At a hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1952, a Dr. Hatcher tried to convince a Dr. Cranford to watch him perform a transorbital lobotomy. “Nothing to it,” Hatcher said. “I take a sort of medical ice pick, hold it like this, bop it through the bones just above the eyeball, push it up into the brain, swiggle it around, cut the brain fibers like this, and that’s it.” Cranford responded, “I was going to breakfast, but I’ve changed my mind.” Hatcher laughed. “You can change your mind,” he said, “but not like I can change it.”
For the treatment of “delirium and mania combined with shameless behavior,” ninth-century Persian polymath al-Razi offered a remedy by medical theorist Simʿun: “Bathe the patient’s head with a decoction of elecampane and sheep’s trotters, pour milk over him, put dung upon him, make him snuff sweet violet oil and breast milk, and feed him anything that is cold, fatty, and fills and moistens the brain.”
“Your minds are full of all kinds of treacherous plans,” wrote Indian activist Tarabai Shinde, addressing men in an 1882 pamphlet. One plan: “Let’s bluff this moneylender and pocket a thousand rupees from him.” Another: “That woman Y, what a coquette she really is! What airs she gives herself! Must corner her one of these days and see whether some affair with her can be managed.” Such “insidious perfidies,” she concluded, “never enter a woman’s mind.”
Having gained fame in England as a mind reader, Maud Lancaster came to New York City to perform in 1893. Nellie Bly, investigating for the New York World, quickly discovered that Lancaster’s telepathy act involved a confederate giving secret signals. Bly donned a blindfold, performed the signature trick herself, and published a front-page exposé about the events under a headline reading “Miss Lancaster, Who Astonished All London, Finds the World ’s Young Woman Too Much for Her.”
A fifteenth-century Tunisian sex manual relates that “a big beard denotes a small mind” and tells of a long-bearded man who reads a quote to this effect on the back of a book. Afraid of being seen as a fool, he tries to trim his beard by setting it on fire but burns it off entirely. He then writes on the book below the quote, “These words are entirely true. I, who am now writing this, have proved their truth.”
In 1903, Mark Twain comforted Helen Keller, who had been accused of plagiarizing her story “The Frost King,” telling her in a letter, “All ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” He took a harder line on his own intellectual property, however, campaigning so vigorously for stringent copyright laws that the American Bar Association later recognized him for his efforts.
The ancient physician Galen catalogued the anxious delusions of his melancholic patients, including those of a man who “believes he has been turned into a kind of snail” and “runs away from everyone he meets lest his shell get crushed,” and those of another who “is afraid that Atlas, who supports the world, will become tired and throw it away, and he and all of us will be crushed and pushed together.”
According to medieval Egyptian scholar al-Nuwayri, the ancient sages claimed that “when lovers breathe into each other’s faces, their breath mixes with the air,” is inhaled through their noses, and then “reaches the brain, into which it spreads like light in a crystal vessel.”
In the winter of 1878, Friedrich Nietzsche diagnosed himself with “Baselophobia.” After slipping on black ice, developing constant headaches and a finger infection, and suffering a nine-day stretch of persistent vomiting, he had become convinced the city of Basel was killing him. His sister, Elisabeth, blamed his illness instead on his attempt “to imitate Diogenes” by practicing dietary asceticism.
In 2016, after saxophonist Dan Fabbio was diagnosed with a brain tumor, neuroscientists in Rochester, New York, used functional MRI scans to create a brain map indicating areas crucial for music processing. Fabbio was awake during the surgery and, once the tumor was removed, played a Korean folk song to ensure his skill on saxophone remained; the song’s short notes allowed him to take shallow breaths so his brain would not protrude from his opened skull.
An ongoing international study of people who have survived severe cardiac arrest has led researchers to believe that the brain experiences a “hyper-alerted state” after clinical death. This means, they theorize, that consciousness could continue after the body stops showing signs of life; a person may be able to hear and perceive the pronouncement of their own death.
George Romero, who pioneered the modern zombie film in 1968, complained in 2010 that he’d “never had a zombie eat a brain, but it’s become this landmark thing.” The trope was introduced in 1985 by Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, in which a zombie woman explains that eating brains relieves the “pain of being dead.” Some fans have speculated this is due to the brain’s high levels of serotonin.
A CIA report declassified in 2000 revealed concerns about extrasensory perception during the space race in the 1960s: a Russian newspaper argued that cosmonauts “get together mentally with each other easier than with people on Earth,” while a Chicago Tribune columnist worried that the Soviets “may be the first to put a human thought in orbit or achieve mind-to-mind communication with men on the moon.”