4 Bizarre Experiments That Should Never Be Repeated
by Megan Wilde
1. The Real World: Mental Hospital Edition
This is the true story of three schizophrenics, who all believed they were Jesus Christ. It wasn’t long before they stopped being polite and started getting real crazy. In 1959, social psychologist Milton Rokeach wanted to test the strength of self-delusion. So, he gathered three patients, all of whom identified themselves as Jesus Christ, and made them live together in the same mental hospital in Michigan for two years.
Rokeach hoped the Christs would give up their delusional identities after confronting others who claimed to be the same person. But that’s not what happened. At first, the three men quarreled constantly over who was holier. According to Rokeach, one Christ yelled, “You oughta worship me!” To which another responded, “I will not worship you! You’re a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts!”
Unable to turn the other cheek, the three Christs often argued until punches were thrown. Eventually, however, they each explained away their conflicting identities. One believed, correctly, that the other two were mental patients. Another rationalized the presence of his companions by claiming that they were dead and being operated by machines.
But the behavior of the schizophrenics isn’t even the most bizarre part. Far stranger was the way Rokeach tried to manipulate his subjects.
As part of the experiment, the psychologist wanted to see just how entrenched each man’s delusions were. For example, one of the Christs, Leon, believed he was married to a person he called Madame Yeti Woman, a 7-ft.-tall, 200-lb. descendant of an Indian and a jerboa rat. So, Rokeach wrote love letters to Leon from Madame Yeti Woman. They contained instructions, requesting that Leon sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” during group meetings and smoke a certain brand of cigarettes. Leon was so touched by the attention from his make-believe wife that he broke into tears upon receiving the letters. But when the Yeti Woman asked him to change his name, Leon felt as though his identity was being challenged. He was on the verge of divorcing his fantasy spouse when Rokeach finally dropped that part of the experiment.
At the end of their two-year stay, each man still believed he was the one and only son of God. In fact, Rokeach concluded that their Jesus identities may have become more embedded after being confronted with other Christs. Twenty years later, he renounced his methods, writing, “I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere around the clock with their daily lives.”
2. Raging Bull
In 1963, Dr. Jose Delgado stepped into a bullring in Cordova, Spain, with a 550-lb. charging bull named Lucero. The Yale University neurophysiologist was no bullfighter, but he had a plan: to control the bull’s mind.
Delgado was among a small group of researchers developing a new type of electroshock therapy. Here’s how it worked: First, the researchers would implant tiny wires and electrodes into the skull. Then, they’d send electrical surges to different parts of the brain, sparking emotions and triggering movements in the body. The goal was to change the patient’s mental state, perking up the depressed and calming the agitated. But Delgado took this science to a new level when he developed the “stimoceiver.” The chip, which was about the size of a quarter, could be inserted inside a patient’s head and operated by remote control. Delgado envisioned the technology eventually leading to a “psychocivilized society,” in which everyone could temper their self-destructive tendencies at the press of a button.
For several years, Delgado experimented on monkeys and cats, making them yawn, fight, play, mate, and sleep—all by remote control. He was particularly interested in managing anger. In one experiment, he implanted a stimoceiver into a hostile monkey. Delgado gave the remote control to the monkey’s cage mate, who quickly figured out that pressing the button calmed down his hotheaded friend.
Delgado’s next challenge was to experiment with bulls in Spain. He began by implanting stimoceivers into several bulls and testing the equipment by making them lift their legs, turn their heads, walk in circles, and moo 100 times in a row. Then came the moment of truth. In 1965, Delgado entered the ring with a fighting bull named Lucero—a ferocious animal famous for his temper. When Lucero barreled towards him, Delgado tapped his remote control and brought the animal to a screeching halt. He tapped his remote control again, and the bull started wandering in circles.
The demonstration was hailed as a success on the front page of The New York Times, but some neuroscientists were skeptical. They suggested that, rather than quelling Lucero’s aggression, Delgado had simply confused the bull by shocking his brain and prompting him to give up his attack. Meanwhile, total strangers began accusing Delgado of secretly implanting stimoceivers into their brains and controlling their thoughts. As public fear of mind-control technology increased during the 1970s, Delgado decided to return to Spain and conduct less-controversial research. But his work on electrical brain stimulation was groundbreaking. It paved the way for present-day neural implants, which help patients manage conditions ranging from Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy to depression and chronic pain.
3. Alone in the Dark
For some people, solitary confinement is a punishment; for others, it’s a pathway to scientific discovery. In the 1960s, at the peak of the Space Race, scientists were curious how humans would handle traveling in space and living in fallout shelters. Could people cope with extreme isolation in a confined space? Without the Sun, what would our sleep cycles be like? Michel Siffre, a 23-year-old French geologist, decided to answer these Cold War questions by conducting an experiment on himself. For two months in 1962, Siffre lived in total isolation, buried 375 feet inside a subterranean glacier in the French-Italian Maritime Alps, with no clocks or daylight to mark time.
Inside the cave, temperatures were below freezing, with 98 percent humidity. Constantly cold and wet, Siffre suffered from hypothermia, as massive chunks of ice regularly crashed down around his tent. But during his 63 days underground, he only dabbled in madness once. One day, Siffre started singing at the top of his lungs and dancing the twist in his black silk tights. Other than that, he behaved relatively normally.
When Siffre emerged on September 14, he thought it was August 20. His mind had lost track of time, but, oddly enough, his body had not. While in the cave, Siffre telephoned his research assistants every time he woke up, ate, and went to sleep. As it turns out, he’d unintentionally kept regular cycles of sleeping and waking. An average day for Siffre lasted a little more than 24 hours. Humans beings, Siffre discovered, have internal clocks.
The experiment’s success made Siffre eager to conduct more research. Ten years later, he descended into a cave near Del Rio, Texas, for a six-month, NASA-sponsored experiment. Compared to his previous isolation experience, the cave in Texas was warm and luxurious. His biggest source of discomfort were the electrodes attached to his head, which were meant to monitor his heart, brain, and muscle activity. But he got used to them, and the first two months in the cave were easy for Siffre. He ran experiments, listened to records, explored the cavern, and caught up on his Plato.
On day 79, however, his sanity started to crack. He became extremely depressed, especially after his record player broke and mildew began ruining his magazines, books, and scientific equipment. Soon, he was pondering suicide. For a while, he found solace in the companionship of a mouse that occasionally rummaged through his supplies. But when Siffre tried to trap the mouse with a casserole dish to make it his pet, he accidentally crushed and killed it. He wrote in his journal, “Desolation overwhelms me.”
Just when the experiment was nearing its end, a lightning storm sent a shock of electricity through the electrodes on his head. Although the pain was excruciating, depression had so dulled his mind that he was shocked three more times before he thought to disconnect the wires.
Yet again, the Texas cave experiment yielded interesting results. For the first month, Siffre had fallen into regular sleep-wake cycles that were slightly longer than 24 hours. But after that, his cycles began varying randomly, ranging from 18 to 52 hours. It was an important finding that fueled interest in ways to induce longer sleep-wake cycles in humans—something that could potentially benefit soldiers, submariners, and astronauts.
4. For the Love of Dolphins
Perhaps the most troubling experiment in recent history is the dolphin-intelligence study conducted by neuroscientist John C. Lilly in 1958. While working at the Communication Research Institute, a state-of-the-art laboratory in the Virgin Islands, Lilly wanted to find out if dolphins could talk to people. At the time, the dominant theory of human language development posited that children learn to talk through constant, close contact with their mothers. So, Lilly tried to apply the same idea to dolphins.
For 10 weeks in 1965, Lilly’s young, female research associate, Margaret Howe, live with a dolphin named Peter. The two shared a partially flooded, two-room house. The water was just shallow enough for Margaret to wade through the rooms and just deep enough for Peter to swim. Margaret and Peter were constantly interacting with each other, eating, sleeping, working, and playing together. Margaret slept on a bed soaked in saltwater and worked on a floating desk, so that her dolphin roommate could interrupt her whenever he wanted. She also spent hours playing ball with Peter, encouraging his more “humanoid” noises and trying to teach him simple words.
As time passed, it became clear that Peter didn’t want a mom; he wanted a girlfriend. The dolphin became uninterested in his lessons, and he started wooing Margaret by nibbling at her feet and legs. When his advances weren’t reciprocated, Peter got violent. He started using his nose and flippers to hit Margaret’s shins, which quickly became bruised. For a while, she wore rubber boots and carried a broom to fight off Peter’s advances. When that didn’t work, she started sending him out for conjugal visits with other dolphins. But the research team grew worried that if Peter spent too much time with his kind, he’d forget what he’d learned about being human.
Before long, Peter was back in the house with Margaret, still attempting to woo her. But this time, he changed his tactics. Instead of biting his lady friend, he started courting her by gently rubbing his teeth up and down her leg and showing off his genitals. Shockingly, this final strategy worked, and Margaret began rubbing the dolphin’s erection. Unsurprisingly, he became a lot more cooperative with his language lessons.
Discovering that a human could satisfy a dolphin’s sexual needs was the experiment’s biggest interspecies breakthrough. Dr. Lilly still believed that dolphins could learn to talk if given enough time, and he hoped to conduct a year-long study with Margaret and another dolphin. When the plans turned out to be too expensive, Lilly tried to get the dolphins to talk another way—by giving them LSD. And although Lilly reported that they all had “very good trips,” the scientist’s reputation in the academic community deteriorated. Before long, he’d lost federal funding for his research.