Of the weird conversations I’ve had in my life, many of the weirdest took place while I was researching my 2003 book Rational Mysticism, which explores religious experiences and other exotic states of consciousness. And one of the weirdest of all involved a British aristocrat, Amanda Feilding, a.k.a. Countess of Wemyss and March.
My exchange with Feilding came to mind after a friend sent me a link to a profile of her in The Guardian, which is far and away the world’s coolest newspaper (sorry New York Times, you’re not even close).
I met Feilding in 2001 at a conference, “Altered States of Consciousness,” at the New School University in Manhattan. Mingling at a reception, I found myself chatting with a tall, slim, elegant woman who spoke with a British accent. Her name, she said, was Amanda Feilding. She ran the Beckley Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funded research on psychedelics. I knew some of the scientists she supported.
In the 1960s, she told me, she met a Dutch chemist, Bart Huges, who piqued her interest not only in psychedelics but also in trepanation, an ancient technique that involves boring holes in the skull. Having a hole in your head, Feilding assured me, expands your consciousness and enhances the effects of psychedelics. In 1970, when she was 27, she had made a film of herself drilling a hole in her head. Some rock stars had viewed the film and become intrigued by trepanation (as I recall, I cannot find my notes from the meeting).
Feilding had continued getting trepanned since 1970. The bone and skin gradually grow back, closing the hole, she said, so you need to get re-drilled now and then. She could not get a British physician to trepan her, but she had found a doctor in Egypt willing to do the job.
I asked, as delicately as possible, if she had a hole in her head right now. She said she did. I asked if I could see her hole. She drew the hair back from her forehead. I spotted a small indentation in her skin, just under her hairline.
Like I said, it was a weird conversation.
The Guardian quotes Feilding extolling the benefits of both psychedelics and trepanation. The latter, she conjectures, “improves the level of blood circulation round the brain to that of childhood. You get more blood into the brain with each heartbeat, and also an increase in washout of toxins. I’d suggest that cannabis and psychedelics do the same thing, but at a higher level. There are other techniques that can achieve this, like yogic breathing or cranial osteopathy, but trepanation is permanent.”
Ever since I met Feilding, I’ve wanted to see the 1970 film of her drilling a hole in her head. So I was thrilled to read in The Guardian that a snippet from the film, which Feilding calls “Heartbeat in the Brain,” has been posted on YouTube. The film shows the 27-year-old Feilding cutting her hair before her self-trepanation and then afterwards, her face covered in blood and her head bandaged.
In a voice over, Feilding–in her lovely, Downton Abbey voice–expresses the hope that her film will inspire research needed to get trepanation accepted as a standard medical practice by Britain’s National Health Service. “I’m not in favor of self-trepanation,” she says in a voice-over. “I think it should be done by the medical profession.”
Consider yourself warned.