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Self-stimulating the brain for heterosexual sex with a prostitute. Seriously.

Deep brain stimulation is such a cool, successful, amazing piece of technology, that I was excited to read a little more about its historical roots. But man. I don't even know what to say now.

I've written about a lot of crazy neuroscience stuff on this blog over the last 20 months:

But this... is the weirdest, most shocking research I've read, bar none. Literally, the litany of crazy shit in this paper is so long that by the end my reading, my notes in the margin devolved to this:

Bradley Voytek WTF

A while back, someone pointed me to a paper from 1972 by Dr. Robert G. Heath titled "Pleasure and brain activity in man: Deep and surface electroencephalograms during orgasm".

"How fun," I thought to myself, so very, very naively. "This will be a nice complement to my post about EEG and orgasms." (I'm quite proud to say these are the flavor of thoughts that I have.)

Instead, I got this unethical marvel.

The first thing I noticed was that 15 out of the 18 works cited in this manuscript are self-citations. That is, 83% of the previous research that this paper was built upon was written by the author himself.

"That's odd," I mused, "probably not the best sign."

To give a little background, this paper was written by Robert G. Heath. I didn't really know anything about this guy, but he was notable enough to have received an obituary in the New York Times. According to that (short) article:

In 1957, Dr. Heath found a protein antibody called taraxein in the blood of schizophrenics that was capable of inducing schizophrenic-like symptoms in monkeys and healthy human volunteers.

The finding was controversial because it was early evidence that schizophrenia is of biochemical origin and not, as was widely believed at the time, related to childhood or other emotional traumas.

Ok, fine. That's nice. But what's weird--and what the New York Times obit doesn't say--is that the taraxein theory of "schizogenesis" appears to be total crap, despite the fact that Heath held fast to his claims. Furthermore, the ethics of this research are questionable, at best. As Professor Alan Baumeister wrote in his historical analysis "The Search for an Endogenous Schizogen: The Strange Case of Taraxein":

On May 3, 1956... Heath announced that he and colleagues "had induced full symptoms of schizophrenia" in two nonpsychotic prisoner-volunteers... by injecting them with an extract from blood of schizophrenic patients.
(All emphases in this post's quotations are mine.)

If you've ever done research, or have any sense of ethics, the thought of using prisoners in an experiment to see if you can induce psychosis should set off your humanity-alarms.

What's more, according to Wikipedia (the arbiter of all Truth, I know):

Heath founded the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University, New Orleans, in 1949 and remained its Chairman until 1980. He performed many experiments there... [and] was partially financed by the CIA and the US military. One of his collaborators... later reminisced that they had used African Americans as subjects "because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals".

You stay classy, history of psychiatry.

You'll note that all these things I've talked about so far? Nothing to do with the paper I intend to discuss. All this stuff? This is just flavor text to set the stage for the really unethical stuff.

Needless to say, Heath and his research will likely be the topic of several posts here.

So, back to orgasms and prostitutes. I'm not even going to bother trying to explain the scientific aspects of this paper. The hypothesis, methods, results... none of it matter because they're just completely overshadowed by every crazy part about this research.

I'm just going to quote huge swaths of this paper and let you all say, "WHAT THE HELL!!?"

In patient B-19, a man, EEG's were obtained on two occasions when this arousal culminated in orgasm: once, as a consequence of masturbation and once through heterosexual intercourse.

Okay, that's kind of weird on its own, but hey, the research could be very interesting. I mean, the patient had electrodes implanted under his skull. This is usually done to determine where exactly in the brain the source of seizure activity is. This method is still used, and working with these patients is a major component of my research.

And sex research is fascinating! So if you've got someone in this situation, and they agree without any kind of coercion, then why not?

Wait, what's that Dr. Heath? This patient is homosexual? Oh...

Well please, tell us more about the patient and your experiments.

This man... had a 5-year history of overt homosexuality and a 3-year history of drug abuse. He was considered a chronic suicidal risk... and had made several abortive suicidal attempts... One month of military service... was terminated by medical discharge because of "homosexual tendencies"... The patient's experimentation with drugs began... with ingestion of vanilla extract. He became habituated to amphetamines, and he had used a variety of other sedative and hallucinogenic chemicals (marijuana regularly, nutmeg frequently, d-LSD sporadically, as well as inhalants, such as glues, paints, and thinners, and sedatives).

This is to set the stage. This patient has severe epilepsy, is a drug addict, and is extremely depressed.

So what does Heath do next?

...the patient was equipped with a three-button self-stimulating transistorized device... The three buttons... were attached to electrodes in the various deep [brain] sites, and the patient was free to stimulate any of these three sites as he chose... He was permitted to wear the device for 3 hours at a time: on one occasion he stimulated his septal region 1,200 times, on another occasion 1,500 times, and on a third occasion 900 times. He protested each time the unit was taken from him, pleading to self-stimulate just a few more times... the patient reported feelings of pleasure, alertness, and warmth (goodwill); he had feelings of sexual arousal and described a compulsion to masturbate.

For those of you who don't know, this type of behavior was seen in rats in the original brain stimulation and reward experiments by Olds and Milner. Rats self-stimulated sometimes to the point of death.

Seems like a perfect situation for a heavy drug addict, right? Just let him stimulate the "reward" and "pleasure" parts of his brain for hours on end!

But wait! There's more!

One aspect of the total treatment program for this patient was to explore the possibility of altering his sexual orientation through electrical stimulation of pleasure sites of the brain. As indicated in the history, his interests, contacts, and fantasies were exclusively homosexual; heterosexual activities were repugnant to him.

He's gay. Very clearly gay. And his brain is getting forcibly stimulated such that he's experience strong sensations of sexual pleasure.

A twenty-one-year-old female prostitute agreed, after being told the circumstances, to spend time with the patient in a specially prepared laboratory.

A "specially prepared laboratory"? Nice. Did the doc light some candles?

And where did they get the prostitute? How did that conversation go?

Scene: 1970s, late night; car rolls up to young woman standing under a streetlight; window rolls down as car approaches

"Excuse me, miss? My name is Dr. Heath. I've got a young, gay man hooked up to a brain stimulator back in the hospital. He's been stimulating himself stupid horny these last few days. If I give you $40 would you mind coming back with me and see if you can't screw him straight-wise? Be sure to mind the wires because they're hooked right into his brain.

Can you imagine writing this into your IRB proposal? I mean. What?

And I love the matter-of-factness about describing how this all played out:

The laboratory was modified to permit complete privacy, and an extension cord was inserted between the plugs in the patient's hand and the jack box to the recording room to give him adequate mobility.

He goes on:

Later, the patient began active participation and achieved successful penetration, which culminated in a highly satisfactory orgiastic response, despite the milieu and the encumbrances of the lead wires to the electrodes.

To recap: this study involved taking a severely depressed, drug addicted, gay man into the hospital, letting him stimulate his own brain, and then tracking down a prostitute to have sex with him.

This is the most boggling, unethical, and offensive piece of "research" I've ever come across. I can't imagine what the rest of the papers by this guy are like.

If anyone has seen anything in the peer-review literature that's worse, I'd like to hear about it.

Heath RG (1972). Pleasure and brain activity in man. Deep and surface electroencephalograms during orgasm. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 154 (1), 3-18 PMID: 5007439
Baumeister A (2011). The search for an endogenous schizogen: the strange case of taraxein. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 20 (2), 106-22 PMID: 21480035


  1. If I'm ever assigned to find an example of unethical research, I think I've found a winner. This is just, quite simply, mindboggling.

  2. Anonymous00:43

    "the most boggling, unethical, and offensive piece of "research" I've ever come across."

    Are you kiddin? This experiment was weird but nothing particularly offensive in it. You better learn about experiments such as Harry Harlow's.

  3. Anonymous02:21


  4. WOW. Unbelievable.

    And this bit: "One of his collaborators... later reminisced that they had used African Americans as subjects."

    Reminisced? I can picture it now - "I still remember the good old days, when we could experiment on Negroes..."


  5. This has made my experiences seem mild by comparison! I don't really read human research literature though. I was most unnerved when I was looking for studies on somatosensory responses in rats and I found a paper that casually mentioned that one of the stimuli were smouldering embers!

  6. Bradley! You missed the even better one! It turns out, you can FIX TEH GAY1!

    (I can't even remember the number of parties at which I've talked about this research. It's... so staggeringly unethical/fascinating/absurd all rolled up in a single package.)


    Charles E. Moan, Robert G. Heath, Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male, Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Volume 3, Issue 1, March 1972, Pages 23-30, ISSN 0005-7916, DOI: 10.1016/0005-7916(72)90029-8.
    A 24-year-old male, overt homosexual, repeatedly hospitalized for chronic suicidal depression and found to have temporal lobe epilepsy, underwent a program of septal stimulation which resulted in subjectively reported and behaviorally observed states of pleasure, euphoria, relaxation, confidence, and sexual motivation. These responses were subsequently used to initiate heterosexual arousal and behavior. The findings have important implications for the treatment of some psychological disorders.

  7. They should make a - comedy - movie about it.

  8. Anonymous09:02

    So, any links between this guy and those strange American people (christians I believe) who want to 'cure' homosexuality?

    Has anyone tried curing the hatred of going to school/reading with the same methods?

    Might be quite useful.

  9. Dan H09:29

    Sadly, there are always worse examples (starting on page 128 of The Immortal LIfe of Henriette Lacks).
    Injecting cancerous cells into sick patients without telling them what they are and, after seeing the cells metastasize in a few patients, deciding to continue the study in prison volunteers and others with uninformed consent to see the effects on healthy people. This was in the 1950's-60's.

  10. I can't wait for your follow-up post on Patient B-5, a 34 year old woman with a 6th grade education and "borderline defective intelligence."

    "Recordings during orgasm were obtained on 12 occasions ... in response to the introduction of acetylcholine (10 occasions) and levarterenol bitartrate [norepinephrine] (2 occasions) into her septal region."

  11. Well he was cured, wasn't he?

  12. And you always get great results when you mix spy agencies and mind/brain research (mk-ultra):


  13. Don't forget Nazi science, in which the form of scientific collaboration and reporting was kept even for deeply evil experiments. See e.g. Orac's description, here.

  14. This just reaffirms everything I've ever said about the under-utilization of prostitution in academia

  15. This wasn't supposed to be "scientific" per se -- it was mind control research. Heath was part of MKULTRA. After playing with government backed brainwashing for decades, he was probably just trying outwhatever crazy ideas he came up with while high off his ass. The weirdest thing is that he actually published it...


    "In March 1954, Heath was the principal speaker at a seminar conducted by the Army Chemical Corps at its Edgewood Arsenal medical laboratories. His subject was "Some Aspects of Electrical Stimulation and Recording in the Brain of Man."

  16. (My comment has been updated)

    Apparently some people misunderstand what I mean when I say this is highly unethical.

    Initially I said:
    "I am genuinely surprised that some people have said that the language I've used here is "sensationalism" and that they don't see what's unethical about this research."

    I now believe people think that the aspect that I find unethical are the research involving sexuality and/or prostitution.

    Here. Let me break it down.

    The research subject was a known drug-addict, and was implanted with stimulating electrodes (which have *no* therapeutic value) into a variety of brain regions, the stimulation of which leads to pleasurable sensations. The same regions thought to play a role in drug addiction.

    Inserting electrodes into the brain damages brain tissues throughout the entire path of the electrode. This is highly unethical as it damages the brain for no reason other than academic curiosity. A subject cannot volunteer for this, no matter what waivers they sign.

    Allowing the person to then freely self-stimulate to induce pleasure (especially a known drug-addict) is also absolutely unethical. I pointed out that rats will self-stimulate these brain regions to the point of death. It's (no sensationalism here) the brain-equivalent of handing an addict their drug of choice.

    He would probably be classified as a "Vulnerable Subject" ( http://www.virginia.edu/vpr/irb/hsr/vulnerable_subjects.html ) under modern IRB rules and would get even further protections under those rules.

    The language wasn't sensational to try to increase pageviews or get people to shout "think of the children" or anything. It was sensational because I was seriously, truly surprised. I'm no prude, I have very liberal views toward sex, drug use, etc. But this was just flat-out harmful research to a vulnerable person for a flimsy hypothesis.

    Sure, stimulating those regions got him to have heterosexual sex. But the guy was SO HORNY because of the stimulation... I wouldn't be surprised if he would have agreed to sex with... well... pretty much anything.

    To perform unnecessary, and damaging surgery on a drug addict, hand them the tools to self-stimulate, and then to hire a prostitute to come and sleep with the guy (using federal funds?) while he's in a vulnerable situation...

    So, while before I said:
    "I'm not sure how people can honestly believe this is not unethical."

    I now understand that people didn't realize all these other aspects of the protection of human subjects, and the details regarding the damaging nature of the "experimental design" of this study.

  17. I found information on internet some unethical researches:



  18. Anonymous07:57

    Pics or it didn't happen.

  19. Anonymous10:43

    Heath had colleagues. One of them, Harry Richard Bailey, killed himself when the scope of his actions was about to be made public during a parliamentary inquiry. That may have been the most decent thing he ever did.

    Bailey sexually molested patients, put people into insulin-induced comas, and performed ECT on patients against their will or while they were comatose.

    The full quote about using black people for experiments is from Harry Bailey, who said “in New Orleans, ... it was cheaper to use Niggers than cats, because they were everywhere, and [they were] cheap experimental animals...”

    People like Bailey and Heath are why IRBs exist.

    If you want an interesting overview, check out Delgado's "Physical Control of the Mind: Towards a Psychocivilized Society"

  20. Anonymous12:30

    The experiment in question.


  21. Anonymous13:00

    >> This is the most boggling, unethical, and offensive piece of "research" I've ever come across.

    I recommend reading this, then: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_731 (Keeping in mind that at the end of the war, Unit 731 members were given immunity in exchange of sharing their "research" results only with the U.S. government.)

  22. Definitely not an exempt study.

  23. Wouldnt this make a nice film: What if the brain stimulation worked and "cured" him of his homosexuality and the gay rights movement suppressed the information the way UFO nuts believe they US govt does

  24. OMG, I think I ran across this article once! And almost blogged about it, except... you know, I run a dyslexia blog.

  25. Well, yeah, it doesn't sound as if that experiment should have been performed. While there's several things fishy about it, I just want to mention on the issue of the prostitute that there are countries on the planet where prostitution is legal, Germany being one of them. (Check Wikipedia if you don't believe it.) Now that wasn't the case in the 70s, and it still isn't the case in the USA, but I happen to think it's a sensible arrangement and in 50 years or so North America will probably figure this out and also legalize prostitution.

  26. kiat03:23

    Checkout John Cutler's experiment on syphilis. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3p5Y3yWtj0s

  27. Wow. "Thanks" everyone for all the links? I mean, they really are fascinating, but not exactly heart-warming, eh?

  28. Thanks for resurrecting this article and your witty commentary. If you're looking for a nice rundown of unethical experiments, a standard source is Beecher's 1966 paper, "Ethics and Clinical Research"


  29. Anonymous12:25

    you and the others are judging the 50´with 2011 eyes...

  30. You should totally rewrite the history section of human subjects training - I would particularly like to see comments along the lines of 'Stay classy, history of psychiatry' in there. But alas, #backtoboring

  31. What's unethical? Did they kidnap the guy or did he volunteer? If he volunteered, there's nothing unethical about it.

  32. Anonymous13:45

    The concepts 'ethical' and 'offensive' are subjective...

  33. Anonymous01:47

    I think that this research was absolutely ethical. The prostitute consented to this? Yes she did. As for the patient, he himself expressed a desire to have sex with a female. I hate the modern trend to redefine ethics, shove more and more into this cathegory.

  34. Anonymous10:58

    Since when has "Ethics" been more important than Hot Sex?