Better Living Through Lobotomy

The lobotomy has a long and curious history. Originally
developed by Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, the operation
attempted to sever the part of the brain that controls emotion from
the part that controls intellect, permanently curbing anxiety and
agitation. As the procedure evolved from localized alcohol
injections into the disturbingly inaccurate destruction of brain
tissue with sharp surgical instruments, the lobotomy became the
most widely used treatment for severe mental illness, earning Moniz
the Nobel Prize in 1949. Though the operation provided mixed
results, physicians were eager to advocate and perform the surgery,
and the lobotomy quickly became a medical institution despite its
many flaws.

Elliot Valenstein, professor emeritus of psychology at the
University of Michigan, argues that though the lobotomy is on the
way out, the factors that led to its gross misapplication are still
alive and well in the medical community. At the time of the
procedure’s acceptance, mental illness was seen as a dire social
problem with which existing infrastructure was unable to cope;
mental institutions were becoming increasingly crowded because they
didn’t have many effective means for dealing with severe mental
illness. Thus, legislators and superintendents eagerly accepted any
solution, like lobotomy, insulin coma, or electroshock therapy that
promised to cheaply get patients out of asylums. The lobotomy
received glowing coverage in the national media, helping spread its
acceptance and adoption, and the operation finally went out of
vogue in the late 1950’s, when ‘chemical lobotomies’ such as
Thorazine, an early antidepressant, proved to be more
cost-effective than surgery.

The modern healthcare community is once again preoccupied with
somatic treatments, seeing psychological problems as a physical set
of symptoms. Just like in the lobotomy period, economic factors are
distorting the practice of medicine, since nearly all clinicians or
researchers have a vested interest in the development of certain
procedures or drugs. A closer analysis of this economic system of
mental health is necessary if the mistakes of the medical community
are to be avoided.
Brendan Themes

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Better Living Through Lobotomy

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