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Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 237 - November 1992

...that have always intrigued you about the world will appear in this,
your section, and be answered by other readers. Please address
your answers and questions to ‘Curiosities’.

Can anyone recommend a book about trepannation or tell me anything
about the benefits of having a hole bored in the skull?

· Trepannation was the process whereby a hole was scraped through the skull using flints. The evidence for this practice is based largely on prehistoric skulls. In terms of current understanding, there are no benefits to be gained from trepannation save for evacuating blood clots from the surface of the brain. It is unlikely that this was the reason for the operation being performed in prehistory, since nearly all the subjects would have died of infections, and forensic examination reveals that although most subjects died at the time this was done, a fair proportion survived: some even underwent trepannation a second time. Prehistoric trepannation probably did not breach the coverings of the brain, but merely penetrated the skull.

Why it was performed is not known, though some believe it was meant to relieve schizophrenia, which frequently includes sensations of thoughts and feelings being forced into or pulled out of the head.

Dr JS Barrett
London, UK.

· It has been suggested that the removal of a disc of bone from the skull was an attempt to cure mental illness. But there are many records of apparently 'mentally ill' people in ancient times who were accorded a mystical or supernatural status. This conflicts with the view that trepannation represented an attempt to 'cure' them by surgery. I would prefer to hazard a guess that they were in fact responding to a specific pathology, perhaps a tumour, or haemorrhage, or water on the brain.

Clare Smith
Leicester, UK.

Are broad-leafed trees better than conifers in terms of soaking up
excess carbon dioxide - and so helping to reduce global warming?

· As regards reducing global warming the impact of planting any type of tree is virtually zero, when compared to the levels of CO2 produced by industry. As for commercial planting - the trees are turned into paper and eventually burnt to produce more CO2. But, in direct answer to the question, conifers are better as overall they have a larger surface area of leaf than broad-leafed trees and are in leaf for the whole year while broadleaves are deciduous.

Stuart Priestley
Leeds, UK.

Why is it inadvisable - or dangerous - to allow victims of electrical torture
to take fluids until many hours after the ordeal?

· I was surprised by the published response to this question (NI 234). Electrical impulses do not 'remain in the body' after the source of voltage has been disconnected. No more voltage, no more current flow, as Ohm would say. Having had a fairly good sweep through the literature, I can find no references to the need to avoid giving water after torture. The body is 80 per cent water in any case, and so a litre more or less won't make a hell of a lot of difference.

Dr JS Barrett
London, UK.

Awaiting your answers...

[image, unknown] I understand that a waterless WC - using sawdust to produce a high-grade compost - has been invented by a Swede. Does anyone know whether this WC can be sited in a house?
How is it ventilated? How is it cleaned? Whether it smells? And where can I find a detailed description?

EM Thropp
Crediton, UK

I am told it is better to leave a fluorescent light switched on when you
leave a room as its initial switching-on cost is high compared with its running cost.
Is this true and if so at what point does it become more economic to switch it off?

Anthony Twist
Shrewsbury, UK

How did the wretched term (economic) 'basket case' originate?
Who used it first and in reference to which country?

Stephen Langford
Paddington, Australia

If you have any questions or answers please send them to Curiosities,
New Internationalist, 55 Rectory Road, Oxford OX4 1BW, UK,
or to your local NI office (click here for addresses).


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New Internationalist issue 237 magazine cover This article is from the November 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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