Friday, January 07, 2011

The secret history of the brain

For those who are in a position to access BBC programmes, either in real time, or on iPlayer, I would like to recommend that you catch BBC4's The Brain: A Secret History. It is a documentary about the history of experimental psychology, and the first of three episodes ran last night at 9pm GMT.

As I had expected, it was simultaneously enlightening and deeply disturbing. There was coverage, including direct video footage of several of the experiments we've read about or studied: Pavlov, Skinner, Milgram et al.

The cruelty to animals and the breathtaking lack of concern for people's human rights beggars belief, as always; and the views expressed by some of the experimental researchers in their heyday fills me with impotent rage. At one point, my husband had to leave the room. I think I might have followed if this were my first exposure to the concepts. As it is, my exposure to the work of the likes of Pavlov and Skinner dates back to the Time Life Library series which my mother acquired when I was about 7 or 8, and the issue that addressed this subject was one I returned to so many times that it eventually fell to bits.

I was an by the time I first heard of Stanley Milgram and his eponymous experiment. My very first reaction was to ask whether the naieve subjects were given counselling afterwards to help them cope with the revelation of what they were prepared to do to another human being. I mean: how do you make peace with such knowledge about yourself? Last night's episode included an interview with one of the few surviving subjects, and it was plain that the man is still traumatised, nearly 50 years later! There are times when one doesn't want to be vindicated. For me, this was one of them.

Coverage of electroshock therapy included a case study of one young woman institutionalised for brain reconditioning by her mother because of arguments about a new boyfriend. This involved interviews with the (now much older) woman herself... well, suffice to say I was seething. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that the human mind is more resilient than expected.

The show is presented by psychiatrist Michael Mosley, who at one point takes a hallucinogen as part of the programme. His passion for his subject is infectious, although I might be the wrong person to make that call, since I had a pre-existing fascination with the subject.

Did anyone else catch it? What were your views?


Elizabeth Reed said...

Hello Karyn,

I think that you might be interested in

I was also a patient at the RWH and one of a small group trying to get acknowledgement of and an apology for the "treatment" that we were given.

Anything that you and other sympathetic people can do to make make our website better known will be very much appreciated.


The upsycho said...

@Elizabeth Thank you for your comment.

As I read your website, I was reminded of Dr Teleborian from the Stieg Larsson series about Lisbeth Salander... and it appalled me.

I am so sorry to hear that you were subjected to the sort of treatment that makes people reach for words like 'inhuman' (I find that ironic, since only humans ever treat one another like this).

I hope that you find the resolution that you are looking for, and that you have been able to live a full and rewarding life, in spite of the treatment you received.

V Yonkers said...

I don't get BBC (although many of the programs end up on PBS so maybe it'll be on US tv next year). However, I just finished my required research recertification upon which many of these issues were included. I complain about our IRB (Institutional Research Board) being so strict, making it next to impossible to do any research on human "subjects" (their word, not mine). However, the retraining does bring to mind what others might think of as innocent or "helpful" might cause more harm than good. In which case, it is not worth the research outcomes.

The upsycho said...

@Virginia I think Elizabeth's comment is poignantly apropos, here. And of course, Skinner's very idea that a select elite should be in charge of modifying and controlling the behaviour of the rest of us in order to ensure a Utopian society is indication enough to me that he didn't qualify to be part of such a select elite.

The very arrogance of so many of the researchers of that period who saw themselves as somehow remote from the research into human behaviour and psychology... Ugh! Don't get me started.

Views from Malmesbury said...

I’d forgotten about your blog until last night when I was ‘surfing’ the channels, bored, and came across the second of this series. It was already about 15 minutes into the program and I came in at the point where he’d been talking abut ‘Albert’ was it?... and how he’d been deliberately terrified as part of an experiment. I wish I’d seen all of it or recorded it now because a lot of it has got muddled in my mind but…

…they terrified a baby, conned some baby monkeys and isolated others who came out after a year with disturbed personalities yet at the end, despite acknowledging this, the presenter said, yes, the experiments were worthwhile despite their cruelty because they’ve given insight into human behaviour which has helped the treatment of human beings.

However, they also showed that we know things at an emotional level even before we logically work them out. Which presumably accounts for the disgust of the general public when we hear the ‘amazing results’ of one extremely expensive study or other that comes to a conclusion we all already know as a matter of common sense – eg ‘monkey see, monkey do’ – children learn from observation and example.

It seems to me that all the suffering that child and the monkeys went through was to show something that, to the man-on-the-street, seems so obvious.

Have I misunderstood this? Am I missing something?

The upsycho said...

@Views When I look at the inflicted suffering you mention, I cannot feel that it is justified. But I am an emotional, empathetic being, with a tendency to feel other people's emotions as strongly as my own. For example, I find that the beginning of the second episode has me incapacitated by Mosely's fear. This is not uncommon for me.

If I took my emotions out of the equation, perhaps I could focus on the results of the research. I don't know. I can't step outside of myself enough to assess that.

The fact that he is prepared to experiment on himself is for me significant. To see these researchers cold-bloodedly compelling naieve subjects to experience life altering emotional responses, with no thought for them and the impact on the rest of their lives, and the lives of those around them... well, it makes me question their mental stability, to be honest.

As to the 'obvious', the whole point of research is to test and refute/validate assumptions. One of the criticisms of my academic writing is that I have a reluctance to state the obvious. So I guess I'm not cut out to be a 'proper' researcher, either.

Views from Malmesbury said...

Well, I did notice he came out towards the psychopath end of the specrtum as opposed to the empathetic end in his test. I'm conflicted re experiments like this; I don't think they should have been undertaken in the first place, however, as they have I don't think the results should be ignored. I've heard some people say that the results of immoral investigations should be discounted. I can't agree with that; if it's done, it's done, to waste information would be to waste the pain of those who suffered the tests - far better not to do them in the first place. All in all, not a comfortable subject, and what I very disturbing was that I was able to see beyond the suffering and find it all fascinating. What does that say about me? Perhaps I don't want to know!

The upsycho said...

@Views My response to the pain/empathy experiment was that I am absolutely certain that I would feel far more empathy towards someone being humiliated, or brought to tears, or experiencing grief than to being pinched (as evidence, I was sobbing as I watched the piece about Dave as he faced the prospect of a life devoid of emtional connection with other people).

But then I realised that in order to measure that, the researcher would have to evoke those same responses in the naieve subject... and then we'd be right back where we started, with unspeakably cruel things being done to people in the name of science. And I couldn't bring myself to endorse that.

Like you, however, I wouldn't want to throw away the knowledge that has been garnered at such great cost. I would feel that that would further dishonour the people who suffered the abuse in the first place.