A personality lobotomy

A personality lobotomy

This post contains spoilers about the film Shutter Island.

How much of an identity is based on personality?

I’ve done a lot of research, during my Masters, into the connection between appearance and personality but sometimes the connection between your personality and your body can become dislodged (either accidentally or through a medical procedure), then what happens to your identity? If your personality changes but your face stays the same, are you still the same person?

A lobotomy is a form of psychosurgery which consists of operating on or removing a part of the brain within the frontal lobes. It was tested in the late 1800’s but prescribed and performed in the 1930’s for psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.

The surgery was thought to remove or affect the part of the brain that controlled personality traits, creating confusion between the sensory and motor connections. When the operation was ‘successful’ it would lead to a quieter and calmer patient but the success rate was a very questionable 50%. The frequent and serious side effects meant that the procedure started to decline in the 50’s and practically disappeared by the 70’s, leaving many paralysed for life.

The film Shutter Island focuses (cleverly) on a psychiatric patient called Teddy Daniels, a federal Marshall. Teddy Daniels is on Shutter Island to find a missing patient, patient 67, called Andrew Laeddis. During the film Teddy starts to have flashbacks, it becomes clear that he is a war hero suffering from post-traumatic stress and the effects of drinking problems.

During the search for the missing patient, Teddy becomes confused; when interviewing other patients or staff members on the island, many tell him to ‘run’ and that there is no missing patient at all. Teddy assumes the staff are hiding something and becomes insistent on finding out what horrific things are happening to patients in the lighthouse on the island; lobotomies.

Teddy’s flashbacks become worse and more violent, in a particularly long vision he returns home to his wife to find her acting strangely, soaking wet and he asks where his children are. He finds them drowned in the lake, by his wife, and it becomes clear that his wife is insane – she asks if they can dress them up and sit them around the table and Teddy, in tears of anger and despair suffocates her to death. Teddy wakes up from this horrible flashback remembering that he isn’t a federal Marshall at all but Andrew Laeddis – a war hero who murdered his wife. He angrily remembers being ignorant to the extent of his wife’s insanity, a realisation that cost him his children.

Andrew is patient 67 – the patient Teddy had been searching for – the trauma he had been through had been too much for his mind to deal with, creating an alternate personality of a character who fixed things rather than broke them. The doctors on the island let him play out his federal Marshall fantasy in the hope that it would cure his madness, he had already been on the island for two years and doctors were trying to avoid lobotomising such an intelligent patient.

After having this entire process explained to him, the next morning Andrew sits outside on the steps and lights a cigarette under the close watch of the doctors and warden. It is clear that he is struggling to carry the weight of his crimes and looks tired and solemn. After a short while he turns to the doctor sat next to him and says “I gotta get off this rock, Chuck. Get back to the mainland. Whatever the hell’s going on here, it’s bad.”, (something Teddy Daniels would say). The doctor looks over to the others and shakes his head. It looks like the fantasy procedure didn’t work after all and so the other doctors wander off towards the lighthouse to make preparations.

Andrew turns back to the doctor sat next to him and says “You know, this place makes me wonder… which would be worse – to live as a monster? Or to die as a good man?”. He still understands he has schizophrenia and that he is Andrew Laeddis, the procedure worked! He simply pretended to be Teddy Daniels so that he could have the lobotomy and be relieved of his ‘Andrew’ personality and his sins. He wouldn’t have to be the person who destroyed his family.

When the film credits came up on the screen, I found myself just staring at them for a while. The thought and planning that must have gone into the storyline was impressive enough but I couldn’t stop thinking about the connection between the physicality and mentality of a person.

Weirdly enough, one of my favourite television shows at the moment is called Perception, season two started a couple of weeks ago and the first episode was a reminder of the lobotomy process that I found so fascinating.

In a similar way, a man had murdered his wife; an angry and violent biker-gang type of guy. He then suffers trauma to the head and soon becomes a model citizen (although in prison for his crime). Everybody has noticed the change in personality and the doctor discovers this trauma has inflicted an ‘accidental lobotomy’ on his brain. When put on trial, the witness testimonials include the doctor’s report and even the victim’s brother says he doesn’t think this is the same man who murdered his sister.

The jury plead ‘not guilty’ and the man is released. This is physically the person who killed his own wife, those are the hands that did the damage but the man inside did not.

I know these are films and tv shows but the thought stays the same. Do we exist in only a tiny part of our brain?

Our entire personality and our identity relies on just a few key connections within the frontal lobes, isn’t that terrifying and amazing all at the same time?…