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.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has just aired a piece on the controversial history of Oak Ridge, the forensic mental health division of the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, Ontario. (The Oak Ridge building officially closed in 2014, but Waypoint continues to house Ontario’s only maximum security forensic hospital.) “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” aired March 1st, 2016 as part of the CBC’s national news program The National and is described simply as: “Allegations of treatment with LSD, sleep deprivation, torture. The painful legacy of an Ontario psychiatric facility. Reg Sherren reports.”
The 15-minute piece, driven by the narrative of one man’s experiences in the institution in the 1970s, describes some of the treatment practices at the institution at this time and questions the ethics of those involved. A provocative indictment of the institution and its doctors, the segment unfortunately lacks any counterpoint regarding the ethics of the therapeutic practices employed at the hospital. Absent any discussion of the greater context of psychiatry at this time, the treatment of patients at Oak Ridge is presented as unequivocally cruel, unusual, and unethical. This is certainly the experience of the former patient featured in “The Secrets of Oak Ridge.”
And from our present-day vantage point we may well feel similarly. Taking the context of 1960s and 70s psychiatry into account, however, the ethics, or lack thereof, of the program are less clearcut. At the time, Oak Ridge’s use of LSD and other psychopharmaceuticals – alongside other therapies – was seen as a positive form of treatment and a promising advance in the field. Where the CBC segment is most successful is in presenting the patient’s voice, as he recounts his experiences at the hospital. Respecting this patient’s experience, while putting that experience into historical context is a fine balancing act, one, unfortunately, “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” does not attempt. Contextualizing these treatment practices does not mean invalidating the experiences of this or any other patient, but it is necessary for a more complete understanding of what transpired at this hospital in this moment in time.
As we’ve reported previously on AHP, the recently launched Remembering Oak Ridge Digital Archive and Exhibit produced by former AHP contributor Jennifer Bazar, is an excellent and under-utilized source for this much needed information. Details and fuller context for the social therapy program discussed in the CBC segment can be found on this page of the site. (It should also be noted that a class action lawsuit against the hospital and the program’s doctors, on behalf several patients, is as yet undecided.)
Way back in the Spring of 2013 we brought you news that author Andromeda Romano-Lax was working on a fictionalized account of the life of psychologist Rosalie Rayner Watson. That book, now titled Behave, has just been published by SoHo Press. A trailer for the book is featured above and a recent Kirkus review of Behave can be found here.
The book is described on the publishers website:
“The mother begins to destroy the child the moment it’s born,” wrote the founder of behaviorist psychology, John B. Watson, whose 1928 parenting guide was revered as the child-rearing bible. For their dangerous and “mawkish” impulses to kiss and hug their child, “most mothers should be indicted for psychological murder.” Behave is the story of Rosalie Rayner, Watson’s ambitious young wife and the mother of two of his children.
In 1920, when she graduated from Vassar College, Rayner was ready to make her mark on the world. Intelligent, beautiful, and unflappable, she won a coveted research position at Johns Hopkins assisting the charismatic celebrity psychologist John B. Watson. Together, Watson and Rayner conducted controversial experiments on hundreds of babies to prove behaviorist principles. They also embarked on a scandalous affair that cost them both their jobs — and recast the sparkling young Rosalie Rayner, scientist and thinker, as Mrs. John Watson, wife and conflicted, maligned mother, just another “woman behind a great man.”
With Behave, Andromeda Romano-Lax offers a provocative fictional biography of Rosalie Rayner Watson, a woman whose work influenced generations of Americans, and whose legacy has been lost in the shadow of her husband’s. In turns moving and horrifying, Behave is a richly nuanced and disturbing novel about science, progress, love, marriage, motherhood, and what all those things cost a passionate, promising young woman.
The British Psychological Society‘s History of Psychology Centre held their now annual Stories of Psychology Symposium last month. Video from the symposium, which this year was dedicated to the subject of “Clinically Applied: Origins of a Profession,” is now online. The first of five videos from the symposium is featured above. Full details on the event follow below.
2015 – Clinically Applied: Origins of a Profession
Held on Wednesday 14 October 2015 at the Chancellor’s Hall, Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
Convened by Professor John Hall (Oxford Brookes University)
The topic of this year’s symposium was chosen as a curtain raiser for the start of the 50th anniversary year of the BPS Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) in 2016. It looks forward to the Golden Anniversary by looking back at the development of clinical psychology as a profession, a history that reaches back beyond the foundation of the DCP in 1966.
The four main speakers are all contributors to Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives edited by John Hall, Graham Turpin and David Pilgrim, which is due to be published by the History of Psychology Centre in December 2015.
Emeritus Professor Bill Yule (Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London)
‘Clinical Psychology: The Early Days, 1939-1963’
Dr Jennifer Clegg (University of Nottingham)
‘Four Lensmakers: Jack Tizard, Ann and Alan Clark, Peter Mittler’
Dr Anne Richardson (formerly of University College London and Department of Health)
‘Growing Pains and Pleasures: Psychology, Government and the Profession’s Health’
Professor Bob Woods (Bangor University)
‘Dementia in the 20th Century: Discovering the Person Behind the Label’
Dr Saima Lofgren (Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust) will make a short presentation on the emergence of cultural concerns in clinical psychology.
BBC 4’s series History of the Future “uses the fascinating objects in the Science Museum in London to chart how our understanding of ourselves and our technology has changed over time.” Associated blogger Melissa Hogenbloom posted a piece titled “A brief history of our desire to peer into the brain,” which surveys methods from phrenology to EEG, CT Scan and fMRI. Included are video clips of Science Museum curator Katie Dabin showing Hogenbloom their relevant collection, including ceramic phrenological heads and early electroencephalography technology.
That post, with the films of Dabin’s explanations, can be found here.
The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology has released the third episode of its 5 Minute History Lesson series. This latest episode explores the Robbers Cave experiment undertaken by Muzafer and Carolyn Wood Sherif. The full episode is embedded above and available on the Cummings Center’s YouTube channel, along with other episodes in the series.
Adding to the recent trend in popular uptake of classic mid-century controversies in psychology (see for example the acclaimed television series Masters of Sex, which fictionalizes the groundbreaking sex research conducted by Masters and Johnson), October sees the release of Sundance Festival feature Experimenter (find our earlier coverage of the festival here), a film written and directed by Michael Almereyda about Stanley Milgram’s still infamous studies on obedience to authority.
Starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, the film dramatizes the ethical quandaries for which Milgram’s work became a poster child and contributed to the development of increased ethics regulation in psychological research. It also provides a characterization of Milgram himself, and contextualizes the infamy of his studies in light of his personal and professional lives.
The reception of Milgram’s work by public press has always promoted its more scandalous aspects (as we say in the field, it’s a ‘sexy’ topic for journalists), and as such this feature length is only the latest in a long line of media representation that Milgram has attracted since he published his conclusions. See our other blog coverage of these, starting with Shatner’s 1975 fictionalization; multiple renditions from the Travel, and Discovery channels, BBC, and ABC, often including attempts at actual replication of the experimental conditions; as well as a French mockumentary commenting on reality TV.
The New York Times reports that a film, titled ’37’, on the infamous Kitty Genovese murder is in the works. The Genovese case is often credited with providing the impetus for research into the bystander effect, whereby bystanders fail to intervene in an emergency situation as a result of a diffusion of responsibility. The notion that bystanders failed to intervene in the Genovese case – including the NYT‘s initial erroneous accounting of 37 such individuals – has been called into question (see our previous posts on this myth here). As the NYT reports,
Whether the classic account of the murder is factually true has been disputed for years. The disturbing article in The New York Times at the time (“37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”) got the probable number of witnesses wrong, among other facts. Some people did call the police; at least one neighbor comforted the victim as she died. But over the years, Kitty Genovese has become more than a true-crime statistic. She’s attained the status of a myth aswirl in urban dread.
More details about the film ’37’ can be found in the NYT piece.
In a recent piece on the Somatosphere blog, historian Laura Stark describes the making of “vulnerable populations” in medical experimentation. Currently writing a book on the emergence of “normal control” subjects in medical research, Stark uses her research on LSD experimentation at the US National Institutes of Health post-WWII to discuss the idea of “vulnerable populations.” The above video features excerpts from some of Stark’s oral history interviews with research subjects used as “normal controls” in this research.
As she describes in “How to make a “vulnerable population”,”
The category of the “vulnerable population” is itself a product of modern (American) bioethics, which invented the concept in its recent vintage and gave it specific meaning in public parlance. The field of modern bioethics emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the post civil-rights period, the bioethical concept of the “vulnerable population” was coded with contemporary rights-based concerns: about minorities, about prisoners, and more. The specific meanings and people associated with “vulnerable populations” were embedded in 1970s human-subjects regulation, as well as in popular discourse….
The concepts of modern bioethics operate at another level, too. Ian Hacking coined the term “moral kinds” to tag what he called meta-ethical issues that people—including scholars—come to embody. We are working to develop Ian Hacking’s framework to show how law (especially U.S. human-subjects regulations) shapes both the memory practices of historical actors and the interpretive practices of present-day scholars. In sum, we are interested in how the concepts of bioethics, such as “vulnerable populations” codified in 1974 and later extended beyond the United States, have narrowed the range of possibilities available to scholars for interpreting empirical evidence. We like Hacking’s approach because it offers a way to investigate how the governing moral sensibilities of a specific time and place both constrain and liberate scholars themselves. The secular, North American, rights-revolution ethos of modern bioethics, we suggest, limits how questions about research practices in the human sciences are conceptualized, and can deflect questions about the historicity of the discipline of bioethics as a knowledge-making enterprise in its own right. We aim to explore medical knowledge-making alongside the ontology of modern bioethics—to ask how, when, where, and with what effects the terms and priorities of this expert domain developed. In doing so, we hope to capture a fuller repertoire of institutions, sensibilities, and activities that eventually came to constitute modern science and biomedicine.