Metaphysical self-trepanation


Artist Madeline von Foerster provides some insight into her extraordinary self portrait (above), in a comment posted on my article about trepanation:

During a previous period of depression in my life, I often experienced a severe sensation of pressure in my cranium. It sometimes felt so unbearable I wished I had a hole in my head! A friend told me, "Maybe you just need to be trepannated!" It was a revelation to discover that this surgery existed and was used therapeutically for centuries. My depression later abated and I never pursued that treatment, but my interest continued and I was compelled to make this painting.

I guess it is a "metaphysical" rather than medical interpretation of trepanation, since I am having the surgery performed by a non-corporeal version of myself...I hope you find it interesting...


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I find the painting and the subject utterly fascinating not to mention the beauty of the work.Thank you

By Ruth Ochoa (not verified) on 25 Oct 2008 #permalink

This speaks to the contributory power of the mind via imagery and symbol (a form of neurofeedback) to heal the body; and the need to further understand the power of the relaxation response, as well as all other mechanisms involved in psychoneuroimmunology, and to utilize such methods to help innumerable conditions.

I'm thinking that to the extent she believed trepenation might relieve pressure, painting it (imaging in such detail) could have tricked her body into thinking she was actually doing a procedure that would lessen pressure on her skull, with her belief/hope (placebo) bolstering her immune system - countering whatever functions may have gone awry contributing to her headache. But also her use of image and attention could have directly changed other facets of physiology such as blood pressure and heart rate...which in turn could have affected her headache. (Example of biofeedback - imagine a bright yellow lemon, see a knife slicing through it, the juice seeping out. Then imagine biting into this juicy lemon slice. Notice how your mouth feels...Studies show salivation rates go up regardless of whether one is imaging or actually biting it. The brain often cannot tell the difference between a well imagined event and the real thing and the body responds accordingly.) So, in imaging her skull being operated on and relieving pressure (via the act of painting), it very well could have lowered (or raised) her blood pressure, relaxed her neck muscles (which right there could effect headache) well as many other possible effects like shifting neurochemicals and hormone balance. The field of psychoneuroimmunology/ and neurofeedback really needs to be dug into!

I'd be curious if she was conscious of her ' felt sense ' in her body as she painted, and if so did she notice if the feelings shifted as she painted, how long the painting took, how long after the painting was completed did her symptoms subside, and if she uses the image if or when pain returns...

Dear Morgaine, Your observations are fascinating, and I thank you for writing them (as well as Mo, for making the post).

In truth, the sensation I experienced was one more of pressure (as if someone was squeezing my cranium with both hands), than headache. But it was very uncomfortable and oppressive. Creating the painting (which took several months) was very challenging for me, so I didn't always feel relaxed while I was making it! But overall, yes, I would say it was a therapeutic experience. It would have been impossible to paint the facial expressions I depicted without imparting some of those peaceful feelings to myself: my brain definitely plays all kinds of tricks on me while I paint, and one of them is a strange kind of sympathy/mimicry of emotion!

The most powerful example of this was when a musician friend asked me to paint the cover art for an album he was making, his own kind of healing catharsis ten years after his wife's suicide. Even though the image I created was largely peaceful, there was definitely some tension and sorrow in it. During the time I spent on the painting, I experienced horrible sadness, loss, and desolation. If I had had any kind of belief in the supernatural, I would have sworn that I was being inhabited by the woman's ghost, because I had no great problems in my own life, and the emotions did not feel like my own. But of course it was the manifestation of this imagery/symbolic neurofeedback you describe. By the end of the work I felt a sense of release and peace.

I don't know if music works in the same way, but my friend who made the album also seemed to experience healing from his creative efforts. He has since remarried and had a lovely baby.