Frontal Lobotomies and FAIL BETTER – the new Science Gallery Exhibition

The Science Gallery has an amazing and important new exhibition opening today: FAIL BETTER. There’s loads of great stuff. And this quote (which I love):


From the blurb:

The goal of FAIL BETTER is to open up a public conversation about failure, particularly the instructive role of failure, as it relates to very different areas of human endeavour. Rather than simply celebrating failure, which can come at great human, environmental and economic cost, we want to open up a debate on the role of failure in stimulating creativity: in learning, in science, engineering and design.

This is, of course, a vital debate. Fear of failure is sometimes argued as being a defining difference between the US culture of innovation and the EU’s relatively more staid performance (e.g.; although I am honestly not sure you can really engage in predictive economic cultural stereotyping of this type – this Shirky piece is revealing on the bureaucratic failure in the US).

I have a small exhibition piece at the show on THE ICE PICK LOBOTOMY.

Here’s my text:

The Ice Pick Lobotomy Selected by Shane O’Mara20140206_133841

Would an ice pick driven through the eggshell thin bone above your eye into your brain cure your ‘maladies’, your ‘melancholy’, your ‘madness’? During the middle decades of the 20th century transorbital lobotomy, or ‘ice pick’ lobotomy, a radically invasive form of brain surgery, was used extensively for patients with psychiatric illnesses. It was a rapidly executed procedure, taking perhaps a few tens of minutes in total, requiring no more than a local anaesthetic, conducted for the purposes of ‘psychosurgery’.

This was the era before effective pharmacotherapies or psychotherapies for psychiatric illnesses; an era before there was an outline understanding of the psychological functions supported by the frontal lobes. We now know much about the frontal lobes: they support ‘executive functions’ within the brain such as planning, intending, imagining alternatives, initiating actions, directed remembering, and deferring gratification. In short, what makes us human.

In the unfortunate patient, the frontal lobes would be cut away from the rest of the brain by a simple and quick side-to-side motion, leaving the person with irreversible and enduring consequences. There were good intentions behind the procedure —curing the ‘incurable’ by radically intervening in the brain. However, transorbital lobotomy rendered many of its victims docile, mute and compliant. This therapeutic surgical strategy was a terrible but instructive failure of medical ethics, of patient treatment, and of neurological understanding of brain function and dysfunction. The legacy is what can go wrong. Medical ethics, safeguards and precautions have evolved so that similarly reckless experiments can never be conducted again.

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Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer