Episode 41: Psychedelic Cults Part 1 - Bart Hughes and the Trepanation Blues

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This first installment of their Psychedelic Cults series covers the early history of hallucinogens and their impact on the 60's and hippie culture. Unsatisfied with chemical enlightenment, some psychonauts, including Bart Hughes, Amanda Feilding, and Joe Mellen, pursued trepanation (i.e. boring a hole in their skull) in their eternal quest to stay high forever.

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Brief History of Psychedelics

1965 to 1969 was known as the psychedelic era. During this time there was a distinct change in art and music, much of which was spawned by the use of psychedelic drugs such as mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, DMT.

Michael Pollan writes in his new book How to Change Your Mind,

Saying exactly how or what psychedelics contributed to the counterculture of the 1960s is not an easy task, there were so many other forces at work. With or without psychedelics, there probably would have been a counterculture; the Vietnam War and the draft made it more than likely. But the forms the counterculture took and its distinctive styles - of music, art, writing, design, and social relations - would surely have been completely different were it not for these chemicals.

During this time psychedelic drugs were used to encourage the breakdown of boundaries, the questioning of authority, the importance of unity and peace, with a focus on political awareness. Or as Hunter S. Thompson put it,

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning... And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

A handful of other authors besides Hunter S. Thompson explored using psychedelic drugs to “expand their consciousness” such as Ralph Metzner, Ram Dass, Alan Watts, and Timothy Leary.

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide or LSD was the leading drug of choice at the time by many of these psychedelic gurus. LSD was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann on Nov. 16, 1938 while doing pharmaceutical research on the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot. Hofmann set his research aside for a few years but after 5 years he revisited his work. While re-synthesizing LSD Hoffman accidentally absorbed a small portion of the drug through his fingertips. Here’s a quote of him describing what he felt:

... affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After about two hours this condition faded away.

Throughout the 60’s this group of psychedelic gurus evolved into a subculture that used religious and mystical symbolism which came from the intense effects of the drugs. These drug gurus advocated the “raising of consciousness” of the human race.

Tom Wolfe wrote a widely read account of these early days of LSD's entrance into the non-academic world in his book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, which documented the cross-country, acid-fueled voyage of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on the psychedelic bus "Furthur" and the Pranksters' later "Acid Test" LSD parties.

In 1965, Sandoz laboratories stopped its still legal shipments of LSD to the United States for research and psychiatric use, after a request from the US government concerned about its use. By April 1966, LSD use had become so widespread that Time Magazine warned about its dangers.

In December 1966, the exploitation film Hallucination Generation was released. This was LSD’s Reefer Madness basically. I highly recommend watching the trailer to this on YouTube. It starts with the narrator saying, “Come join the world of the hipsters, the beatniks, the sickniks” while showing a wild party scene. They continue to show what appears to be a rather enjoyable time, honestly. There are people riding horses, people dancing, making out, flashing their bellies for some reason.The narrator continues, “The experimenters, who try anything. Stopping only at the outer edge of NOWHERE!” After this we get a flash of a random mask … The narrator then says, “This will smooth out all that fear in you. All that hate” A man glares at another man kissing a woman’s back while the narrator says, “Do you know the taste of purple? What color is the rainbow of passion, the fragrance of MADNESS?” It cuts from two people consensually making out on a bed to a scene of a man forcing himself on a woman, then finally a cut to a screaming man with blood pouring down his face. There were other fun anti-psychedelic drug propaganda videos besides Hallucination Generation such as, The Trip in 1967 and Psych-Out in 1968.

Much of the research on psychedelic drugs began in the 1940s and 50s, however, the 60’s saw a heavier experimentation among researchers. Much of the research was conducted at well respected collegiate institutes such as Harvard University. This is where Timothy Leary led his research team. Leary began his research mostly with psilocybin mushrooms, which was called the Harvard Psilocybin Project. One study of Leary’s was known as the Concord Prison Experiment. In this experiment Leary studied the potential of psilocybin to reduce recidivism in criminals who were released from prison. After these sessions Leary did a follow-up where he found that “75% of the turned on prisoners who were released had stayed out of jail.”

Leary believed he had solved the US’s crime problem with this discovery. However, there were many officials who were skeptical of this supposed breakthrough. According to Michael Pollan, “When Rick Doblin at MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) meticulously reconstructed the Concord experiment decades later, reviewing the outcomes subject by subject, he concluded that Leary had exaggerated the data; in fact, there was no statistically significant difference in the rates of recidivism between the two groups.”

It wasn’t just Timothy Leary who was a big advocate for psychedelics, but also authors Aldous Huxley (who wrote The Doors of Perception and Alan Watts (who wrote The Joyous Cosmology) who, due to their personal experiences with psychedelics, believed that these hallucinogenic drugs were the mechanisms by which peace could be brought to the entire planet.

And this global peace wasn’t limited to just us homo sapiens. There were even experiments by scientists in the early 60’s with giving LSD to DOLPHINS to try and communicate! In fact, there is a fun VICE article on this. It focuses on “John C Lilly, a neuroscientist who would spend the peak of his career taking LSD and trying to talk to dolphins.” The article goes on, “Although Lilly's experiments into dolphin communication were in many ways an ethical and scientific failure, his work had a profound and positive impact on the way we think about drugs, psychology, and interspecies communication.”

Timothy Leary was dead set on bringing more organized general awareness to the public than a lot of others. He spoke with a Senate committee in Washington regarding these issues. He also suggested that colleges and universities implement laboratory courses in psychedelic research. He stated that these courses would “end the indiscriminate use of LSD and would be the most popular and productive courses ever offered.”

Ram Dass states, "Tim and I actually had a chart on the wall about how soon everyone would be enlightened ... We found out that real change is harder. We downplayed the fact that the psychedelic experience isn't for everyone”

Continuing from the wiki page, “Leary and his team's research got shut down at Harvard and everywhere they relocated around the globe. Their outlawish behavior and aggressive approach with these drugs did not settle well with the law. Officials did not agree with this chaotic promotion of peace.

The Curious Case of Bart Hughes

If there was ever a man who wanted to drill into your head the importance of the psychedelic experience, it was Bart Hughes. Who is Bart Hughes? According to a May 1998 article from the Enemy of the People Illuminati shills at The Washington Post,

The father of the modern trepanation movement is a Dutch librarian named Bart Huges, considered a genius by his followers and featured in a new documentary, "A Hole in the Head." He came close to being Dr. Bart Huges, he says in the film, but Amsterdam University refused to give him his medical degree because of his advocacy of marijuana use.

So, what is trepanation you might ask? The article continues,

The word "trepan" comes from the Greek trypanon, meaning "a borer." According to John Verano, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University, trepanation is considered the oldest surgical practice, still performed medically worldwide and ceremonially by some African tribes today. Recently, a trepanned skull found in France was estimated to be about 7,000 years old. In Europe in particular, there has long been an association of trepanation with the liberation of evil spirits -- that comes from ideas in medieval Europe," says Verano, one of the country's foremost scholars on the subject. Medieval painters such as Hieronymous Bosch depicted trepanation -- though Bosch's "The Operation for the Stone (The Cure of Folly)" seemed to be the artist's commentary on quackery.

Trepanned skulls are frequently excavated by archaeologists, and many have several holes -- often several centimeters wide -- indicating that the trepanation was successful and the patient survived. Superstition was not the only reason for trepanations; it was also performed to relieve pressure on the brain caused by injuries. Hippocrates endorsed trepanations for light head wounds. Some experts also believe that the procedure was intended to cure ailments from headaches to epilepsy to insanity. Medical trepanations are still done today, to relieve pressure on the brain, but the bone is usually replaced.

Alright, so earth apes have been drilling holes into their head for a long time. So, what does Bart Hughes bring to the table?

Fueled by experiments with LSD and other drugs, Huges concluded in 1962 that consciousness is related to the volume of blood in the brain, or what he called "brainbloodvolume." Hoping to increase his brain pulsation and blood volume, he trepanned himself and preached the benefits to others around Europe. He wrote a book: "Trepanation: The Cure for Psychosis."

Fun fact, by the way, Hughes was quite literally fueled by LSD when he came up with the idea. And as well all know, LSD is a reliable pathway to objective truth.

Amanda Feilding, who we’ll get into later, says of LSD that it will, quote, “get deep down in the brain and reset ‘the wish to get better’ – like shaking up a snow globe”.

So Michael Pollan mentions Feilding in his book How to Change your Mind saying, Amanda Feilding believes that “Homo sapiens have been compromised ever since our species began standing upright. LSD, Feilding believes, enhances cognitive function and facilitates higher states of consciousness by increasing cerebral circulation.”

This is the portion where Pollan talks about trepanation in his book, starting with, “this deserves a brief digression.” Yeah Micheal, no need to linger on the little problem of DRILLING HOLES IN YOUR HEAD WHILE ON LSD!

I also want to shed some criticism on at least this portion of Pollan’s book “How to Change Your Mind”. He really lets Feilding off the hook. Saying,

But while Amanda Feilding may be eccentric, she is by no means feckless. Her work on both drug research and drug policy reform has been serious, strategic, and productive. In recent years her focus has shifted from trepanation to the potential of psychedelics to improve brain function.

As Kent says in his podcast Feilding is a mixed bag, but the irony of Pollan writing about not just Feilding drilling a hole in her own head but literally pushing her trepanation initiative for the general public to Parliament on the same page of his book is worth noting.

Hughes’ top disciple Joseph Mellen had this to say about how LSD affected him in his book Bore Hole,

I felt brilliant, god-like, able to understand everything… Now I knew what eternity meant. Time seemed to stop and still everything was moving. I was ecstatic. I kept eating sugarlumps. I could feel that this was the energy I needed to get round this universe in my brain.'

So, that sounds pretty amazing, right? Not so fast! It isn’t the case that all reports of LSD use are quite so awesome. Take this example from a VICE article called “My Hellishly Bad Acid Trip, and What I Learned in the Aftermath”,

I experienced the most hellish hallucinations – it was like being trapped in a nightmare. I closed my eyes but I couldn’t escape. All I could do was wait it out, and remind myself that this state was only temporary, but it felt like it lasted for days and I was barely clinging onto my sanity. It was like the drug had latched onto my fear and panic and was churning out reflections of it. I had created my own private hell and saw my fears come to life, some that I didn’t even know I had. I saw a valley, filled with visions of the most horrific things that I could possibly think of. The visions were strangely one dimensional, as if I had looked up on Google Images what a stereotypical bad trip would look like. I saw masked men with weapons staring at me dead in the eyes, dead bodies in puddles of blood, animals being killed.

To those of us that might find all this psycho-babble that emanates from the mouths of LSD cultists to be somewhat childish, well that’s the point. As John Michell writes in his book Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions,

The higher state of mind he sought was that of childhood. Babies are born with skulls unsealed, and it is not until one is an adult that the bony carapace is formed which completely encloses the membranes surrounding the brain and inhibits their pulsations in response to heart-beats. In consequence, the adult loses touch with the dreams, imagination and intense perceptions of the child. His mental balance becomes upset by egoism and neuroses.

To cure these problems, first in himself and then for the whole world, Dr Huges returned his cranium to something like the condition of infancy by cutting out a small disc of bone with an electric drill. Experiencing immediate beneficial effects from this operation, he began preaching to anyone who would listen to the doctrine of trepanation. By liberating his brain from its total imprisonment in his skull, he claimed to have restored its pulsations, increased the volume of blood in it and acquired a more complete, satisfying state of consciousness than grown-up people normally enjoy.

The medical and legal authorities reacted to Huges's discovery with horror and rewarded him with a spell in a Dutch lunatic asylum.”

Hughes’ lover Amanda Feilding actually filmed her own self-trepanation in a 1970 documentary called, “Heartbeat in the Brain”. John Michell writes of the film,

At one showing in London a film critic described the audience 'dropping off their seats one by one like ripe plums'. Yet it was not designed to be gruesome. The soundtrack is of soothing music, and the surgical scenes alternate with some delightful motion studies of Amanda's pet pigeon, Birdie, as a symbol of peace and wisdom.

Says Feilding of administering the procedure, "I was trained as a sculptor, so I thought, I spend all my time making holes in objects, I might as well make one in my own head." The documentary appears to be lost for posterity, but some footage of the self-procedure can be seen in the 1998 documentary “A Hole in the Head”.

So, who is Amanda Feilding and how did she come to hook up with Hughes? Tim Adams of enemy of the people fake news The Guardian writes, quote, “Her first experience with LSD was nearly her last. An acquaintance spiked some coffee she was drinking with a massive dose and she spent three months recovering from the “psychic wound” in a little hut... She was eventually persuaded out of the hut to a party at which Ravi Shankar was playing, in London. It was there that she met Huges, who had not long returned from Ibiza, where he had been making his own LSD. Huges was a man after her own seeker’s heart. He had been, she suggests, the top medical student in the Netherlands.

 “Then,” she says, “he called his daughter Marijuana, and trepanned himself, and inevitably they failed him in his finals.”

 The day after they met they started their hallucinogenic romance. As Feilding explains this former life, in digressive fits and starts, fretting a little that she is saying too much, she leads me through the twilit garden, over well-trodden stepping stones, pointing out a pond she dug “based on sacred geometries”, with a half-submerged colonnade as if from a forgotten civilisation.”

Trepanation devotee and future boyfriend of Feilding, Joseph Mellen, also performed a self-trepanation, but it wasn’t pretty. John Michell writes, quote, “Joey's first attempt at self-trepanation was a fiasco. He had no previous medical experience, and the needles he had bought for administering a local anaesthetic to the crown of his head proved to be too thin and crumpled up or broke. Next day he obtained some stouter needles, took a tab of LSD to steady his nerves and set to in earnest.

First he made an incision to the bone, and then applied the trepan to his bared skull. But the first part of the operation, driving the spike into the bone, was impossible to accomplish. Joey described it as like trying to uncork a bottle from the inside. He realized he needed help and telephoned Bart in Amsterdam, who promised he would come over and assist at the next operation. This plan was frustrated by the Home Office, which listed Dr Huges as an undesirable visitor to Britain and barred his entry.”

Amanda agreed to take his place. Soon after her return to London she helped Joey re-open the wound in his head and, by pressing the trepan with all her might against his skull, managed to get the spike to take hold and the saw-teeth to bite. Joey then took over at cranking the saw. Once again he had swallowed some LSD. After a long period of sawing, just as he was about to break through, he suddenly fainted. Amanda called an ambulance and he was taken to hospital, where horrified doctors told him that he was lucky to be alive and that if he had drilled a fraction of an inch further he would have killed himself.

Now, you would think that since Mellen didn’t know what the fuck he was doing and nearly killed himself, he might have learned from his past two attempts and would have stopped. But you’d be wrong! Michell continues,

There followed a period of embarrassment as the rumour went round London that Joey Mellen had trepanned himself, whereas in fact he had failed to do so. As soon as possible, therefore, he prepared for a third attempt. Proceeding as before, but now with the benefit of experience, he soon found the groove from the previous operation and began to saw through the sliver of bone separating him from enlightenment or, as the doctors had predicted, instant death.

Mellen himself describes what happened next,

After some time there was an ominous sounding schlurp and the sound of bubbling. I drew the trepan out and the gurgling continued. It sounded like air bubbles running under the skull as they were pressed out. I looked at the trepan and there was a bit of bone in it. At last! On closer inspection I saw that the disc of bone was much deeper on one side than on the other. Obviously the trepan had not been straight and had gone through at one point only, then the piece of bone had snapped off and come out.

I was reluctant to start drilling again for fear of damaging the brain membranes with the deeper part while I was cutting through the rest or of breaking off a splinter. If only I had had an electric drill it would have been so much simpler. Amanda was sure I was through. There seemed no other explanation of the schlurping noises. I decided to call it a day. At that time I thought that any hole would do, no matter what size. I bandaged up my head and cleared away the mess.

And so, now that Mellen finally drilled a hole into his melon, harhar, you’d think he’d be done with this nonsense and move one. BUT NO! He didn’t feel very enlightened after his procedure so he went FURTHER. Quoting Michell,

There was still doubt in his mind as to whether he had really broken through and, if so, whether the hole was big enough to restore pulsation to his brain. The operation had left him with a feeling of wellbeing, but he realized that it could simply be from relief at having ended it.

To put the matter beyond doubt, he decided to bore another hole at a new spot just above the hairline, this time using an electric drill. In the spring of 1970 Amanda was in America and Joey did the operation alone. He applied the drill to his forehead, but after half an hour's work the electric cable burnt out. Once again he was frustrated. An engineer in the flat below him was able to repair the instrument, and next day he set out to finish the job. Quoting Mellen,

This time I was not in any doubt. The drill head went at least an inch deep through the hole. A great gush of blood followed my withdrawal of the drill. In the mirror I could see the blood in the hole rising and falling with the pulsation of the brain.

The result? At least subjectively it appeared to be a success. Quoting Michell, “The result was all he had hoped for. During the next four hours he felt his spirits rising higher until he reached a state of freedom and serenity which, he claims, has been with him ever since.”

So, since Mellen, Fileding, and Hughes appeared to have reaped the benefits of drilling holes into their head, is there any objective evidence for Hughes’ hypothesis? The answer is NO.

And it would be bad enough is there was simply a lack of evidence for the proposed benefits of drilling a hole into your head and going ahead with it anyway. But is gets worse. In fact, Hughe’s hypothesis has been falsified. As the Guardian article on Feilding reports,

I wonder if any of the research she has done with Imperial College has vindicated Huges’s original blood brain notion? She admits it has not. When she helped to lead the first brain imaging study with LSD, the scans did not reveal the increase of blood supply she had been expecting, though they did show a decrease in what she calls the “conditioned reflex mechanism”, the controlling effect of the ego. The principal investigator in the study, Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial, subsequently suggested that blood flow was probably “a little bit of a sideshow… The brain doesn’t fundamentally work through flowing blood. That’s part of it, but we know that the function is electrical, so why don’t we measure the electrical signals?”

The Cult of Trepanation

So far this seems to be a cult of three. But who else is doing this shit? Where can you get the procedure performed? When Vice asked Mellen this very question and Mellon responded,

I heard there's a guy doing it in Mexico for $2,000, and you can get it done in Ecuador and Egypt. There are doctors who will take your money. But we're talking a lot of money here. Bart always thought there should be an automat , a little booth where you go and put your penny in the slot.

Mellen is unequivocal in his stance that trepanation is for everyone,

Well, I think it should be for everyone. The simplest thing is this: The human being needs more blood in its brain. And this isn't a great high; it's just restoring you to that youthful level of vitality. This vitality that you lose when you hit adulthood. But it could just be done with an injection at birth. You could inject the cells round the fontanelle so it never seals. It would be very simple.

And even though Mellen distinguishes getting high from trepanation, he also thinks getting high is for everyone as well, including dictators that control nuclear arsenals,

When you get high you transcend the ego, you get above the ego. When you are high, you can see people operating on this level, and you can see where you have been operating on this level also. You are given an objective view, as opposed to a subjective view. And that is the great beauty and great value of getting high. I think everyone should get high, and I think that Vladimir Putin should drop acid.

So, just how many people have joined this movement. Luckily, by all indications it seems to be pretty insignificant. The gosp-hole was largely spread by a certain Peter Halvorson. The Japan Times in 2001 reported,

Peter Halvorson, a 54-year-old American who trepanned himself in 1972 after suffering acute depression, says he knows of 60 others who have undergone voluntary trepanation for similar reasons. Indeed, he’s in regular contact with many of them all over the world through the International Trepanation Advocacy Group, of which he is director.

Halvorson explains his motivation for getting the procedure done. Quote, “I was very much a sealed-skull adult, and I was struggling with that. After the trepanation I felt a positive lift. There’s no doubt trepanation is an enhancement.”

Oh, and it turns out that some people don’t need the procedure done because they’ve just naturally got a hole in their head I guess. Halvorson claims for example, quote, “John Lennon once asked Huges to trepan him, but Bart told him he was a third-eyer, so he wouldn’t notice any difference.”

When the Japan Times asked Halvorson to explain why he thought Hughs’ theories have any merit, he said, “Intuition. Bart is an intuitive scientist. He doesn’t use instruments to get to his conclusions.”

The Japan Times talked to some experts what weren’t very impressed by the purported benefits of trepanation. Here’s what some of them had to say, quote:

 Takamitsu Fujimaki, a professor in the neurosurgery department at Teikyo University in Tokyo, agrees that trepanation can increase cerebral blood flow in some head-injury cases — but not blood volume. Hence, for a normal subject, boring a hole in their skull would be of no benefit, he says.

Keiji Kawamoto, a professor of neurosurgery at Kansai Medical University agrees. “If chronic subdural hematoma is removed by trepanation, it is clear that consciousness will be improved. But I have no data showing the consciousness level can be improved by trepanation in the case of a normal person.”

He says, however, that Huges’ hypothesis could be similar to the reason why trepanation was practiced in the past and why it is still used today among some African tribes.

Kawamoto’s own research into trepanation has taken him to Peru and Bolivia, where more than 1,000 trepanned skulls — more than from the rest of the world combined — have been found.

Many excavated skulls reveal just one trepanation, indicating that the hole — often made by scraping or sawing out a section of the skull with a stone or saw — was likely made as a one-off medical operation, he says. However, as other skulls have several holes, he believes that in such cases medicine men may have promoted trepanation to treat psychological conditions. At the slightest recurrence, he suggests, patients would seek further treatment, and another hole would be made.

Takao Suzuki, a paleopathologist who has studied aspects of trepanation in the United States, takes this a step further. “After any surgical operation, the patient often believes a kind of renewal process has occurred. It’s a mood enhancer, a pick-me-up. Trepanation may have a similar impact. It could be that thousands of years ago such a hypothesis was put forward by the chief of a tribe, and it caught on,” says Suzuki, who is also vice director of Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology.

So, for the most part, experts seem to think that, ultimately what’s going on is that people are simply drilling holes in their head and benefitting from a placebo effect. But since we’re fair and balanced here at None Dare Call It Ordinary, we’ll give trepanation enthusiast Tom Wargo the last word. Quote, "Some people look at it as just drilling a hole in the head. I look at it as removing a piece of skull from the head to correct something that went wrong in nature."