Robert Colvile reports on one of the great forgotten stories of neuroscience
For the first hour, they just talked. He was nervous; he’d never done this before. She was understanding, reassuring: let’s just lie down on the bed together, she said, and see what happens. Soon, events took their course: they were enjoying themselves so much they could almost forget about the wires leading out of his skull.
The year was 1970, and the man was a 24-year-old psychiatric patient. The woman, 21, was a prostitute from the French Quarter of New Orleans, hired by special permission of the attorney general of Louisiana. And they had just become part of one of the strangest experiments in scientific history: an attempt to use pleasure conditioning to turn a gay man straight.
The patient – codenamed B-19 – was, according to the two academic papers that catalogued the course of the research, a “single, white male of unremarkable gestation and birth”. He came from a military family and had had an unhappy childhood. He had, the papers said, entered the military but had been expelled for “homosexual tendencies” within a month. He had a five-year history of homosexuality, and a three-year history of drug abuse: he had tried glues, paints, thinners, sedatives, marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, even nutmeg and vanilla extract. He had temporal lobe epilepsy. He was depressive, suicidal, insecure, procrastinating, self-pitying and narcissistic. “All of his relationships,” wrote his doctors, with an unsparing lack of sympathy, “have been characterised by coercion, manipulation and demand.”
In 1970, B-19 ended up in the care of Robert Galbraith Heath, chair of the department of psychiatry and neurology at Tulane University, New Orleans. Heath’s prescription was drastic. He and his team implanted stainless steel, Teflon-coated electrodes into nine separate regions of B-19’s brain, with wires leading back out of his skull. Once he had recovered from the operation, a control box was attached which enabled him, under his doctors’ supervision, to provide a one-second jolt to the brain area of his choice.
Before being given control of the electrodes, B-19 had been shown a film “displaying heterosexual foreplay and intercourse”. He reacted with anger and revulsion. But then the stimulation sessions started, delivered via the button that felt most pleasurable to him. Over the next few days, he found that it could arouse him, and he would press the button to stimulate himself “to a point that, both behaviorally and introspectively, he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation and had to be disconnected, despite his vigorous protests”. He would hit the button up to 1,500 times over a three-hour session. “He protested each time the unit was taken from him,” said one of the papers, “pleading to self-stimulate just a few more times.”
Ten days into his treatment, the doctors suggested that B-19 watch the porn film again. “He agreed without reluctance… and during its showing became sexually aroused, had an erection, and masturbated to orgasm.” He started talking about wanting to have sex with women – and so Heath got permission to hire what he later referred to as a “lady of the evening”. “We paid her $50,” he said. “I told her it might be a little weird, but the room would be completely blacked out with curtains.”
She certainly did her job, guiding B-19 through the process and encouraging him to gradually build up his confidence. “As the second hour began, she relates that his attitude took an even more positive shift to which she reacted by removing her bra and panties and lying down next to him. Then, in a patient and supportive manner, she encouraged him to spend some time in a manual exploration and examination of her body.” Despite his initial shyness, he ended up having such a good time that – much to his doctors’ delight – he often paused before the moment of orgasm, in order to prolong his pleasure.
B-19 features in two 1972 papers: ‘Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male’, by Heath and his colleague Charles E Moan, and ‘Pleasure and brain activity in man’, by Heath alone, which set out – apparently for the first time – what happens to human brainwaves during orgasm. The papers are extraordinary: at once academic and pornographic, clinically detached and queasily prurient. And they prompt all sorts of questions. Who was this Dr Heath? How on earth did he come to carry out this experiment – and get permission for it? And did it really, you know, work?
In the course of trying to unravel these questions, I read Heath’s papers, interviewed his former colleagues, and travelled to New Orleans to see where he worked and to watch the videos in which he reminisced about his career. And what I found was something more remarkable than I could have imagined – the story of the man responsible for some of the strangest, boldest and most controversial experiments of the 20th century, yet who has been almost entirely written out of scientific history.