Category Archives: Research

The ‘gay cure’ experiments that were written out of scientific history

Robert Heath

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

Allan Branstiter: Madness & A Thousand Reconstructions

The Mississippi State Asylum, see original post on AHA Today for full image citation
The Mississippi State Asylum, see original post on AHA Today for full image citation

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!

Interactive Timeline: “Replication in Psychology: A History Perspective”

Those who’ve been following the most recent controversy over the replicability of psychological findings (see here, here, here, here, and here for a primer), may be interested in the latest output from the PsyBorgs Digital History of Psychology Laboratory. Michael Pettit (left) has created an interactive timeline of replication controversies over psychology’s history:

This interactive timeline offers the reader a brief guide to this longer history. I define replication fairly broadly, but attempt to not simply offer a history of psychology in its entirety. Instead, I have focused on famous replication controversies from the past alongside the development of psychology’s favored research methods.

I am personally quite agnostic as to the value of the current interest in direct replication. My worry is that it distracts (as is often the case in psychology) from questions of external validity. My goal is to provide a richer context for contemporary controversies animating psychology.

I welcome corrections, updates, and suggestions of relevant topics. Please contact me at mpettit at yorku.ca

The timeline can be explored in full here.

History of psychology in Nautilus

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The popular publication on science, Nautilus, offers two recent features relevant to our readership.

The first is an adroit biographical and theoretical sketch of distinctive psychologist and historian of psychology Julian Jaynes. In addition to a survey of the impact his opus The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind  made upon its publication, focus is also placed on current interpretations of his polarizing thinking, and the ways in which it can be said to have anticipated persistent “vexations” in neuroscience. Find here.

The second, in spite of a somewhat click-baity title, provides a rather nuanced and concise history of research on gender differences in ‘spatial skills,’  touching on the various tensions that are at play in any discussion of why females are currently understood to struggle with spatial cognition, including the perennial oversimplification of  a nature/nurture dichotomy, social construction, neuro plasticity, sexism in STEM fields, and even evolutionary explanations. Find here. 

NIMH’s Insel moves to Google….

InselAPA’s Monitor reports that after 13 years as director of the American National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas Insel is joining Verily, the Life Sciences Division of Google’s new Alphabet Inc. empire.

His vision for Google’s role in reforming mental health care creates an unprecedented intersection between the fraught social politics of public surveillance, ‘philanthrocapitalism‘ and the psychological industries:

“Google’s strength in data analytics could be leveraged to identify patterns such as changes in cognition and behavior that are difficult to detect in the early stages of psychosis, he says. In many cases, people who were eventually diagnosed with the disease went undiagnosed for years because their initial symptoms masked themselves as traditional adolescent behavior, such as isolation from others and difficulty with academics, Insel says. Smartphones, for example, could collect speech data that would be plugged into an algorithm that detects disorganized speech patterns indicative of psychosis.”

Read the full article here. Conversation on the topic welcome and encouraged.