How to Perform Brain Surgery: A Guide for Time Travellers

Note: It should go without saying, but Anatomy Warehouse does not endorse the practice of performing brain surgery, unless you are, of course, a trained neurosurgeon. Don’t try this at home (even if you are a neurosurgeon).

This ancient example of trepanation was found in Peru, outside modern day Lima. (National Museum of Health & Medicine)
This ancient example of trepanation was found in Peru, outside modern day Lima. (National Museum of Health & Medicine)

The history of neuroscience and brain surgery can be traced back thousands of years, all the way to our prehistoric relations. The earliest references to the human brain in written form came from the famed Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, a document dating back to the 17th century BC, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that brain surgery was practiced as far back as the late Stone Age. Surgical implements used in early brain operation have been unearthed at one of Europe’s most noted archaeological digs, located in France. Outside of Europe, practice of brain surgery can be traced to pre-Incan civilizations, Mexico, North American native tribes, Africa, and even ancient Tibet. Fascinatingly, primitive examples of brain surgery appear to have had an exceptional success rate, with many patients restored to health.

While we can’t be positive why these early examples of brain surgery were practiced so successfully, the amount of early surgical tools that have been recovered, along with early cave paintings, can give us a solid idea of the most common practice of the time. Used to treat a variety of ailments, including epilepsy, migraines, and a variety of mental disorders, trepanning is performed by drilling or scraping into the human skull to expose the dura mater, the thick outer membrane of the human brain. The implement used to perform this could be a sharpened stone or obsidian, wood, or bronze.

Once the dura mater had been exposed, not much is known about how the treatment was carried out. However, modern medicine offers similar techniques, such as craniotomy, wherein a small flap of bone is removed temporarily to allow surgeons access to the brain. Additionally, fascinating archive video footage from the 1920s offers some insight into how trepanation was performed more recently. The video, while blurry, shows a man with a shaved head having a small hole drilled in his skull, and, once opened, a thin needle is inserted.

From Hieronymus Bosch's "The Extraction of the Stone of Madness." (c. 1488-1516)
From Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Extraction of the Stone of Madness.” (c. 1488-1516)

The practice of trepanation continued through many pre-modern civilizations. Hippocrates himself gave a set of directions on the procedure, and the Middle Ages saw a surge in its practice as a cure for various ailments. While modern science still uses some similar procedures, the continuing practice of trepanning has been largely dismissed as pseudoscience by today’s medical community. Proponents of the practice say it increases blood flow to the brain and allows for heightened experience of daily life.



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