Kirsten V. Smith on The Brain: A Secret History

The History and future of mind control
The December edition of The Psychologist celebrated 150 years of experimental psychology and was devoted to the pioneers that first investigated the mind–body connection. On 6 January BBC4 hosted the first in a series of three programmes dedicated to the darker side of experimental psychology.

The Brain: A Secret History, presented by Dr Michael Mosely, probed the ways in which scientists have endeavoured to manipulate thoughts and behaviours. It was only a matter of minutes before the shocking extent to which early pioneers had gone to advance science was illustrated. I am sure that most of us are aware of Ivan Pavlov and his canine experiments that were the basis for classical conditioning and learning theory – pair the sound and the food and eventually the dog will salivate to the sound alone. Less well known is the salivary fistulas implanted into the cheeks of children to demonstrate the same conditioned response seen in dogs. The footage of a young boy with a metal pipe attached to a glass test tube, collecting saliva, protruding from his face prompted a gasp of horror and a quick rallying of my house-mates to see if any of them had heard of such experiments... Nope, no mention of this in A-level psychology.

A subsequent PsycINFO search followed by a Google search resulted in no reference to Pavlov’s children, either by him in his early work or by others in their dissemination of his findings. Given the vilification of Watson and Rayner (1920) for their infamous ‘Little Albert’ experiment I was surprised that Pavlov’s ethical misdemeanours have gone largely unnoticed.

Not short on shock factor, the programme then introduced the viewer to the work of Dr William Sargant, a British psychiatrist, whose clinical work was based on Pavlov’s early experiments. The rationale was fairly simple. By forcing the human brain into a state of ‘break-down’ all conditioned responses, behaviours, and thoughts would be subsequently lost therefore allowing ‘disturbed’ individuals to form new ‘healthy’ brain connections.

Sargant used a combination of drug-induced comas (sometimes lasting as long as three months), copious amounts of medication, and electric shock therapy to break these pre-existing neural connections and ‘wipe the slate clean’. Treatments were often administered without the patients’ knowledge or consent, and Sargant described the protocol of administering other treatments while the patients slept as ‘an exciting beginning in psychiatry’ by which a patients’ resistance and refusal could be bypassed.

These uncomfortable segments of scientific history were thankfully balanced out by showcasing some current innovative research investigating manipulation of the mind. Professor David Nutt presented his work looking at the neurological effects and clinical implications of the active ingredient for magic mushrooms – psilocybin.

I spoke to Professor Nutt and he described how, contrary to what had been expected, psilocybin actually dampened down neural activity in the brain and particularly the thalamus, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). These three regions of the brain are key structures in a brain system known as the default mode network (DMN). The DMN displays increased activation when there is no sensory interruption from the outside world. Increased DMN activity can be seen when we are daydreaming, remembering an event from the past or planning an event in the future, and is thought to underpin our sense of self.

The posterior cingulate cortex is thought to be responsible for coordinating input from different sensations and awareness of the body. A common experience resulting from psilocybin is a disconnect between the sense of self and the body. Professor Nutt hypothesised that these psychedelic and pleasurable effects may be a result of a dampening down of DMN.

This work is now being linked to clinical populations as a way of understanding thought patterns in depression. Common clinical observations in depression include a ‘rigidity in thinking’ or a ‘stuck mindset’. Professor Nutt conceptualises this ‘treadmill of negative thinking’ as being driven by an over-activation in parts of the ACC.
Previous research has found that depressed people find it very difficult to access any positive memories. Professor Nutt and his team are testing the idea that the ACC may be a potential mediator in the emotional feedback accessed when exploring memories.

His team have demonstrated that through the use of psilocybin depressed patients experience an increase in emotional pleasure when accessing autobiographical memories.

‘We thought that if we could turn down the ACC then we could allow people to access a normal emotional response and get back into the right frame of mind.’

He hypothesised that this may only need to be done a couple of times within a psychotherapy setting to demonstrate an effect.

The long-term effects of this have yet to be demonstrated, however this research may shed some light on the concept of a biological basis for a ‘stuck mindset’ and how this impacts on recovery.

Whilst the discipline of psychopharmacology is in its infancy more is being discovered about the utility of combining psychological models of mental health problems with advances in pharmacological understanding. Let us hope that in 50 years this process of discovery can be disseminated without prompting gasps of horror.

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