Don’t stockpile your brain away; don’t bring it to storage (non portare il cervello all’ammasso)
Let me tell you a story. António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz (1874 – 1955), better known as Egaz Moniz, was a Portuguese neurologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1949 “for his discovery of the therapeutic value of lobotomy in certain psychoses.” After some attempts of removing the frontal lobes from chimpanzees, he performed a prefrontal lobotomy on a human patient in 1936. He judged the results ‘acceptable’ in the first row of patients he treated, maybe 40 or maybe more, but he admitted that patients who had already deteriorated illnesses ‘did not benefit much’. Reading from A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: “Moniz’s first patient was less agitated and less overtly paranoid than she had been before, although she was also more apathetic and in fact duller than Moniz had hoped. She had a few physical side effects such as nausea and disorientation.” With an incredible acumen, Egaz Moniz noted: “Every patient probably loses something by this operation, some spontaneity, some sparkle, some flavour of the personality.” After the publication of his influential book that promoted the practice, “in the United States the number of lobotomies performed per year went from 100 in 1946 to 5,000 in 1949. That year Moniz won the Nobel Prize for his contribution.”
Now two side curious issues: Egas Moniz shared the Nobel Prize with Walter Rudolf Hess, a Swiss physiologist who nothing had to do with Rudolf Walter Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer of the Nazi Party, but the name (however, nomen omen, pay attention); in 1949 Egaz Moniz was shot by a patient, and subsequently he used a wheelchair. I imagine the patient, poor man, perhaps too disoriented to aim and hit the heart of his torturer – and in any case my full sympathy and compassion are for this very unlucky man.
But the story is not complete, be patient.
I’m reading You Are Not So Smart, by David McRaney, a Oneworld book, page 94:
‘Starting in the 1930s, neurologist Walter Freeman (1985 – 1972) followed in the footsteps of his mentor Antonio Egaz Moniz, and began performing in hospitals around the country a technique for which Moniz would later win the Nobel Prize – lobotomizing mentally ill people by jabbing a spike behind their eyeballs. Freeman modified the Moniz method a bit, and some reports say Freeman performed his new technique around 2,500 times, often without anaesthesia. He took a practice that had previously required drilling into the skull and turned it into an outpatient procedure. At first he used an ice pick, but eventually he developed short, thin metal spears he drove through the back of the eye socket with a mallet. The technique made formerly unruly mental patients calmer, as you might imagine severe brain damage would. It became a popular way to treat patients in mental facilities, and Freeman drove a van he called ‘the lobotomobile’ around the U.S. to teach the technique wherever he could. Somewhere close to twenty thousand people were lobotomized in this way before science corrected itself. Freeman was criticized by many in his heyday, but for two decades his work continued, and it earned him the highest accolade possible. Even the sister of President John F. Kennedy was lobotomized… Today, the ice-pick lobotomy is condemned by medicine as a barbaric and naïve approach to dealing with mental illness.’
Now, before speaking about the book, please imagine the scene, the lobotomobile arriving in a bright morning in a small town where there is a poor lunatic, innocuous but, you know, annoying; Freeman discussing with his assistant whether to use anaesthesia or not (maybe not in that case, too expensive!); then his short, thin metal spears, and his mallet… His mallet! Hold still, please; be patient, one minute is enough!
I really need a break and a coffee.
The chapter from which I read this horrific part is the 14th, The Argument from Authority, where ‘The Misconception is: You are more concerned with the validity of information than the person delivering it. While The Truth is: The status and credentials of an individual greatly influence your perception of that individual’s message.’
As you understand, Walter Freeman’s story perfectly fits with The Argument from Authority. We naturally look to those in power (doctors, priests, opinion leaders, political leaders, journalists, etc.) as having something special we lack. And we are led to trust them not because they are really experts but only because they are in power, they represent Authority, Command, and Mastery.
The book is very attractive and smart, yes, full of state-of-the-art psychology researches presented in a light but effective way, using anecdotes and true stories. There is also a stimulating reflection on a literary topic, the sense of non-fiction books and memoirs. According with David McRaney, our memory is mostly fiction (I agree): ‘You still have a sense of a continuous memory and experience. The details are missing, but the big picture persists. But the big picture is a lie, nurtured by your constant and unconscious confabulation, adding up to a story of who you are, what you have done, and why.’
During the summer holidays or during your long flight to Bora Bora, relaxed, easy, read You Are Not So Smart, by David McRaney, a Oneworld book.
PS: ‘Hospitals welcomed Dr. Freeman; his authority went unquestioned as, one after another, he pulled aside patients who needed help and turned them into zombies. Just two decades later, the science caught up to Freeman and revealed that what he was doing was unnecessary from a medical standpoint and horrific from a moral one. His licence to practice was revoked, and he died an outcast. The same community who lauded him in one era rejected him in another.’ – David McRaney.