled into the skull and left to heal naturally, can reportedly produce a prolonged positive effect on the trepanned individual's mood and overall state of well-being. There's little hard scientific evidence to suggest that trepanning has any tangible benefits, but people have been doing it for tens of thousands of years, so there has to be something that keeps them coming back to mechanically inserting pieces of metal into the front of their skulls.
Amanda Feilding is the director of the Beckley Foundation, a trust that – for over a decade – has been carrying out research into consciousness. Their work spans across the entire mind-altering spectrum, from cannabis and LSD to Buddhist meditation, and is one of the leading organisations looking into the scientific physiology behind trepanation. In the early 1970s, Amanda trepanned herself when she couldn't find a doctor to do it for her, and has since become somewhat of an authority on the practice.
I visited Amanda's home on the outskirts of Oxford to talk about trepanation and how she carried out the operation on herself.
Amanda in 2012.
VICE: So Amanda, can you give me a potted history of trepanation?
Amanda Feilding: Trepanation is the oldest surgical operation in the world, dating back to at least 10,000 BC, and has been carried out by independent civilisations in nearly every continent on the planet. From South America to Neolithic Europe, the practice has a rich and diverse history. Shiva, the Hindu god of altered consciousness, was trepanned; it was done by monks in Tibet and up to the modern day in Africa.
What do you mean by "modern day"?
The 20th century. I knew someone from Nigeria in the 60s who said that, when he was 13, the "hip" boys of the village went out with the shaman and got trepanned.
Did it have a legitimate medicinal purpose?
Absolutely. These civilisations couldn't hypothesise scientifically on the physiology behind trepanation, so they gave it their own esoteric explanation. In other places it was described as "letting light in" or "letting devils out". It has been successfully used to treat chronic headaches, epilepsy and migraines, and it was surprisingly common until the First World War, when doctors started doing lobotomy – that's when it was suddenly seen as a primitive practice. My father's encyclopaedia from 1912 says that trepanation was being increasingly used in the treatment of mental disorders. In fact, it's still regularly used today to enter the brain for operations, but the hole is often filled.
Did it have a religious significance?
For some, trepanation was a ritualistic practice in which the shamans, the kings and the priests were trepanned. I'd suggest this was because, particularly in South American societies, these higher sects were the ones taking psychoactive drugs. The lifting of the baseline brought about by trepanation gave them less of a distance to come down from after the drugs wore off.
Okay. You're trepanned yourself – what attracted you to it?
In the 60s I was doing a lot of work on comparative religions and mysticism, and I heard of a Dutch scientist who had trepanned himself and had a theory of the underlying physiological changes brought about by it. I didn't know him before he was trepanned, which meant I didn't know what changes had come about. Even though I was interested in trepanation, I wasn't particularly concerned with having it done myself.
But I had another friend who did it and I noticed a definite change in him that was very subtle – a mellowing, a lessening of the neurotic behaviour that we all have. I knew him exceptionally well and did notice a difference. Later, another friend had it done who had chronic headaches that caused him to lose a day or two a week, but he hasn't had those headaches for the last 30 years. I started to seek out a doctor who would trepan me, including a doctor to the royal family who was very interested. He, in fact, had a hole in his head from an accident as a child. After four years of unsuccessful searching, I decided to do it myself.
A trepanned skull found in Peru. (Photo via)
What sort of preparations did you make?
I was obviously very cautious and prepared myself very carefully. I used an electrical drill with a flat bottom and a foot pedal, and tested the drill head on the membranes of my hand to see if it would damage the skin. The whole thing was carefully prepared, but more than anything I prepared myself psychologically. It's the last thing you want to do.
Yeah, drilling a hole in your head kind of goes against every instinct.
Then I thought I'd make a film about it, being an artist. It was useful making the film, because it felt like I was separating myself from the situation and taking a step away.
So you've got the physical anaesthetic, then the mental "anaesthetic" of treating it as a piece of artwork.
Yeah, it was effective. After I'd performed the procedure, I wrapped up my head with a scarf, had a steak to replace iron from the lost blood and went to a party. It doesn't set you back at all – it doesn't incapacitate you. It's just a half-hour operation. But in no way am I advocating the idea of self-trepanation; it should always be carried out by members of the medical profession.
How did you feel after the procedure?
I described it at the time as feeling like the tide coming in: there was a feeling of rising, slowly and gently, to levels that felt good, very subtle. One very clear thing I noticed was the change in the dream pattern: my dreams became much less anxious – that was quite noticeable. Could all of that be described as a placebo? There is, of course, that possibility, and I am very conscious of that. I have to say I noticed enough of a change to keep me interested, and noticed it in the people who I knew well who also got trepanned. I noticed a fundamental change in all of them.
So what's the main premise behind trepanation?
When a baby is born, the top of the skull is very soft and flexible. First, the fontanelle [the soft area on the top of the skull] closes, then the skull bones close, which inhibits the full pulsation of the heartbeat – so it is denied its full expression in the brain, so to speak. That loss of "pulse pressure" results in a change of ratio between the two fluids in the brain: blood and cerebral spinal fluid. It is blood that feeds the brain cells with what they need, such as glucose and oxygen. The cerebral spinal-fluid removes some of the toxic molecules.
Trepanation works by restoring the full pulse pressure of the heartbeat. Then the capillaries slightly blow up and squeeze out an equal amount of the cerebral spinal-fluid. When the circulation becomes sluggish [when not enough cerebral spinal-fluid is being pumped into the brain], stagnant pools can build up and this can contribute to the onset of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's.
A 17th century trepanation kit gifted to Amanda.
Okay. After setting up the Beckley Foundation, you started to work on research into the effects and possible benefits of trepanation. What things did you investigate?
The research that I've been doing with the Russian scientist Professor Moskalenko observed patients who were being trepanned for other operations and what happened when the bone was removed and not replaced. It did provide more blood to the brain and, with those subjects who had their hole filled, it then decreased. It's clear that making the hole increases the cerebral circulation and that closing it diminishes it. But research with a healthy population is needed.
The second piece of research we did was with people with varying stages of Alzheimer's. It showed that these people's cerebral spinal fluid had much lower mobility than someone who had a "healthy" cerebral circulation. It wasn't a lack of blood in the brain of these patients that was the problem, it was a lack of washing out of the toxic molecules by cerebral spinal fluid. This research contributed to the development of a device that can measure these things, possibly acting as an early warning signal for brain diseases.
Whether trepanation can act as a preventive measure to combat these diseases, and whether it does have other effects, is research that I would love to conduct in the future. This is still a hypothesis, one which isn't provable at the moment because I don't think we have the instrumentation to fully investigate it yet. But it seems that this is what trepanation has historically been used for, even if the people doing it at the time didn't understand the reasoning behind it. The research we did on trepanation, which was only done on about 15 people, is not nearly enough to make any concrete scientific claims. We need more research with more people.
Would you be doing the research even if you weren't trepanned?
Yes, I think so. But I suppose that my personal experience of getting trepanned – which I, of course, would not put total faith in – gave me the feeling that it is worthy of research.
How are you going about doing that research?
It's difficult: although it's not illegal to trepan, it's not exactly legal, either. It's a catch-22. You can't get the research authorised because there's not enough evidence to support it, but you can't get the evidence without research. I think it's strange that people can get sex changes but not trepanation – a simple operation. We should research this simple operation that could increase consciousness.
Amanda's political campaign poster, 1979 to 1983.
Do you see it becoming legal in the future?
I definitely do. I see it particularly in countries that are more familiar with the idea of consciousness, like Brazil or India.
Didn't you try to make trepanation available on the NHS?
I stood for Parliament in Chelsea on the platform "Trepanation for the National Health". I didn't intend to get voted in; it was more of an art project. My intention was to try to get the medical profession to agree that this is an interesting subject and is worthy of research.
Over the past 40 years I've got used to fighting the prejudice around trepanation, and I've never really understood the taboo around it. I feel society is not doing itself any favours by making this a taboo, and I think the best thing that we can do is gain as much knowledge as we can about altered states of consciousness and how we can apply them for the good of mankind. In traditional societies, which are much closer to consciousness, they recognise the Shamanic process: the process of changing consciousness, whether that's fasting or dancing or the ingestion of psychoactive substances. They recognise that it's a very important part of bonding the society and of deciding which way to go with decisions.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox
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