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Behavior Control: From the Brain to the Mind

From: Hastings Center Report
Volume 39, Number 3, May-June 2009
pp. 13-16 | 10.1353/hcr.0.0138

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Behavior Control:
From the Brain to the Mind

Of the four major research components that The Hastings Center focused on at its inception, “behavior control” may now appear the most enigmatic. “Death and dying” was obvious; the problems in prolonging life had already begun to make dying a living hell. “Genetics” was inevitable; Crick’s and Watson’s achievements had fully entered the public agenda in 1969, and the prospects of “designing our descendants” excited the public imagination. “Population control” had to be addressed; the abortion debates were as polarizing and fulminating then as now, and the feminist movement was marching abortion rights on its path to the Supreme Court. But behavior control? Its potential was less certain and its methods less clear. Plainly, there was important medical work afoot. Researchers were beginning to identify areas of the brain that were responsible for particular behaviors, and these discoveries led some scientists to look for ways to change brain function as a means of modifying undesirable or even threatening behaviors. Forms of brain surgery were devised and performed for this purpose, and medications were used to control psychiatric patients and, later, unruly schoolchildren. These efforts captured the public imagination, but for all the wrong reasons.

There has always been something unnecessarily ominous in the term “behavior control.” We attempt to control climate, populations, disease, unemployment, and crime, all to general approval, but research that is seen as changing or controlling [End Page 13] “the nature of our species” or our behavior and “free will” seems to pose a special threat. With other research we glory in our identification with the scientist. Such scientific pursuit elevates us above, and distinguishes us from, the common animal host. With behavior control, we identify with the research animal as well as the researcher. The research reasserts man’s kinship with the pigeon, the rat, and the guinea pig. The more technological the control devices—psychosurgery, electrode implantation, “voodoo” drugs—the more titillating they are.

But what is there about the idea of “drugging” that so offends people? If a cup of hot cocoa every morning worked, no one would be offended. If the drug is effective, and if the purpose served is humane and in the service of the individual rather than the state, and if the side effects are within the standard risk factors, then what is wrong? Is a natural, unregulated “herbal” remedy necessarily any safer than a pharmaceutical? The arbitrary and artificial distinction between the “natural” and the “synthetic” is a distraction from the real debate.

Concerns about behavior control followed two tracks, the surgical and the pharmacological. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the only “high tech” surgical treatment still in use by psychiatrists was electroconvulsive therapy—prefrontal lobotomy having been entirely discredited in the previous generation. ECT—sending a low-volt electric current through the brain to cause a controlled convulsion—was an extremely effective treatment for severe depression. Yet the totally empiric nature of the treatment combined with the mystique of “electricity” still caused great consternation in the public mind.

During this period, an unlikely group of medical Don Quixotes rode into this volatile arena, abysmally unaware of its moral and political dimensions. Leading the pack were Jose Delgado, a Yale neurophysiologist, and Vernon Mark, a Harvard neurosurgeon. Neither was involved in the treatment of psychiatric patients nor seemed to know much about such clinical matters. Both were attempting to match anatomical areas of the brain to specific (albeit crude and simple) behaviors. Delgado’s experiment, in which he stopped a raging bull in its tracks with an implanted chip, converted an academic researcher into a poster boy for an American public frightened by civil protest movements that were becoming increasingly aggressive and violent. His willful attempt to exploit this anxiety was evident in the politically inflammatory title of his 1969 book, Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society.

Mark and his colleague Frank Ervin, stepping way beyond the bounds of their field, made similar claims in the introduction to their book Violence and the Brain. They grossly overstated the potential of their work, but the public perceived a threat. Drugs offered a...