The Justice Department agreed last month to pay $750,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by nine victims of the Central Intelligence Agency's brainwashing experiments in the 1950's. The research project tested the theory that a person could have some of the contents of his mind obliterated and replaced by ideas of the researcher's choosing.
Experiments like these conjure up images of mad scientists grinning menacingly at their human guinea pigs. But as bizarre as the research was, the story turns out to be less easily explained than a collaboration between the CIA and an evil doctor. Indeed, the picture it paints of the psychiatric community is as disturbing as was the CIA's support for this research.The research was conducted by the late Dr. D. Ewen Cameron, one of the most famous psychiatrists of his time.
Dr. Cameron was the founder of McGill University's Allan Memorial Institute, president of the American Psychiatric Association and a prolific writer. Physicians throughout Canada referred patients to him. Those who knew him were impressed by his energy, his fund-raising skills, his enormous self-confidence and his desire to bring psychiatry into the mainstream of medicine.
In the early 1950's, Dr. Cameron developed a theory that people with neurotic thoughts and behavior patterns could have their ideas and behavior changed by listening to repeated taped messages up to 16 hours a day for days or weeks at a time. He called his technique "psychic driving" and published an account of it in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
What caught the Central Intelligence Agency's eye was his comparison of psychic driving to techniques of coerced interrogation and brainwashing. Using one of its front organizations, the agency solicited a grant application from Dr. Cameron and funded his work.
With the CIA funds, Dr. Cameron continued his experiments. Using patients who came to him for psychiatric treatment, but without disclosing that he was experimenting, he tried to break through patients' resistance to the taped messages.
To this end, he induced severe regression in the patients, using combinations of extremely intensive electric shock, barbiturate-induced sleep for up to 60 days at a stretch, sensory deprivation and hallucinogenic drugs. These techniques left patients dazed, confused, incontinent and often in a state of utter panic.
Psychiatrists who knew Dr. Cameron's work found it conceptually flawed and lacking scientific rigor. Even the CIA ultimately gave up on him because he did not get the results he promised. Others found it ethically questionable; in fact, one of England's most prominent psychiatrists privately called the procedures barbaric.
Nevertheless, until he left McGill, no one publicly criticized Dr. Cameron's theories, his methods or the ethics of risking permanent organic damage without patients' consent. His prominence and power, combined with a medical tradition that ignored rather than challenged fringe research, insulated him.
Much has changed in the years since. Peer review systems and grant oversight committees scrutinize research and clinical practices. Much more is known about psychiatric treatment. But a lot has not changed. In medicine generally, patient consent is still grudgingly obtained, powerful academic physicians sometimes get dubious projects funded and peers' concerns are too often kept private.
In psychiatry, many disorders remain mysteries and psychiatrists are permitted enormous leeway in treating patients. Even in prestigious institutions, radical or reckless therapies have not disappeared.
Let us be wary, then, not just of CIA abuses but of ambitious yet misguided experiments performed in the name of treatment.