What's Going On In Your Head?
In 1935, one neurologist drilled a hole into someone's head. Here's what happened...
The Rise and Fall of the Lobotomy
The frontal lobotomy is a form of brain surgery in which a hole is drilled into your skull through your nose. Then, the frontal lobe of your brain is gently sliced with an icepick1. The procedure was invented by a Portuguese neurologist called António Egas Moniz in 1935. He discovered that if you took people with extreme anxiety, suicidal depression, or other forms of mental illness, and mutilated their brain in just the right way and in the right place, they would be able to relax.
He believed that the lobotomy, once perfected, could be the cure to all mental illness, and this is how he marketed and publicised it to the world. By the late 1940s, his procedure was a hit, being performed on tens of thousands of patients across the globe. He even went on to win the Nobel Prize for his discovery!
But, then came the 1950s, and people began to notice that (and this might sound really scary) drilling hole through somebody’s face and scraping away at their brain, in the same way you clean ice off your windshield, can often produce a few negative side effects. And by “a few negative side effects”, I mean this people literally became vegetables. While the procedure often “cured” the patients of their extreme emotional afflictions, it also left them with an inability to focus, make decisions, have proper jobs, make long-term plans, or even think abstractly about themselves. They became mindless. The Soviet Union, out of all places, was the first country to ban the lobotomy. By the 1960s, everyone hated it. The last lobotomy was performed in 1967 in the USA, and that patient died.
We generally tend to assume that our emotions cause all of our problems, and our responsibility must be to use our reason to clean up this mess. This line of thinking goes all the way back to Socrates, he declared reason the root of a virtue2.
Descartes argued that our reason was separate from our animalistic desires and that it had to learn to control those desires3. Kant said a similar thing4. This assumption has been passed down through the centuries and continues to define much of our culture today.
This assumption says that if someone is undisciplined or malicious, it's because they lack the ability to subjugate their feelings, that they are weak-willed or just plain messed up. Today, we usually judge people based on this form of assumption. Fat people are ridiculed and shamed because their obesity is seen as a failure of self control. They know they should be losing weight, yet they continue to eat. Why?
Depressed and suicidal people are worst affected by this assumption, in a very dangerous way. They are often told that their inability to create hope and meaning in their lives is their own fault, but maybe, if they just tried a little harder, jumping off a bridge wouldn't sound so nice. Today, we see a lack of self control as a sign of a flawed character. If a CEO sleeps on his desk and doesn’t see his kids for two weeks straight – that's determination! If someone works nightshifts, sleeping two hours a day, that's hard work!
The constant desire to change yourself can be a form of addiction in itself. Many in the self-help industry reinforce this with the same impulses that drive people to feel inadequate in the first place5. The truth is that the human mind is far more complex than any "secret." Is it really that simple to change yourself?
I believe that we require much more than willpower to achieve true self-control. It turns out that our emotions are instrumental in our decision-making and our actions. We just fail to always realise it…
So what’s really going on in our heads?
Hold on to that thought for a while…
Well, to begin with they actually used icepicks for this procedure.
René Descartes, The Philosophical Works of Descartes
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals
I realise that most of the work I share can be classed as “self-help” – I accept it. But I will never feed anyone false hope or any “secret.” I promise you that :)