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<   No. 1180   2006-04-20   >

Comic #1180

1 [caption]: Bite the Bullet
2 Jamie: The myth is that biting a bullet dulls the pain of surgery. So Adam will bite on a bullet while I drill a hole in his skull.
3 Jamie: To calibrate, we'll get a reading on his pain sensations before we start.
4 Jamie: What do you feel, Adam?
4 Adam: Just a bit of trepanation.

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Trepanation is the practice of making a hole in the skull to expose part of the brain covering, for medical or mystical purposes.

That's not the bizarre part.

Trepanation has been carried out for thousands of years. Archaeological remains from the Stone Age onwards show evidence of human skulls with holes bored in them.

That's not the bizarre part.

It was done by pre-technological civilisations all across the globe.

That's not the bizarre part.

From the regrowth of bone on many ancient trepanned skulls, it is clear that many, if not most, patients who underwent the procedure survived.

That's not the bizarre part.

Many of these survivors show multiple healed trepanation wounds indicating they underwent the procedure successfully several times.

Okay, you can wig out now.

It seems to have been done to cure various maladies afflicting the head, such as migraines, epilepsy, mental illnesses, and of course spiritual possession. In some cases it may actually have been helpful, since modern surgeons perform similar operations these days (under anaesthetic!) to treat haematoma (blood build-up) in the brain caused by head trauma.

2015-08-26 Rerun commentary: At the recent CVPR (Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition) conference I attended in Boston (in June 2015), I saw a poster paper by a guy who was using computer vision methods to analyse images of people's faces to determine the levels of pain they were experiencing. I stopped to talk to the author for several minutes, and he enthusiastically explained all aspects of his work, except the one question I was most interested in.

He explained about how the face recognition algorithms worked, and how he used steerable spatiotemporal filters to extract features that mapped to levels of pain response in human facial expressions, then used histograms of the filter responses to classify the pain levels. And how it gave good predictive results when tested on images of people experiencing different levels of pain.

After he'd finished politely explaining all this, I asked: "How do you do experiments to test this?"

I had visions of a lab where they were taking video of people while they poked them with sharp needles or something. But it turns out there is a publicly available database of images of patients with shoulder pain, who were videoed while trying to move their arms in various ways, resulting in various levels of pain, which the patients then describe using a descriptive rating system. This database was put together by the University of Northern British Columbia and McMaster University, and if you're curious you can get the details from the University of Pittsburgh.

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