Lobotomies Aren't Necessarily Evil and Other Revelations

When I was (much) younger I attempted an aborted experiment upon my cats that was very Pavlovian - every time I gave them a treat I snapped a toy that made a clicking sound. Hoping that they were associate the noise with the reward, I persevered on, only to be met with disappointment (either I was doing it wrong or the long held suspicion that cats won't do anything they don't want to do is indeed true).

Opening Skinners Boxis a compilation and dissection of 10 of the most controversial and influential psychological experiments of the past century. I was prepared to be rewarded by gritty insight into some of the most twisted experiments known to man but what I reaped was far greater. Slater is brilliant at weaving scientific fact and data with narrative arcs, compelling characters and fluid writing. I'd say she's Gladwellian without being drunk on her own prowess.

Lauren Slater is a humane writer and not afraid to dwell in the gray areas that her colleagues so eagerly dismiss. At the heart of psychology is the deeply held worry that it isn't a proper science, merely an extension of Plato and Aristotle, but with graphs, rats and hospitals.

Indeed, we have now a plethora of brightly coloured pills to take to 'cure' a multitude of evils but the reality is that psychologists have little understanding of how these pills work, if they do at all, which occurs at a much lower percentage than we are led to believe.

Yet, Slater writes, we think it is better to feed the brain pills than to crack it open, as in lobotomies of yesteryear. The brain is as sacred to us as it is little understood.

It is into these decidedly murky waters Slater wades, never looking for the cheap answer, never expecting an answer at all, merely questioning, leading us out of our comfort zone of who we think a human is or should be.

Here are some of my favorites:

1) The title story depicts BF Skinner's experiments in training rats, that showed us that autonomous responses are really cued, throwing into question the idea of free will.

2) Stanley Milgram set up the hoax where he asked volunteers to shock fellow volunteers (actually actors), delivering what they believed were lethal amounts of electricity. A whopping 65% obeyed orders to continue.

3) Harry Harlow substituted cloth mothers for real monkey mothers and his infant chimps took to them instantly, preferring comfort over machines designed to deliver milk. What he didn't expect is that they would begin chewing off their own hands as they got older, becoming victims of extreme psychosis.

4) Elizabeth Loftus, who fought against the trend for recovering repressed memories, showed us how easily false memories can be implanted and became one of the most hated people in the field of psychology.

5) Moniz and Freeman gave lobotomies the bad name they have today - killing patients,losing blades in the brain, eradicating memory and personality. Lobotomies are strictly regulated today and extremely difficult to obtain yet have been fine tuned over the years and can cure in the most extreme cases. We follow a man suffering from severe OCD who is cured by the procedure, personality intact.

Opening Skinners Box/ Lauren Slater / W.W. Norton / PB, 2005

4 comments:

Joanne said...

This is one of the best psych/behavior books I've ever read. I enjoyed that it presented all the information but in a way that made it interesting rather than having that text-book feel.

The Milgram experiment is amazing. It's always compared to the Stanford Prison study but the Stanford one is so flawed. Milgrams was just so basic and that's what made the outcome so fascinating.

Sheri S. said...

Since I was a psyc major, I'd already heard of most of the experiments but I love Slater's approach to them and really enjoyed reading this book. I agree with Joanne, this is one of the best psyc books! Thanks for the review.

Callista said...

That sounds really interesting. I've always been fascinated by psychology and these experiments. I think I'll add this to my TBR list, thanks!

B.Kienapple said...

Glad you all found this book as fascinating as I did! If anyone has any recommendations of more psych books written like this I'd be crazy happy to hear them.

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