To help my students appreciate how science reflects cultural prejudices, I often cite examples from psychiatry. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which the American Psychiatric Association compiles as a guide to diagnosis and treatment of illness, listed homosexuality as a "sociopathic personality disturbance” in the DSM-I, published in 1952, and as a “sexual deviation” in the DSM-II, published in 1968 (see Further Reading).
Homosexuality has been treated with lobotomies, chemical castration, electrical shocks and nausea-inducing drugs as well as psychotherapy. I then tell my students about a bizarre gay-conversion experiment carried out in 1970 by a leading brain-implant researcher, Dr. Robert G. Heath of Tulane University in New Orleans.
I mentioned Heath in my recent profile of Jose Delgado, a pioneer in the use of brain implants to manipulate patients’ minds and behavior. Heath was arguably even more ambitious than Delgado in his experiments, and he was not a fringe figure. He had degrees in psychiatry and neurology from Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1949 he founded Tulane’s department of psychiatry and neurology. He oversaw the department until 1980 but continued working into the 1990s. In his 1996 book Exploring the Mind-Brain Relationship, he reviews his career and speculates that someday “biological methods” might make it possible “for man to live in harmony with his fellow man.”
I first learned about Heath’s work from The 3-Pound Universe, a marvelous 1986 overview of brain research by journalists Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi. Beginning in 1950, they report, Heath implanted electrodes in patients, most of whom “came out of the dimly lit back wards of the state mental hospitals. With dental burrs, Heath and his co-workers drilled through the patients’ skulls, guided the electrodes into specific sites, and then left them there, at first for a few days, later for years at a time.”
Early on Heath recorded signals from the brain to determine which sites were associated with sensations such as rage, fear, pain and pleasure. Eventually he used electrodes to stimulate the brain with electricity. He claimed that stimulation could induce fear, rage, sexual pleasure, hilarity and other emotions and ameliorate schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses.
Heath was particularly interested in the septal region, which had been linked to pleasure. Heath claimed stimulation of the septal region “could make homicidal mania, suicide attempts, depressions or delusions go away—sometime for a long time,” Hooper and Teresi stated.
Heath filmed patients as he stimulated their brains. Many observers of the films saw Heath as a disturbing, “Strangelovian figure,” Hooper and Teresi said, but they found him to be “compassionate” and “almost courtly” in interactions with patients. (In 2005 I tried without success to get permission from Tulane to view Heath’s films. Tulane also declined to give me permission to use any photos of Heath except the one above.)
Heath described his homosexuality experiment in two papers published in 1972: “Septal Stimulation for the Initiation of Heterosexual Behavior in a Homosexual Male,” co-written with Charles Moan, in Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry; and "Pleasure and Brain Activity in Man," in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. The following information and quotes are from the latter paper.
The experiment involved “patient B-19,” a 24-year-old man with a history of epilepsy, depression, drug abuse and homosexuality. He was in police custody for marijuana possession when he agreed to serve as Heath's subject. For the previous three years, Heath wrote, B-19 had “led the life of a vagrant, experimenting with drugs, engaging in numerous homosexual relationships and being supported financially by his homosexual partners.”
Heath drilled holes in B-19's skull and inserted electrodes in several brain regions, including the septal area. For limited periods of time, Heath gave B-19 a push-button device that allowed him to electrically stimulate different regions of his own brain. B-19 soon began obsessively zapping his septal region.
“On one occasion he stimulated his septal region 1,200 times” during a three-hour period, Heath wrote, “on another occasional 1,500 times, and on a third occasion 900 times. He protested each time the unit was taken from him.” The patient “reported feelings of pleasure, alertness and warmth (good will)” and “sexual arousal.”
B-19, who had never had heterosexual intercourse before and found it "repugnant," “began showing increasing interest in female ward personnel,” Heath asserted. When Heath showed B-19 a heterosexual “stag film,” he “became increasingly aroused, had an erection, and masturbated to orgasm.”
Later Heath stimulated B-19’s septal region while he had intercourse with a 21-year-old female prostitute supplied by Heath. The patient "achieved successful penetration, which culminated in a highly satisfactory orgiastic response, despite the milieu and the encumbrances of the lead wires to the electrodes," Heath wrote in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.
Heath described the B-19 experiment to Hooper and Teresi in more casual language. He told them that he paid a “lady of the evening” $50 to participate in the experiment. The room where the experiment took place was “blacked out with curtains,” Heath said. “In the next room we had the instruments for recording his brain waves, and he had enough lead wire running into the electrodes in his brain so he could move about freely. We stimulated him a few times, the young lady was very cooperative, and it was a very successful experience.”
Heath contended that B-19 remained heterosexual after the experiment and had a 10-month affair with a married woman. But a recent review of his work casts doubt on that claim. And in his 1973 book Brain Control, neuropsychologist Elliot Valenstein criticized Heath, Delgado and other brain-implant researchers for conducting sloppy research and hyping their results. In a recent interview, Valenstein accused Heath of “lack of controls… reading what he wanted into the data, and other experimental errors.”
The American Psychiatric Association, after a protracted debate, stopped including homosexuality in the DSM in 1987. But as The Guardian reported last year, groups around the world still practice gay-conversion therapies, including ones involving electric shocks. Research on brain implants for treating mental disorders continues, but no one, as far as I know, is using implants to convert homosexuals.
Historical overviews of gay-conversion therapy and the DSM categorization of homosexuality can be found in Wikipedia and in a 2015 article in Behavioral Sciences, respectively. The latter quotes Edmund Bergler, a prominent psychoanalyst, saying in his 1956 book Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life: “I have no bias against homosexuals; for me they are sick people requiring medical help... Still, though I have no bias, I would say: Homosexuals are essentially disagreeable people, regardless of their pleasant or unpleasant outward manner.”