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A Mental Block

The Mind Stealers by Samuel Chavkin Houghton Mifflin, 198 pp., $8.95

By George K. Sweetnam

SEPTEMBER 1967 fell between two summers of racial tension and violence in America's inner cities. Increasing pride and rising expectations among blacks were chafing against the reality of living conditions in ghettos like Watts and Harlem. In 1967 there were riots in Detroit. In 1968 the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. marked an end to restraint, and the hell that broke loose that summer in Watts and the poor sections of other American cities made a lasting impression on the millions of Americans who watched the trashing on the six o'clock news. The tension released that summer gets much of the credit for causing the conservative voter anxiety that brought law-and-order candidate Richard Nixon to the White House.

But the tension also brought, as early as September 1967, a quieter, more insidious backlash, documented in Samuel Chavkin's recently-released book, The Mind Stealers. That month, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, three Harvard Medical School professors argued that too much attention was being given to easily defined reasons for violence in the inner cities--reasons like poverty and prejudice. The physicians argued that someone should investigate, too, the likely possibility that the rioters themselves were somehow defective, that there were defects in their mental wiring. Dr. Vernon H. Mark, now associate professor of Surgery, Dr. Frank R. Ervin, and Dr. William H. Sweet, now professor of Surgery Emeritus, wrote:

That poverty, unemployment, slum housing, and inadequate education underlie the nation's urban riots is well known, but the obviousness of these causes may have blinded us to the more subtle role of other possible factors, including brain dysfunction in the rioters who engaged in arson, sniping, and physical assault.

No bleeding hearts, these. They pointed to the many slum dwellers who did not riot as proof that those who vented their anger in violence were somehow deviant and could be somehow fixed or cured. The doctors' blind faith in a simplistic biological approach was incredible. Their statement conjures up an image of teams of white-coated neurosurgeons descending on America's ghettos, intent on weeding out those with faulty brains and patching up their neurological circuitry. Fortunately, the physicians' suggestions never got far beyond the theoretical stage, although in 1970 Mark and Ervin did come out with a semi-popular book entitled Violence and the Brain, intended to advance the notion that, as Sweet writes in the introduction, "one way to understand and control the current colossal problem of violence is to increase our knowledge of brain mechanisms."

Samuel Chavkin's new book presents a series of ideas on quantifying and manipulating human behavior from chillingly over scientific thinkers like Mark, Ervin and Sweet. He is a muckraker--not in the present pejorative sense of needlessly digging out past personal scandals of celebrities, but in the sense of following the fine old tradition of the crusading journalist seeking out corruption or abuse of power wherever it may occur and exposing that evil to the timeless cure of fresh air and sunlight. His book brings out a creeping fascism: in what he sees as a slow rise in scientists' and physicians' willingness to regard human beings simply as biological mechanisms in a larger social machine, and to value the efficiency of the overall machine above the dignity and autonomy of individual humans. The villains in the book are scientists; theories are their dark agents.

Although the book ostensibly focuses on the development and use of techniques for manipulating the brain cells and behavior patterns of those who stray too far beyond social norms, Chavkin also touches on a range of leftist-humanist concerns from the debasing treatment of prisoners to what he considers the racist implications of sociobiology. And the "mind control" methods he describes are sometimes as simple as a commercially produced electric shocking device called a "Personal Shocker," designed for the busy psychiatrist to carry around.

Chavkin did not intend to be sensational. His book is meticulously researched and footnoted, and he was not altogether happy when his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, decided to call his book The Mind Stealers and splash that title in big, bold black letters across a bright red dust jacket. But Chavkin did intend his book to be a warning. He makes that clear at the end of his first chapter when he notes that the year the CIA started its massive MK-ULTRA program to develop mind-control techniques--1953--was the same year the U.S. signed the Nuremberg Code, prohibiting experimentation on humans unless the subjects are fully aware of the nature of the experiment and freely give consent. Through the MK-ULTRA program the CIA spent more than $25 million to sponsor research often carried out on unwitting subjects.

AT TIMES, The Mind Stealers seems like a catalogue of well-verified horror stories, and the author seems to be taking the opportunity to verbally point and gape. The book is not a focused piece on the spread of psychosurgery, and it is difficult to find in the book evidence for the growing acceptance of its practice that Chavkin continually denounces. At times, too, the book rambles, reaching as far back as the '30s to remind readers of the story of a group of southern blacks who were unknowingly given syphilis so that scientists could observe their reactions to trial medications.

In at least one passage, Chavkin even distorts the truth in his quest for muck to rake, twisting the much-misrepresented ideas of sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, to give himself a target for an assault on determinism. Chavkin writes, "Wilson's contention is that it is the genes and not cultural evolution or socioeconomics or political environment that are responsible for human behavior." In fact, Wilson simply says that genes play a large, but not solo, role in shaping human behavior; he would hardly be happy with Chavkin's characterization of his ideas.

But the sociobiology question is not central to the book, and dwelling on such a fault of overeagerness would do injustice to what is otherwise a valuable work. The mere existence of techniques for psychosurgery should place the public on guard, and a professed willingness by some physicians to seek to apply those techniques on a large scale to American sub-populations should set red lights flashing. Even assuming that psychosurgery can be effective in modifying behavior through the physical manipulation of brain cells, physicians have little more right to decide correct behavior than gun-owners have right to decide what is just.

Certainly, a convict should be stopped from killing again, but because the brain is so complex, even the most exact psychosurgery can only identify a general area associated with killing and hope that by destroying cells in that area one will also destroy potential killing impulses. But it might not work.

Recent experience should not be forgotten. In the late '40s, with brokendown soldiers crowding the psychiatric wards of Veterans' Administration hospitals, psychosurgery's crude predecessor, lobotomy, became surgically fashionable as a means for quickly and efficiently pacifying violent veterans. Lobotomy, now in disrepute, involved the use of an instrument much like an ice pick to sever the connection between the frontal lobes of the brain. But while the technique generally pacified patients for a while, it also frequently left them with new and unpredictable mental disorders. The crest of enthusiasm for lobotomies left behind thousands of human tragedies.

Despite neurosurgeons' best efforts to separate out the brain's destructive from its constructive centers, it appears likely that effective, directed psychosurgical techniques, even assuming they are to be desired, will remain elusive for a long time to come. The aggressive, angry functions of the brain are too finely interconnected with other functions, like the human will, perhaps even creativity. In the fantastically complex circuitry of the brain, hard science may have reached the limit of its power to identify cause and effect. To go beyond the limit may be to court disaster. Restraint would seem to be in order, lest one day a surgeon will say in frustration that he had to destroy a human mind in order to save it.

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