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Saturday, August 4, 2018

Brain-Zapping Sex Experiments of the Neuroscientists

The recent book The Pleasure Shock by Lone Frank is centered around the experimental work of psychiatrist Robert G. Heath. The subtitle is The Rise of Deep Brain Stimulation and Its Forgotten Inventor. We may wonder whether such a person is deserving of biographical treatment. The book starts out by discussing a scientific paper in which Heath implanted electrodes into the brain of a gay person, apparently trying to electroshock him into becoming heterosexual.

Apparently such behavior wasn't so unusual in the early 1970's. The book states on page 156 the following, using ECT to mean electroconvulsive therapy in which people are given electrical shocks:

At about the same time Heath was doing his experiments, it was not out of the ordinary for families in New Orleans to submit their homosexual sons to electroshock “cures.” They received up to forty shock treatments to “erase” the undesirable patterns of behavior....Other places, they tried to show the patients pictures of naked men, and at the same time, give them electric shocks to the testicles.

We are told the ghastly details of the Heath experiment in his paper that can be read here. The experiment included implanting electrodes into the brain of a gay person, and monitoring how he responded to heterosexual pornography before and after zapping of his brain, as well as how he responded to a female prostitute. The paper states that part of the rationale of the experiment was "to explore the possibility of altering his sexual orientation through electrical stimulation." Although noting she was "appalled" when reading about the experiment, Frank makes this claim on page 4 about this paper: “The scientific logic was rigorous and stringent.” No, the paper describes a crazy "mad scientist" type of experiment, and Frank should have unequivocally denounced it.

But apparently Frank has some odd attraction to the career of Heath. She states this on pages 156 to 157:

When I first heard about Robert Heath, the story grabbed me, and it was something that went deep....My immediate sympathy still goes to the weirdos, the people who don't just go along but do something different...I keep looking at Heath not so much as a monster, but as a gifted, curious scientist.

The topic of pornography comes up again on page 270, where Frank strangely says “it's a disease” if “people are glued to the screen for hours looking at naked pictures and sex films.” She then notes that a scientist named Nicole Prause is looking into how “deep brain stimulation can be used to relieve the problem by dialing down the desire for sex.” This apparently has Frank's approval, for she says, “Prause is right.” Brain shocks to neuter a man's interest in seeing pictures of naked women? That sounds as batty as Heath's “gay conversion” brain electrode monstrosity.


In this 2015 interview Prause says, “I am focused on using brain stimulation to permanently alter sexual responsiveness in men and women.” A logical response might be: God help us from neuroscientists trying to use brain zapping to mess around with our sexuality. You can read here a paper by Prause about an incredibly weird brain-zapping sex experiment she did. At the same time she zapped her subjects' brains with electromagnetism, Prause had the females use vibrators and the males insert their penises into some weird sex device. The paper notes, “Men were instructed only to insert their penis into the attachment.” The fact that one of the subjects complained of moderately severe head pain from the brain zapping did not cause a halt in the ludicrous experiment, which should have been halted and terminated as soon as anyone complained of head pain.

On page 272 Frank tries to suggest that Heath was a forerunner of a modern success, on the grounds that some people nowadays are using something called transcranial direct current stimulation. She notes, “There is a minor do-it-yourself movement of people who use small headsets and 9-volt batteries to hit the outer part of their cerebral cortex.” But a 2015 story says, “The largest meta-analysis yet of the ability of one kind of electrical brain stimulation technology to alter how people think and feel has found no evidence that it has any effect on healthy adults.”

In the article we read the following about transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS):

When I pulled out the 20 studies looking at tDCS and working memory, for example, they all found something, but they all found something different,” says Horvath. One study may have found an effect on accuracy, another on reaction time, and a third on response confidence. “But when I brought them together, they just canceled each other out, and I was left with nothing,” he says. It was a similar story for more than 100 other cognitive and behavioral outcomes. “It looks like the evidence says tDCS is not doing anything.”

Postscript: Looking for other papers by Nicole Prause, the first one I find is a paper entitled, "Women's Preferences for Penis Size: A New Research Method Using Selection Among 3D Models."  The research method involved women merely touching dildos with their hands. My reaction to this paper is the same as my reaction to Prause's brain-zapping sex experiment -- basically one of "I can't believe stuff like this gets published in scientific journals."  A more substantive paper is one Prause co-authored, a paper challenging the claim that porn watching is an addiction.  Oddly, this paper rather conflicts with the impression you get from reading Frank's book, that Prause may be someone wanting to cure porn watchers by using electrical treatment.