The Brain: A Secret History – Moral Issues Produced By Experimental Psychology

Michael Mosley, once again, presents this 3-part BBC series on the history of the development of the brain, focusing on the extent to which some scientists are willing to go in order to test their hypotheses. These, sometimes disturbing, experiments (experimental psychology) have opened up an important topic for discussion – the moral problems posed by some tests which, though have benefitted us greatly by providing with the knowledge into how the mind works, have imposed a lot of cruelty on its subjects. This documentary gets the story from the partakers and scientists and (excitingly) reveals the original films showing this research, essential in medical history.

The first episode, Mind Control, touches on the subject that has circulated around numerous times: is there such a thing as free will? The early experimentations expose how one’s reflexes can be trained. This is what Ivan Pavlov suggested through his “Pavlov’s Dog” (shown above). This was then used to modify behaviour such as changing the sexuality of a homosexual (as was not acceptable then) by him viewing soft straight porn whilst electrodes implanted into his brain activated the pleasure centres in order for him to relate that pleasure with heterosexual actions. A new degree of mind control then emerged which was used during wars: brainwashing (such as the type which the Koreans used against the Americans). 

The second episode was my favourite because it was on a subject I’m deeply interested in and have been trying to find more about: Emotions. I haven’t been successful in figuring out much because our sentiments is the topic that is very “grey” in medicine as no one can be truly confident about it. Mosley centres on a few specific emotions, thought to form the basis of our feelings. The first is fear which resulted in the most controversial experiment in medical history: John Watson researched to see if fear could be induced into children from an early stage (“Little Albert” experiment due to the child being named Albert) by showing them an object and banging a loud noise nearby so they would associate the object with fear. His theories are now used in practice to fulfil the opposite aim: manage phobias by gradually increasing exposure to what you fear.

Love was the emotion that was thought to be impossible to study; the conventional hypothesis was that it was produced by carrying out your basic needs (ie. food). Harry Harlow was the first to test this presumption by providing baby monkeys with 2 substitute “mothers”: 1 made of wire but with a feeding system whilst the other only had clothing on it. According to the theory, the monkey should go to the one which can feed it but what occurred was once the monkey had fed, it went to the mother which could provide warmth and comfort of touch. A scientist who helped with the procedure supported it 100%, claiming that it was worthwhile a monkey-model of depression was produced from leaving monkeys in complete isolation, some even in a restricted area (“The Well of Despair”) for a year. Aggression was tested by an adult being deliberately violent in front of a child which led to the infant imitating the parent (and this experimental evidence is often used when debating violence in TV/video games). Moreover, the importance of emotions was illustrated in this programme because 1 man, whose emotion-controlling section had been removed during surgery, stated deaths wouldn’t bother him; the only thing preventing him from becoming a serial killer is the memory of not being one.

The closing episode is called Broken Brains, where abnormal brains are made of use of to work out aspects of the usual brain. For instance, localisation (deducing which parts of the brain was responsible for which functions) became known after Paul Broca realised which part of the brain controlled speech after removing the brain of a man who could only say one word. Mosley also investigates surgeries gone wrong such as where a woman got Alien Hand Syndrome (where her left hand continuously attacked her as the right hemisphere tried to overpower the left).

The one question which has been posed throughout the series has been “Should the disturbing experiments have been done?” which is an important discussion that imposes decisions about future research. Michael Mosley leaves with his opinion: “Yes. I do believe that the knowledge gained was worth the price that was paid.”

(Clicking on the episode will link you to where it can be watched)


1 Comment

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One response to “The Brain: A Secret History – Moral Issues Produced By Experimental Psychology

  1. How can i tell if my ex-boyfriend however has inner thoughts for me?

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