Stimulating Mind and Morals

Review: 'The Pleasure Shock' by Lone Frank

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March 24, 2018

Scientific progress "can be made only through research that is scrupulously ethical," Nature magazine declared this spring. And why not? It's a sweet thought, a pious thought in the church of right feeling: a sentimental dogma that all good things must cohere because, dammit, they're all good, aren't they?

It's also nutty as the day is long. Inaccurate historically, the claim cannot account for, say, the current campaign to have a statue of J. Marion Sims removed from New York's Academy of Medicine, because the 19th-century doctor, undeniably the founder of modern gynecology, honed his surgical techniques by operating on slaves. If biology had made no advance from its indiscriminate slaughter of animals, then we would still be doing medicine in the mode of Galen and the Ancient Greeks.

Perhaps even more important, the notion that ethical research alone can contribute to scientific progress is juvenile, down in its essence. Make no mistake: Anyone of any moral sense should agree to the banning of unethical research—even while we should possess a kind of broad-shouldered historical sense that different ages hold different ideas about what constitutes the ethical and the unethical. Think, for example, of the Resurrection Men of the early 1800s who horrified Great Britain and the United States by digging up corpses to provide medical schools with cadavers for training young doctors. Desecration of corpses is surely bad, but, just as surely, medical training is good.

And that's the point. The notion that all goods easily fit together is infantile: a child's view of the modern world. It hides behind a gauzy curtain the complexities of adult understanding, and it cheapens ethics—for it asserts that ethical behavior costs nothing. If we give up nothing to be good, then who would not be good? If scientific progress happens only through "scrupulously ethical" research, then why would anyone pursue science down dark paths?

To see the mutual incompatibility of modern goods, we could go back to Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Island of Doctor Moreau, that triumvirate of English literature's classic 19th-century novels about the mad hubris of scientists. Or we could simply take a look at The Pleasure Shock: The Rise of Deep Brain Stimulation and Its Forgotten Inventor, the latest book from the successful Danish science writer, Lone Frank.

For all that the 19th century worried about those who put scientific progress above all other goods, the real moment of cultural belief in science came after the Second World War. From the military-industrial complex that would come to worry Eisenhower in the United States to the Sputnik and atom-bomb efforts of the Soviets, technology seemed to be booming. The bizarre power wielded by Trofim Lysenko in Russia helped keep the Communist Bloc behind in biology, but new biological understandings seemed to be flooding the Western democracies.

Frank asks us to witness the work of Robert G. Heath at Tulane University, down in New Orleans. Born in 1915, Heath was an enormously successful American academic scientist. A huge river of money for scientific research was pouring from the government to the universities from the late 1940s through the 1960s, and Heath became a conduit for a good portion of that money, even though his discipline was psychiatry.

He was a psychiatrist, however, during an age dominated by the materialism that equated the physical brain with the immaterial mind. He was a psychiatrist, moreover, in the days when there existed no clear ethical boundaries to research. He lived, in other words, in a moment in which it seemed reasonable for scientists to say—to their fellow scientists, their universities, and the government—that scientific progress was so vitally important that all other moral considerations needed to be set aside.

In The Pleasure Shock, Lone Frank opens with a picture of Heath's experiments in sexual orientation, as he tried to change same-sex desire into heterosexuality. In truth, the experiments were more than a little peculiar. For example, Heath ran electrical wires, his "brain pacemaker," to the head of Patient B-12, and then hired a prostitute to seduce the man while Heath electrically stimulated his "pleasure center." Still, Frank's initial use of the incident doesn't inspire confidence in her analysis, for the Freudian era in which Heath worked would have taken as highly moral, highly praiseworthy, the curing of what it understood as the less-than-adult sexual desire of homosexuality. It's impossible to imagine a set of ethical guidelines in the 1950s that would have taken that particular experiment as the absolute model of unethical research.

Unethical means? Sure. Anybody who has to hire a prostitute to help carry out his research is clearly racing toward the boundaries. But an unethical goal, as well? That is the judgment of a later age.

As she proceeds in her narrative, however, Frank proves nuanced and thoughtful about the sorts of cultural changes that have left Heath as the villain in a morality tale, where he is remembered at all. "You are a hero until you are not," she quotes from another scientist, and Heath's once powerful legacy as a psychiatric researcher at Tulane is now taken as a best-forgotten shame for the man's discipline and his university.

As perhaps they ought to be. Heath's interest through the 1950s and 1960s was in the effect of electrically stimulating sections of the brain, which he thought would be a means of treating both epilepsy and schizophrenia—the physiological and psychological dysfunctions of the brain. A version of Heath's work can be seen in the 1972 Terminal Man, the second of Michael Crichton's enormously popular science novels. Before his death in 2008, Crichton would call the book his least favorite of his novels, probably because the science of electric brain stimulation seemed to have led nowhere, however plausible Robert G. Heath had made it seem at the time.

And yet, here in 2018, Lone Frank thinks that perhaps the effect is not so far-fetched, as recent explorations of "deep brain stimulation" have made Heath begin to seem a "pioneer by accident." The scientist failed, in her view, mostly because he lacked what decades of research would later bring: a sufficient mapping of the brain and a clearer understanding of mental chemistry. "He had a vision of something of which he could not clearly see the contours," she writes, "quite simply because science had not yet reached far enough and the tools were still primitive." In particular, Heath lacked MRI technology to scan "brain regions involved with our motivation, our experience of fear, our learning abilities and memory." Now that we have such understandings and tools, we can advance much further than Heath did with his nearly random firing of little electric jolts in the thalamus and cerebellum.

Well, maybe. Frank's account of recent work in deep brain stimulation has more than a little of the rah-rah about it—the same enthusiasm for the latest psychiatric trends that led Michael Crichton to write about Heath's primitive style of electric manipulation back in 1972.

What Frank undeniably does get, however, is the difficulty of judging one age by the standards of another and the hard work necessary to balance the moral demands of one good against the moral demands of another. The Pleasure Shock is, for the most part, an adult book—taking a grown-up look at science in both its progressions and regressions.

Published under: Book reviews