originally published June 12, 2014
Over the last 894 days I have had the opportunity to gain a sparkly new appreciation for medical science, and for how far we have progressed over the last 150 years or so. Back then, doctors didn’t even wash their damn hands, and now we’re allegedly on the threshold of swapping brains with one another. That’s quite the leap. But where science gets weird, my fingers get a-tapping, and it doesn’t get much weirder than the work of José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado.
Dr. Delgado also worked with the human brain, though his concern was less with its relocation and more with what it does. Specifically, what he could make it do, using radio waves and cranial implants. Dr. Delgado was into some spooky shit.
Where the realm of mind-control has been traditionally left to voodoo practitioners, nightclub hypnotists and goofy faith-healers, Dr. Delgado believed that it could (and should) occur at the chemical/electrical level. He wasn’t looking to control minds as a parlor trick; he actually foresaw a practical and beneficial application for his work. I wonder if he was also aware how many people felt skeeved out by it.
Dr. Delgado had wanted to follow in the footsteps of his eye-doctor father, but once he stumbled upon the work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the Nobel laureate who is considered to be the grand-pappy of neuroscience, he changed his mind. The eye is a goopy glob of curiosity, but the brain is a vast network of mysteries, with so much shadowy terrain left to uncover. This was where José’s passion was jolted to life.
His first experiments took place on cats. He wired their brains with electrodes, which were attached to equipment that could both record response data as well as zap their little kitty think-puds with sufficient juice to bring about a response. He worked his way through test-monkeys up to the supreme guinea pig (which, in science terms is not an actual guinea pig): human patients. Psychiatric patients mostly, because in the mid-20th century, that was still considered to be ethical.
José decided early on in his experiments that he needed to switch out the headgear. He wanted to evoke responses in the brain with his electrodes, but it was harder to measure his success when the bodies in question were tethered to monstrous devices via a Medusa-esque network of wires sticking out of their head-parts. He came up with the idea of using radio technology – implanting a receiver that could monitor EEG waves while responding to the transmitter in José’s hand. Call it brain-zapping by remote control.
The object was not to inflict pain, but rather to stimulate various parts of the brain in order to affect behavior, perception, emotion, or anything else. José wanted to understand the brain, and he felt the best way to do that was to figure out how to control it. The contraption he devised as his receiver was no larger than a half-dollar, and was perfectly safe to plunk inside someone’s skull for a free-moving, non-anchored experiment. He called the little device a stimoceiver.
It became apparent that stimulating the amygdala (where our emotions hang their messy laundry) and the hippocampus (where we remember… stuff… and things) led to a variety of responses. Patients reported elation, thoughtful concentration, relaxation and some colorful visions. It was one thing to deduce what each of these brain-bits controlled, but quite another to learn that a small spark of electricity could activate them on a whim. José was on to something big here.
When the stimoceiver was implanted in the motor cortex, José discovered he could actually control the patients’ physical movements. He could make limbs twitch and fists clench, even when the patients were specifically struggling to resist. His real win came in the septum of the limbic region. When the stimoceiver was burrowed in there, the resulting zaps gave off a wave of powerful euphoria, enough to overcome some physical pain and depression.
Put that out on the open market and you could make a mint off it. People will do anything for a high, even stick mini-tasers into their brains.
José Delgado was the star of Yale. While his experiments might have caused both the heebies and the jeebies from the general public, there was a tremendous roar of approval among his peers. He also concocted a ‘chemitrode’, which was a doohickey that could be implanted into the skull and release measured amounts of a drug into specific areas of the brain. He wasn’t toying with these people – most of whom were mental patients who had responded to no other available treatment – he was looking to help. One of his missions was to find a spot to drop his radio-controlled zapper so that it could stop an epileptic seizure.
No scientist’s work could be complete without just a little bit of showmanship. José was so confident in the mind-control properties of his stimoceiver he decided to try it on an angry bull. He went to a breeding ranch in Cordoba – he was, after all, Spanish, and probably had a smidgen of love for bullfighting – and implanted a doohickey into a bull’s brain. Then, like the ballsy scientist he was, he personally stepped into the ring with the bull. When the bull charged, José hit his button and the bull stopped cold. There’s even a video.
The bull’s stimoceiver had been placed in its caudate nucleus, which controls voluntary movements. According to José, the jolt caused the animal to lose its aggressive thrust. José had high hopes for this technology. He used it on a chimpanzee’s amygdala (the emotion center), inflicting a tiny but notable bit of pain whenever the sensor detected activity. As we all know from intro-level psychology, it didn’t take long for the chimp to become conditioned, and reduce its emotional output. Cruel? Perhaps. But what could this mean for humanity?
According to José, we could keep these things in our brains for the rest of our lives. When dropped into the right spot, it could allow us to experience a sense of euphoria at the push of a button. And sure, curing epilepsy with an epidermic mouse-click would be brilliant. But these little jolts can also trigger negative behaviors, emotions and body movements. They can make us do and feel things against our nature. I think it’s safe to say, even with the promise of a push-button stone with no hangover or ill-effects, most of us would pass on having an active electrode planted in our brains.
But I could be wrong. For all I know, this might be the way of the scary, dystopian future toward which we are headed and which we should embrace openly. Or maybe there’s already a chip in my brain making me think that way.