Friday, September 04, 2009

Elephants on Acid (And Other Bizarre Experiments)

I just finished reading "Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments" by Alex Boese: a nice, quick and extremely interesting read. If you can't tell from the title, the author chronicles some of the more unconventional and interesting scientific studies that have taken place over the past century and beyond (including getting elephants high on acid). The book was discussed heavily during a Kevin Smith podcast awhile back, which is where I first heard of it. I'll summarize a few interesting studies below, and you can also download Kevin (smodcast #28) and hear a very heavy summary of the whole book (R-rated, of course).

1. Inattentional and Change Blindess - In 1998, researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted an experiment on the phenomenon where our minds focus so heavily on some details, that we completely fail to see other events . . . even when they're right in front of our eyes. This is called "inattentional blindess," and it's demonstrated perfectly in the ad below:

On the other hand, "change blindness" demonstrates how our mind's may be blind to alterations that occur right before our eyes. Simons, with Daniel Levin, investigated this in the mid-1990s with an experiment not unlike the one you can view here. Both of these experiments show that our mind's must be selective with what information we "absorb" . . . because absorbing everything would probably over-stimulate our brains and make us all insane.

2. Reanimation - Since the late 1700s, researchers have been fascinated with the concept of bringing back the dead. This book gives ample examples of scientists who have stimulated movement from corpses, be it through electrical shocks or crude mechanisms that mimic bodily functions. An example I'm going to cite involves the Soviet physician Sergei Brukhonenko. In the 1920s, his team succeeded in keeping an isolated dog head alive for hours through the use of a machine he called an autojector. Not only did the dog head live, but it reacted to various stimuli as you'll see in the science video below. Adding to the "creep" factor is fact that this public domain video is old-school footage. Skip to 5:39 for reanimated dog head goodness.

Some believe the video to be a recreation due to the fact that you never see the dog head move from a far angle. Also, some of the movements may only be possible through the use of neck muscles that this poor dog obviously lacks. Whether the video is fake or not, the experiment itself is very real and well-documented.

3. Electrical Stimulation of the Brain - Brain chips that control action make for great science fiction, but there have been many studies - on both animals and humans - where this concept became a reality. One was done at Yale by researcher Jose Delgado in 1963. Delgado implanted chips in cats, monkeys, and humans that triggered areas of the brain which made the organism act in a way inconsistent with its free-will. And Delgado had a remote control to make the chip work. He could make a monkey run across the room, a person feel rage, and he even stopped a charging bull dead in its tracks. The public became worried about the implications of ESB technology, and research on it soon slowed down. But as we enter an increasingly computer-dependent world, predictably there has been a reassurance of interest in ESB interest.

4. The Pleasure Button - Imagine pushing a button that instantly gave you intense feelings of ecstasy . . . even orgasmic sensations. In 1954, James Olds and Peter Milner researched the pleasure-inducing properties of an area of the brain called the septal region. By placing a small electrode in a rat's brain, they could administer a tiny shock that would bring pleasure to that rat. They know this because they allowed the rat the choice of pushing the shock button on its own . . . and the rat pushed the button over two-thousand times in one hour. You'll have to trust this hilarious recreation:

The experiment took a bizarre turn when they hooked it up to a homosexual human in the hopes that he's receive enough pleasure to transform his aggressive gay tendencies into straight ones. The subject did experience the same addicting bliss as the rat, and it was reported that he had a heterosexual encounter with a woman (awkwardly set up by the researchers). Whether it stuck or not, we don't know. But I still can't help but wonder how different the world would be if we all had the ability to feel pleasure by the push of a button. You'd be reading a blank blog right now, that's for sure.

5. The Stanford Prison Experiment - Does power structure dictate behavior? In the case of a prison system, do the defined roles of "guards" and "prisoners" create a violent atmosphere? In 1971, Philip Zimbardo set out to answer this question by creating a mock prison, and assigning twenty-four good men the roles of either "guard" or "prisoner." Then, he sat back and let the guards do their thing. At first - as expected - the participants had a bit of trouble taking their roles seriously. But it didn't take long before the guards warmed to their roles and began to both physically and psychologically abuse their "prisoners" by blasting them with fire extinguishers, stripping them naked, and so on. The experiment was supposed to go on for 2 weeks . . . but Zimbardo ended it after 6 days.

As a writer, I can't help but feel that nearly every story in this book would make for a superb movie or "Twilight Zone" episode. If this is your kind of thing, and the exerts above interest you, then I highly recommend picking up this book. Yes, there are some disturbing sections (I find the sections on human behavior a little more disturbing than the cruel animal studies). But behind many of these experiments is a tremendous leap in science that we all owe a debt to. Plus it's fun to read about how the CIA tries to weaponize almost everything science discovers, and also how every animal imaginable has been tested with LSD at some point in time. Hence - Elephants on Acid.

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