January 18

Dr. Donald Hebb’s sensory deprivation research opened a tidal wave of similar experiments

More than two hundred articles related to the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation were published in major scientific publications. For example, in 1957, Dr. Donald Wexler and three psychiatrists from Harvard University reproduced a similar experiment covertly funded by the secret Office of Naval Research. Seventeen volunteers were put in “a tank-type respirator” with low artificial light “designed to inhibit movement and tactile contact.” After seventeen hours, one subject, a 25-year-old dental student, “began to punch and shake the respirator,” his “eyes full of tears, and his voice shaking.” Four volunteers terminated from “anxiety and panic,” and all suffered “degrees of anxiety.” Only five subjects completed the thirty-six hours experiment and all of the seventeen participants suffered various degrees of anxiety, half of them also reporting hallucinations. The Harvard psychiatrists — Herbert Leiderman, M.D.; Jack H. Mendelson, MD; Donald Wexler, MD; Philip Solomon, MD, concluded that “sensory deprivation can produce major mental and behavioral changes in man” and recommended its capacity to induce psychosis. (Sensory Deprivation: A Technique for Studying Psychiatric Aspects of Stress, AMA Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 1958, pp. 225–233 cited by McCoy, 2007)

French scholar Marc-Andre Cotton notes that “behavioral scientists have long been praised for their engagement in dubious experiments aimed at conditioning the human brain.” In a recent article in The Journal of Psychohistory (2013), he cautions about the dire consequences of behaviorism which he calls a “Poisonous Pedagogy.”


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