Monday, April 6, 2015

It’s Not Exactly Rocket Surgery!

from here.

(One in an occasional series about boosting Trivia scores. . . )

Let’s  take a few minutes to go back to something that you may have covered in middle school.

If you haven’t read Daniel Keys’s classic short story Flowers For Algernon please stop what you are doing, look it up and read it.

The blog will be here when you get back.


It’s the short story that I remember most vividly from school – I actually made xerox copy of it from my 8th grade literature book so I could have a copy to keep*.  It’s wonderful, lyrical, touching, and heartbreaking.  If you have not read it, I envy you.  If you really want to deprive yourself of this experience, please be warned that this post will contain spoilers for a science-fiction story that was written 56 years ago.

Keys’s story (and latter full novel) concerns Charlie Gordon, a 37 year old janitor with an IQ of 67.  He undergoes experimental brain surgery that is supposed to increase his intelligence.  It works, multiplying his IQ threefold. At first everything is great – he catches up on everything he missed, knowledge, facts, history, books; makes friends, and even experiences romance.  Of course, after becoming a super-genius he winds up alienating his former friends and co-workers.  He also notices that Algernon, the mouse who was the first test subject is rapidly losing his surgically enhanced abilities.


(That’s as far as I am going to go – if you have read the story, you know what happens next.  If you haven’t, why didn’t you listen to my first entreaty?)

Ignoring the actual point of the story, and its poetry could lead one to ask:
“Is there anything to this?  Could I increase my intelligence through brain surgery?”

It turns out that brain surgery is older than you think.

Trepanation (sometimes trephination) is the ancient practice of drilling a hole into the head of a human being, and exposing the brain, ostensibly for medical or spiritual treatment.  We can trace the practice back about 10,000 years, give or take a few months.

How do we know this?


Old ones.

Old ones that have been dug up.

Old ones that have been dug up that still have holes in them.

Old ones that have been dug up that still have holes in them, with signs of growth and healing, which shows they were done while the skull-owner was still alive, and lived after the surgery.

If you click through those links you can see that this was practiced all over the globe: Ancient China, Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Prehistoric France are just some of the spots that have provided archeological evidence of the practice.

But WHY?
Medieval medicine, at its finest. . .
That’s a little trickier.  Of course there are the theories that these holes would let out evil spirits.  Other theories claim that it could treat seizures and migraine headaches.  It might actually have come in handy to “to remove shattered bits of bone from a fractured skull and clean out the blood that often pools under the skull after a blow to the head.” There’s no evidence to suggest that anyone actually used it increase intelligence, but it’s possible.

Really?  You are asking a trivia blog if drilling a hole in your head is a sound medical practice?

That said, there are some quacksalternative therapy pioneers” who advocate the practice.  Among them is Bart Huges, about whom Wikipedia has this to say: “(H)e drilled a hole in his own head with a dentist drill as a publicity stunt. Hughes claims that trepanation increases ‘brain blood volume’ and thereby enhances cerebral metabolism in a manner similar to cerebral vasodilators such as ginkgo biloba. No published results have supported these claims.”
Does THIS look like a good idea?
Let’s reinforce that last bit:

No published results have supported these claims.

I know you are looking for an edge at your local Last Call Trivia night, but you may want to give this one a miss.

Of course you probably need advice from me like you need a . . .

Oh never mind.
Trivia: What actor was nominated for an Emmy for playing Charlie Gordon in the TV adaptation of Flowers for Algernon, only to win an Oscar for the same role 8 years later, in the film version?
Send all guesses to: First 3 correct guesses will be recognized in a future edition!

*Astute readers will be able to infer that this means that I am OLD.  I was in middle-school *BEFORE* one could simply “jack in” to the interwebs and gain access to all of history, philosophy, and culture.

You can find out more about trepanation, and other questionable medical history at the delightful and hilarious Sawbones podcast.

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