Day 466: Three Jesuses & Two Sizzled Monkeys

originally published April 10, 2013

When confronted with a patient exhibiting severe symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, most doctors look to a lengthy, detailed treatment procedure in hopes of finding a way for the patient to remain integrated within society while effectively managing his condition. Other doctors simply look for a way to mess with the guy.

In all fairness, I’m sure Dr. Milton Rokeach didn’t set out to dickishly set up a manipulative and potentially damaging situation, even if that’s actually what happened. Doc Milton worked at the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan in the early 60’s, a time when weird experiments were peppering psychology journals all the time, with ethical consideration often only showing up as a faint afterthought.

So when Doc Milton saw three Jesuses on the hospital’s roster, he saw an opportunity.

Having not read the 1964 book, The Three Christs Of Ypsilanti, I’m not really certain what Doc Milton’s end-game was. I understand – the treatment of delusional patients was a pretty rough and undefined science at that point. And it’s not like he was recommending electro-shock therapy or slicing out goopy chunks of their brain matter. But why the good doctor felt it would be a good idea to take three patients who believed they were Jesus and stick them in a room together, I really don’t know. Maybe he thought one of them would be convincing enough that the other two would give up their claims.

Doc Milton led his Jesuses into a room and sat them down. He introduced them, and encouraged them to interact. He treated it like a support group. Now tell me this is not the basis for a killer sitcom. You get a likeable lead to play the doctor, maybe Thomas Gibson from Criminal Minds and Dharma And Greg. The laughs come from your three Jesuses – Chubby Jesus, Horny-Old-Guy Jesus and Black-Guy Jesus. Maybe get Lisa Kudrow to play a nurse. I would totally watch that.

(“A Threesus Of Jesus was filmed before a live studio audience.”)

Not satisfied with how the three delusional patients were interacting with one another, Doc Milton cranked up the heat by inventing messages from imaginary characters. I don’t know if these were all theology based or somewhat more basic (“Mary Magdalene sent me a telegram and asked me to confirm with you what she was wearing on the day you two met…”). But the idea was to get these Jesuses to confront one another’s beliefs. To out-Jesus one another, if you will.

Unfortunately, the experiment was a flop. Not one Jesus backed down from his claim, and after a lengthy argument between them as to who was holier, the confrontation turned physical. Once your experiment has escalated to the point where three Sons of God are bitch-slapping one another and yelling things like, “My last shit could save more souls than you!”, then things have gone too wrong.

Each Jesus told Doc Milton that they believed the other two were imposters, either mental patients or possibly dead and being operated by machines. The Jesus that came up with that one – that’s the guy who should be declared the winner. That is, if the point of this was to determine a winner. I really don’t know what the point of this was.

Doc Milton later regretted this particular experiment, and in the foreword to the 1984 reissue of his book he stated that playing God (no pun intended… well, probably) was a bad idea. This kind of experiment probably wouldn’t happen today, though if it did, it would probably do really well on Thursday nights with The Big Bang Theory as a lead-in. I’m just saying.

When psychologists weren’t busy torturing humans in those sketchy mid-century years, they were unleashing their fury upon monkeys. Warning to my animal-lover readers – you may want to skip this next part.

The aim of this 1958 experiment by Joseph V. Brady was to see if responsibility-induced stress might cause ulcers. Brady locked two monkeys in the ‘restraining chairs’ pictured above, allowing for head and limb movement, but keeping the bodies locked down. The monkeys were then given electric shocks every twenty minutes. The monkey on the left – known as the ‘Executive Monkey’ – can cancel the shocks to him and his friend, simply by hitting that lever in front of him. The other monkey – I’ll call him the “Hapless Office Drone Monkey” – also has a lever, but it has no function.

Both monkeys learn their jobs fairly quickly. Mr. Executive gets the hang of his lever, and flicks it repeatedly, far more often than the minimum required once-every-20-minutes interval to avoid getting zapped. Once in a while he loses focus, gets complacent, and lets twenty minutes slip by. The shock gets him back on the lever again. Mr. Drone gets bored of his toy lever, and after a while he ignores it completely.

This regimen was repeated for six hours, then the monkeys got to rest for six hours. After that, Doc Brady started up the juice again.

Both monkeys received the same amount of shocks, but one – the Executive – had the responsibility of managing the deranged doctor’s mad whims. It took 23 days of this torture for the Executive Monkey to keel over dead from an ulcer. Not satisfied with a one-off result, Doc Brady repeated the experiment, but kept the monkeys isolated from one another, just in case their ability to chat might have tampered with the experiment. The new Executive still came down with an ulcer.

Brady then switched up the timing. With an 18-hour-on and 6-hour-off routine, no ulcers showed up. Even with a 30 minute on/off rotation, with shocks occurring every two seconds, the Executive didn’t get an ulcer. It came down to the regular switching from on-to-off and back again – that appeared to be the most damaging to the creatures.

So what can we conclude from all this? First off, Doc Brady really doesn’t like monkeys and Doc Milton had a great cocktail party story after his experiment tanked. Psychology has come a long way since these dark times, and while we don’t have all the answers, at least we have better methods for responding to the questions.

I hope.

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