The Montreal Procedure


The brain was a mystery to humans for much of our history.  How could a single organ produce complex thought and determine things such as personality, ideas, and memories?  Although scientists in the 19th and early 20th century understood the general structure of the brain, there was very little insight into exactly how it worked.  Much of this problem was due to the fact that the brain’s functions were impossible to observe without the very high probability of its owner dying.  By the 1930s, however, technology and medicine had advanced to the point where observing the brain’s functioning in a living person was indeed a possibility.

Dr. Wilder Penfield and Dr. Herbert Jasper invented the Montreal procedure in the 1930s.  This was a revolutionary method of surgery where Penfield and Jasper would operate on the brain of an epileptic patient, destroying the cells where the seizures began.  The doctors used local anesthetics, which are special drugs that eliminated a patient’s ability to feel pain in regions of the body as opposed to rendering him or her entirely unconscious.  Because the patient was not unconscious during the surgery, the doctors could stimulate parts of the brain using electricity and the patient could tell the doctors which sensations came about due to the stimulation.  This would help the doctors find the correct area of the brain and eliminate the areas that produced seizures.

Due to the success of the Montreal procedure, Dr. Penfield and his colleagues learned a great deal about the functioning of the human brain, including which parts of the brain produce certain thoughts and how they store memories.  For example, one woman, who suffered from epileptic seizures, reported smelling burnt toast before having an attack.  Dr. Penfield attempted to find this area of the brain by asking the woman when she could smell burnt toast while stimulating parts of the brain.  This procedure and the research that came from it allowed psychologists a great number of insights into where memory is stored. This research has developed into a field of research called “functional anatomy”.  Penfield also found areas in the brain responsible for producing language, movement, and many other important functions.