Can Drilling A Hole In Your Head Ever Actually Be A Good Idea?

Trepanation is an ancient technique that has been abandoned by modern science. Cantonal Museum of Archeology and History via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve got to really believe in what you’re doing to drill a hole in your own skull, but one scientist did just that in the 1960s, and now she’s leading research into the cognitive benefits of the practice. Known as trepanation, this unappealing-sounding technique was carried out by ancient cultures around the world for millennia, and while its merits have been widely rejected by modern science, a small group of researchers believe it may improve the rate of blood flow to the brain.

What Is Trepanation?

Trepanned skulls have been found in archaeological sites across the globe, and the custom appears to have been widespread for thousands of years following the Neolithic period. In many cases, the bone around the incision appears to have grown back, indicating that the recipients of this outlandish procedure did in fact survive.

It’s thought that trepanation was most commonly employed in order to treat those with mental illnesses by creating a hole to let demons out of the head, while priests, shamans, and other noble castes were sometimes trepanned in order to allow spirits in.

Today, surgical interventions are sometimes performed to remove pieces of the skull to alleviate pressure on the brain, but Amanda Feilding is one of the only people alive to have been voluntarily trepanned without any medical need. She’s the founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, a UK-based NGO that conducts research into the consciousness-altering effects of psychedelic drugs, and is hopeful that more research will reveal the potential of trepanation to boost cognition.

“Trepanation means removing a piece of bone from the skull but not in any way damaging or disturbing the three layers of thick membrane that surround the brain – the mater. That’s left completely intact,” Feilding told IFLScience.

“The hypothesis is that this allows the heartbeat to pulse through arteries of the brain at the same level as it does in childhood.”

Trepanation may lead to an increase in the volume of blood in the brain's capillaries. Pixabay

While no real research has so far been conducted to determine whether or not this is the case, there is an intriguing rationale to this theory that may be worth investigating. During the early years of an infant’s life, the skull contains soft spots called fontanelles, which allow for the brain to expand as it develops. Eventually, the skull becomes ossified, solidifying entirely so that it can no longer flex to accommodate bursts of baby brain bulge.

“It may be that the closing of the skull suppresses a part of the pulse. So you have a pulsation in the arteries of the brain, but it’s less full than it was in childhood, and with each heartbeat you have less blood going into the capillaries of the brain to feed the brain cells,” says Feilding.

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