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Bizarre Brain-Implant Experiment Sought to "Cure" Homosexuality

John Horgan[:] To help my students appreciate how science reflects cultural prejudices, I often cite examples from psychiatry...

I mentioned Heath in my recent profile of Jose Delgado, a pioneer in the use of brain implants to manipulate patients’ minds and behavior. Heath was arguably even more ambitious than Delgado in his experiments, and he was not a fringe figure. He had degrees in psychiatry and neurology from Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania...

I first learned about Heath’s work from The 3-Pound Universe, a marvelous 1986 overview of brain research by journalists Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi. Beginning in 1950, they report, Heath implanted electrodes in patients, most of whom “came out of the dimly lit back wards of the state mental hospitals. With dental burrs, Heath and his co-workers drilled through the patients’ skulls, guided the electrodes into specific sites, and then left them there, at first for a few days, later for years at a time.”

Early on Heath recorded signals from the brain to determine which sites were associated with sensations such as rage, fear, pain and pleasure. Eventually he used electrodes to stimulate the brain with electricity. He claimed that stimulation could induce fear, rage, sexual pleasure, hilarity and other emotions and ameliorate schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses...

Heath filmed patients as he stimulated their brains. Many observers of the films saw Heath as a disturbing, “Strangelovian figure,” Hooper and Teresi said, but they found him to be “compassionate” and “almost courtly” in interactions with patients. (In 2005 I tried without success to get permission from Tulane to view Heath’s films. Tulane also declined to give me permission to use any photos of Heath except the one above.)

Heath described his homosexuality experiment in two papers published in 1972: “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male,” co-written with Charles Moan, in Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry; and "Pleasure And Brain Activity In Man," in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. The following information and quotes are from the latter paper.

The experiment involved “patient B-19,” a 24-year-old man with a history of epilepsy, depression, drug abuse and homosexuality. He was in police custody for marijuana possession when he agreed to serve as Heath's subject. For the previous three years, Heath wrote, B-19 had “led the life of a vagrant, experimenting with drugs, engaging in numerous homosexual relationships and being supported financially by his homosexual partners.”

Heath drilled holes in B-19's skull and inserted electrodes in several brain regions, including the septal area. For limited periods of time, Heath gave B-19 a push-button device that allowed him to electrically stimulate different regions of his own brain. B-19 soon began obsessively zapping his septal region.

“On one occasion he stimulated his septal region 1,200 times” during a three-hour period, Heath wrote, “on another occasional 1,500 times, and on a third occasion 900 times. He protested each time the unit was taken from him.” The patient “reported feelings of pleasure, alertness and warmth (good will)” and “sexual arousal.”

B-19, who had never had heterosexual intercourse before and found it "repugnant," “began showing increasing interest in female ward personal,” Heath asserted. When Heath showed B-19 a heterosexual “stag film,” he “became increasingly aroused, had an erection, and masturbated to orgasm.”

Later Heath stimulated B-19’s septal region while he had intercourse with a 21-year-old female prostitute supplied by Heath. The patient "achieved successful penetration, which culminated in a highly satisfactory orgiastic response, despite the milieu and the encumbrances of the lead wires to the electrodes," Heath wrote in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.

Heath described the B-19 experiment to Hooper and Teresi in more casual language. He told them that he paid a “lady of the evening” $50 to participate in the experiment. The room where the experiment took place was “blacked out with curtains,” Heath said. “In the next room we had the instruments for recording his brain waves, and he had enough lead wire running into the electrodes in his brain so he could move about freely. We stimulated him a few times, the young lady was very cooperative, and it was a very successful experience.”

Heath contended that B-19 remained heterosexual after the experiment and had a 10-month affair with a married woman. But a recent review of his work casts doubt on that claim. And in his 1973 book Brain Control, neuropsychologist Elliot Valenstein criticized Heath, Delgado and other brain-implant researchers for conducting sloppy research and hyping their results. In a recent interview, Valenstein accused Heath of “lack of controls… reading what he wanted into the data, and other experimental errors.”

The American Psychiatric Association, after a protracted debate, stopped including homosexuality in the DSM in 1987. But as The Guardian reported last year, groups around the world still practice gay-conversion therapies, including ones involving electric shocks. Research on brain implants for treating mental disorders continues, but no one, as far as I know, is using implants to convert homosexuals.

Further Reading:
Historical overviews of gay-conversion therapy and the DSM categorization of homosexuality can be found in Wikipedia and in a 2015 article in Behavioral Sciences, respectively. The latter quotes Edmund Bergler, a prominent psychoanalyst, saying in his 1956 book Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life: “I have no bias against homosexuals; for me they are sick people requiring medical help... Still, though I have no bias, I would say: Homosexuals are essentially disagreeable people, regardless of their pleasant or unpleasant outward manner.”

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

John Horgan
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include The End of Science and The End of War.

The renaming and some reworking of Mr. Bergler quote is as follows:

Homophobic Persons: Disease or Way of Life: “I have no bias against homophobes; for me they are paranoid people requiring extensive rewiring... Still, though I have no bias, I would say: Homophobes are essentially infantile people, regardless of their adult-like professional or unprofessional demeanor.”

After reading this new work by Dr. Bergler, who having all the work done on himself that he noted was done on the subject B-19--with the only difference that he was shown graphic depictions of "***-bashing" and then shocked every time he felt pleasure, Dr. Berg--as he later preferred to be called--began experiencing narcolepsy and having vivid nightmares while at work.

In a diary published posthumously, Dr. Berg wrote of feeling sexual arousal whenever he saw electrical outlets after he changed his Walt Disney nightlights, which prompted him to give up his lucrative profession and become a handyman.

When interviewed five years after the career change he stated, "I never knew how pleasant it could be to be a gofer. If only I had known sooner I might never have wasted so much of my life on memorizing hard science facts and publishing to keep up with my cohorts. I have zero doubt I wouldn't have married that priggish woman, and I certainly would have started sooner on a career path that has led to immense satisfaction such as lecturing kindergartners during show-n-tell on the discernible difference between Donald and Daisy Duck's private electrical components."

When the journalist who conducted the original interview contacted Dr. Berg for a routine follow-up, she discovered he was in a hospital for the criminally insane. His former wife and various colleagues declined to return her phone calls. She did, however, receive an anonymous Tweet:

"I think idiot savants often have difficulty compartmentalizing work and play, and Ed was no exception."
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