To a generation of Canadians, “I smell burnt toast!” means something very specific, and ominous. It means they’re having a seizure. Today’s Google doodle celebrates the 127th birthday of Wilder Penfield, the man behind that strange cultural reference and, more importantly, a groundbreaking neurosurgeon who pioneered new treatments for epilepsy.
Though today a Canadian icon, Penfield was actually born and raised in the United States and moved to Montreal in 1928, at age 37. There, he invented the Montreal procedure for patients with severe epilepsy. The patient remains awake under local anesthesia, while the doctor stimulates various parts of their brain tissue. The patient can then give real-time feedback about what they’re feeling, which helps the doctors destroy the nerve cells that are causing the seizures.
So what’s with the burnt toast? The first patient to undergo the Montreal procedure reported smelling burnt toast when no such thing was happening. Later, this was dramatized in a short and widely played clip explaining Penfield’s work. It’s really something. See for yourself:
Penfield’s experiments with stimulating different parts of the brains helped us learn to map its different sensory areas and he also was immortalized in the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which features a Penfield mood organ — you just press a button and feel exactly what you want.