Science in the service of power can easily be warped and distorted—but, as this book shows, it can sometimes yield unexpected benefits.
Robert G. Heath (1915-1999) was once a widely respected, influential psychiatrist at Tulane University. As neurobiologist-turned–science journalist Frank (My Beautiful Genome: Discovering Our Genetic Future, One Quirk at a Time, 2012, etc.) writes, Heath’s biologically oriented work found many acolytes, among them a student who lost his academic chair later in life for having “prescribed too many interesting—and illegal—medications” to the university football team. Some of Heath’s work was equally troubling on the ethical front. He likely worked with the CIA on mind control experiments. Moreover, as Frank’s book opens, we find him attempting “to convert a homosexual man to heterosexual preferences through brain stimulation,” having wired electrodes into the patient’s brain’s “pleasure center” and hired a female prostitute to effect the conversion. Heath’s “brain pacemaker,” as he called the electrode device, was applied to dozens of other patients suffering from schizophrenia and depression, a seemingly brutal application save that other remedies were more invasive electroshock treatments and lobotomies. It turns out, writes the author, that although Heath is forgotten or discredited today, he was on to something: what is called “deep brain stimulation” is at the forefront of psychological studies today, with uses that include treating PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Arriving at this conclusion took decades of work in neuroscience, including the ability to study MRI scans of neural centers, among them “brain regions involved with our motivation, our experience of fear, our learning abilities and memory, libido, regulation of sleep, appetite”—in short, activities of interest to industry and government as well as science. Heath’s work may then have application after all, writes Frank, even if one psychiatric technician allows along the way that “maybe he shouldn’t have done that experiment.”
A thoughtful, always interesting look into the workings of the mind—and the sometimes-surprising implications of how those workings have been revealed.