Neuroskeptic, part of Discover Magazine’s series of blogs, recently posted a review of a new book, Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. The book, written by Luke Dittrich who is himself the grandson of H.M.’s neurosurgeon, tells the story of the infamous case study of the patient now known to be Henry Molaison.
In the review Neuroskeptic focuses on three troubling aspects of H.M.’s story as discussed in the book. First, the psychosurgery performed on H.M. to address his epilepsy had no medical basis. Second, H.M.’s life was not nearly as sedate and content as it often portrayed and he threatened suicide at various points in time. Finally, the ethics of Suzanne Corkin’s longterm study of H.M. is thrown into doubt as, following the death of his parents, H.M. lacked a legal conservator to speak to his interests. This meant that H.M. himself provided consent for many of Corkin’s studies, though whether this can be understood as informed consent is doubtful. Moreover, the cousin eventually appointed conservator for H.M., it turns out, was not related to H.M. at all and simply provided blanket consent for Corkin’s tests of H.M.
This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.
Robert Heath claimed to have cured homosexuality by implanting electrodes into the pleasure centre of the brain. Robert Colvile reports on one of the great forgotten stories of neuroscience.
For the first hour, they just talked. He was nervous; he’d never done this before. She was understanding, reassuring: let’s just lie down on the bed together, she said, and see what happens. Soon, events took their course: they were enjoying themselves so much they could almost forget about the wires leading out of his skull.
The year was 1970, and the man was a 24-year-old psychiatric patient. The woman, 21, was a prostitute from the French Quarter of New Orleans, hired by special permission of the attorney general of Louisiana. And they had just become part of one of the strangest experiments in scientific history: an attempt to use pleasure conditioning to turn a gay man straight.
The patient – codenamed B-19 – was, according to the two academic papers that catalogued the course of the research, a “single, white male of unremarkable gestation and birth”. He came from a military family and had had an unhappy childhood. He had, the papers said, entered the military but had been expelled for “homosexual tendencies” within a month. He had a five-year history of homosexuality, and a three-year history of drug abuse: he had tried glues, paints, thinners, sedatives, marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, even nutmeg and vanilla extract. He had temporal lobe epilepsy. He was depressive, suicidal, insecure, procrastinating, self-pitying and narcissistic. “All of his relationships,” wrote his doctors, with an unsparing lack of sympathy, “have been characterised by coercion, manipulation and demand.”
One of the strangest experiments in scientific history: an attempt to use pleasure conditioning to turn a gay man straight.
In 1970, B-19 ended up in the care of Robert Galbraith Heath, chair of the department of psychiatry and neurology at Tulane University, New Orleans. Heath’s prescription was drastic. He and his team implanted stainless steel, Teflon-coated electrodes into nine separate regions of B-19’s brain, with wires leading back out of his skull. Once he had recovered from the operation, a control box was attached which enabled him, under his doctors’ supervision, to provide a one-second jolt to the brain area of his choice. Continue reading The ‘gay cure’ experiments that were written out of scientific history→
Another highlight from the AHA Today blog–an announcement of a three parted post series by University of Southern Mississippi PhD Student Branstiter. Titled “Madness and a Thousand Reconstructions: Learning to Embrace the Messiness of the Past,” the series, a reflexive narrative about archival research and historiography, will be of particular interest to other graduate students and early career historians engaging in similar processes of craft development.
Branstiter’s series will explain how shifts in the reformulation of his topic (an asylum scandal in Reconstruction-era US south) from ‘event’ to ‘lens’ allowed him to investigate its contexts in a way that could more fully apprehend the complexity involved. By recounting his own historiographic processes, Branstiter expounds upon common challenges in the construction of historical knowledge, including the politics of interpretation, the benefits of allowing the data to speak, as well as negotiation of the limits of formal records and informal memory practices. We look forward to the installments!
Stephanie Kingsley (over on the American Historical Association‘s blog) put up a post on the ethical and technical challenges of retaining records of the web. Summarizing the proceedings of a day symposium on the topic, Kingsley also consults with the York Psyborg lab’s good fried Ian Milligan (Waterloo) to expound on the complex topic. She also provides a compendium of resources for those historians interested in contributing to projects being undertaken to #SaveTheWeb. Find the full post here.
This is a non-binding budget recommendation, and is one of those things that representatives hostile to the NEH, etc. put out year after year…. Although urgency seems less real than apparent, now is still a good time to send a strong message to Congress that you support NEH.
Here is the action alert they created to make for easy emailing to your congress person in support of the Endowment. Please participate!
the most influential example of “pathological togetherness” lifted from the animal kingdom was not a bird. It was a rodent and, in particular, the laboratory experiments performed on rats in the 1960s by ethologist John B. Calhoun at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Calhoun built a “rat city” in which everything a rat could need was provided, except space. The result was a population explosion followed by pathological overcrowding, then extinction. Well before the rats reached the maximum possible density predicted by Calhoun, however, they began to display a range of “deviant” behaviours: mothers neglected their young; dominant males became unusually aggressive; subordinates withdrew psychologically; others became hypersexual; the living cannibalized the dead. Calhoun’s “rat utopia” became a living hell.
Calhoun published the early results of his experiments in 1962 in the now-classic Scientific American article, “Population Density and Social Pathology”. As historians Edmund Ramsden and Jon Adams have shown, Calhoun’s rats circulated widely as “scientific evidence” of the dangers of urban overcrowding in human society. His concept of the “behavioural sink” chimed with despairing journalistic reports of “sink estates” and “sink schools” in 1970s Britain.
Academic journalism site The Conversation posted a short piece on personality testing that touches on the context-boundedness and reflexive aspects of such measures and how they relate to the history of the field more generally. Titled Psychology by numbers: a brief history of personality tests(and written by Chris Millard, a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Research Fellow), it’s an example of popularization that is both straightforward but still relatively sophisticated; it could work well as a teaching resource.
Phoebe Harkins, the Library Communications Co-ordinator at Wellcome, has posted an application announcement for a new contractual position of Wikimedian in Residence on their blog (flexible 6-12 months, depending on the projects the Wikimedian proposes and develops).
Excerpts from the post:
Incurably curious? Interested in the history of medicine? Know a bit about Wikipedia?
Our collections cover so much more than the history of medicine – essentially life, death and everything in between, so there’s huge potential for improving the content on Wikipedia. We’ll also be looking at enriching other Wikimedia projects.
The Wikimedian will work with us on the project to help develop areas of Wikipedia covered by our amazing holdings. We’d love you to help us to make our world-renowned collections, knowledge and expertise here at the Wellcome Library even more accessible.
In a recent post on the history of medicine blog Remediahistorian of science Delia Gavrus documents efforts to reform criminals through brain surgery. These surgeries, undertaken from the late-nineteenth century through the 1920s, helped set the stage for the advent of the lobotomy in the 1930s. As Gavrus notes,
The belief that surgery on the skull and brain could cure afflictions of the mind may appear out of place in the 1920s, coming as it did many years before the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz developed a psychosurgical technique in which the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain were severed in an attempt to alleviate symptoms of mental illness (the prefrontal leucotomy or lobotomy, first performed in 1935).
In fact, ‘escaping’ prison by way of surgery on the skull or brain was far from unprecedented in the decades before the introduction of lobotomy. If Gardner didn’t learn about the procedure from a doctor, he might very well have been inspired by the many stories similar to his own which appeared in the newspapers. For instance, a decade and a half earlier, a notorious check forger underwent a much talked about skull operation that drew commentary even from a former chief of the United States Secret Service. The Governor of New York pardoned Edward Grimmell because “[m]any scientific men are interested in seeing whether his criminal tendencies have disappeared, which can only be determined by his conduct when at large […] I am willing that the Parole Board should permit the experiment to be tried in this case […].”
The “Hidden Persuaders” blog recently posted a piece by Kira Lussier on the history of motivation in the workplace. In “Motivated or Manipulated? Ernest Dichter and David McClelland at Work” Lussier notes, there is
…a long history of concern with the relationship between employees’ psychological states and the success of the company, or even the economy, as a whole. Focusing on motivation raises questions about the role of psychological expertise in shaping our understanding of the self in corporate culture; and how the line between motivation and manipulation has been negotiated and challenged in the last fifty years. My dissertation research addresses these questions, focusing on the history of psychological techniques in late twentieth-century American businesses. Historians of psychology have traced the rise of psychological expertise in Cold War America, showing how psychologists framed a whole host of social concerns, from class relations to workplace morale, as psychological problems. Their accounts examine the ways that psychologists have been caught up in structures of power, particularly government and military contracts during the Cold War . Many post-war psychologists turned to corporate America to market their expertise, following in a long line of business-oriented applied psychologists, starting with Hugo Munsterberg in the early twentieth century .