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Surgical Cowboys and the Lobotomobile

By Edited Oct 20, 2015 2 3

The Treatment of Psychological Disorders

Superstition and the Supernatural

Trepanated skull, Iron age.

The causes of mental disorders have confounded even the greatest minds, throughout much of human history. There is evidence that prehistoric humans practiced trepanation, the drilling of a hole into the human skull, in the belief that it would cure; seizures, migraines and mental disorders, as evil spirits were released. The ancient Greeks often thought that the gods caused a person to become insane and at other times believed that imbalanced humors were to blame.

Between 1450 and 1750, the church came to believe that mental disorders were the result of witchcraft and treatments with prayers and exorcism were practiced. Odd, lonely old women, were believed to have copulated with male demons, which led to these so-called witches being burned at the stake, hanged and beheaded. The last known witch to be executed was Anna Göldi, of Switzerland in June 1782, who under torture admitted entering into a pact with the Devil.


Hippocrates of Cos, the founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine, is credited with being the first person who believed that psychological disorders, had a natural cause and were not due to gods, demons or other superstitions. Hippocrates believed that diet and the environment were often to blame, he also classified many mental disorders like: paranoia and mania. 


In the 1920s there were still very few treatments for psychological disorders, although doctors had tried cooling the body, removing teeth, injecting malaria and other quack cures. Then at a conference in 1935, Antonio Egas Moniz, heard how two researches had cured a very crazy monkey of horrendously bad behaviour, by putting her under an anesthetic and cutting the fibres connecting the frontal lobe of the brain, to the limbic system. For Moniz, this was his eureka moment and the frontal lobotomy soon became a treatment, for those afflicted by a variety of mental symptoms.

Lobotomy Therapy

In the United States approximately 40,000 people were lobotomized and for many this psychosurgery brought significant 'relief' from symptoms like: suicidal depression and paranoia. Surgical cowboys like Walter Freeman however, gave the procedure a bad name, as he didn't bother with sterilization procedures and traveled around in his van which he called the "lobotomobile" and performed labotomies, like they were a simple "office" procedure.

Brain Receptors

Lobotomy Procedure

Today drug treatments are very commonly prescribed for psychological disorders, with the major purpose to balance neurotransmitters and facilitate brain cell communication. The three main categories of mental disorders: psychosis, depression and anxiety, can mostly be successfully treated by medications. Antipsychotics for example, seem to operate in various ways, including inhibiting dopamine D2 receptors and activating cell survival pathways. Antidepressants also seem to have various modes of action, such as inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin, in the case of SSRIs and also increasing growth factor expression.

Psychological Treatments

Various psychological therapies can also change the brain and behaviour. Cognitive behavioural therapy for example, has evidence supporting its use for depression and anxiety. Psychodynamic (talk therapy) works for others seeking to work through various issues, and humanistic therapy, while having limitations, can also be useful. For more serious psychological disorders like, schizophrenia, antipsychotic medications are the mainstay of treatment, however other psychosocial interventions like family education and self-help groups, can help enormously.

These days, the emphasis in the treatment of psychological disorders, is on evidence based methods, supported by solid research, and so far no demons, or evil spirits have been found. 

It must be something psychological - Katie Lee



Aug 30, 2012 9:02pm
The emotionally disturbed actress Frances Farmer was brutalized by the "mental health" profession starting in the late 1940s and for the next several years of her life, her career as a beautiful and up-and-coming actress cut short by her problems, lack of proper attention, and ultimately a lobotomy. She ended her days hosting a movie show on local television. She is the poster child for why the fad of lobotomy should never have been dispensed as cavalierly as it was. Trepanning has a place -- lobotomy never did. GREAT article. A thumb.
Aug 30, 2012 9:08pm
Thanks, I just changed the title of an old article. I have read Frances Farmers book a few times, it was very intense and had a big effect on me. Thank you for your comments very much appreciated.
Aug 30, 2012 9:12pm
Still a good piece, and glad you know about Frances -- hers was one of the greater tragedies (for me).
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  1. Lauren Slater ".." Opening Skinner's Box. 2004.
  2. Hergenhahn B.R "An Introduction to the History of Psychology." Belmont CA: Wadsworth. 2001.

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