Antique Tools For Brain Surgery Are The Stuff Of Nightmares

Ingenuity isn’t always a far cry from butchery.


They’re called “trephines,” which seems innocent enough. From the Latin “trypan,” the origin literally means “to bore.” But to bore into what, you ask? In this case, skulls, to get to brains. Everything from sharp hammers to bow-drills to what I swear is a serrated espresso portafilter have been implemented with the sole purpose of opening heads. And while in the back of our minds we know these things must exist, it sure is disconcerting to actually see them.


Brains: The Mind As Matter is an installation on display through mid-June at London’s Wellcome Collection. It’s a collection of over 150 objects–artwork, documents, photographs, sketches, surgical tools, and even real brains in jars–that map our historical fascination with the brain from thousands of years ago through today.

These cultural artifacts are slices of humanity, each designed to answer one of life’s biggest questions: How does the brain work? Sometimes you see echoes of technology within the artifacts–as artisanal plaster busts give way to corrosion casts of brain blood vessels, or formaldehyde jars filled with gray matter are replaced by 3-D computer models. But the more chilling moments are those that echo our looser moralities born of ignorance, like open brain anatomical sketches that appear not to be of cadavers, but of those still living, their jaws loose and eyes vacant quietly implying an intellectual disability. Was it just artistic license, or was it live human testing in the name of medicine and science? This is information I could easily look up, but honestly, part of me would rather not confirm an answer that I probably already know.

Slices from Einstein’s brain.

Yet on the other hand, if you can shake off all the shivers for a moment, it’s simply awesome to see how far we’ve come in cracking this nut that is the human skull, art and science combining for centuries to both annotate and decode its mysterious contents. We’ve gotten so ironically good at all this brain probing stuff, in fact, that now we’re able to study the brain without opening a skull at all.

But that won’t save any of us from brain surgery. Shivers.

[Hat tip: notcot]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach