The Daily Agenda for Sunday, January 20

Jim Burroway

January 20th, 2013

Events This Weekend: Aspen Gay Ski Week, Aspen, CO; Midsumma, Melbourne, VIC.

An Improved Method for Delivering Electric Shocks for Aversion Therapy: 1965. Electric shock aversion therapy was just one of many torturous methods which had been used to try to “cure” gay people throughout the twentieth century. Being that it’s use of electricity somehow managed to convey a “technological” gloss into a very crude affair — male patients were shown nude photographs and given painful jolts if the showed any kind of interest in photos of men — it might be surprising that there had, in fact, been only a few basic “improvements” since the technology was first developed in 1935 (see Mar 15 and Sep 6). Three researchers, Bernard Turshy, Peter D. Watson and D.M. O’Connell from Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry and the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, wrote in the journal Psychophysiology about that lack of progress:

Very little systematic work has been done toward designing a satisfactory electrode for the delivery of electric shock in psychological experimentation, although a wide variety of electrode types have been used. These, for example, have included: (a) plates of various metals and different sizes and shapes, either taped or strapped to the fingers, arms or legs of Ss (subjects); (b) cups filled with saline solution into which Ss’ fingers were immersed; (c) standard EEG electrodes attached to the earlobes; and (d) wires attached to the teeth by wax or cups.

Several studies have been conducted to determine the effect of varying the absolute and relative sizes of electrodes. It was found that the smaller the electrode, the less current was needed to produce a given subjective intensity, and that when there was a considerable difference in the relative sizes of the two electrodes, the sensation was felt primarily under the smaller electrode. These studies indicate that the size and the configuration of the electrodes are important variables.

Such was the nature of this kind of research that the very people who were being subjected to painful electric shocks were reduced to the smallest abbreviation possible: they were just “Ss”, and the less said of them the better. The real problem, as far as Tursky, Watson and O’Connell were concerned, was that currently existing technology really did have some problems that they felt needed addressing. Those problems were fourfold:

These are (a) precise delimitation of the area of stimulation; (b) minimal interference with the mobility of the S; (c) freedom from skin irritation and burning; and (d) reduction of muscle involvement as a secondary concomitant of shock stimulation.

The “improved” electrode (click to enlarge).

Tursky, Watson and O’Connell believed that they had an answer. Instead of separate electrodes placed throughout the body, they devised a concentric electrode configuration which “has been found to be highly satisfactory. An inner aluminum disk was surrounded by second aluminum ring, both of which were held together in a plastic case. In order to avoid skin irritation and burning, the electricity was conducted between the device through small sponge pads soaked in saline and coated with an electrode paste. This, they said, was a marked improvement over the older methods:

When an electrical stimulus is applied through a simple metal electrode in direct contact with the skin for long periods of time, small area burns may occur. This can be explained by thinking of the metal electrode as an infinite number of conductors making contact with the skin. Any one of these contacts can form a low resistance path which becomes the focal point for all current flow. The sponge and salt paste contact, used in our electrode, acts to diffuse current flow and insures equal density over the entire surface. In two year sof use with over one hundred Ss, this electrode has not caused any burns.

In other words, they created the torturer’s dream: a system of torment that leaves no mark. Well, at least none that we can see. It was also your parents’ and grandparents’ tax dollars at work. The research was supported by a grant from the U.S. Public Health Service.

[Source: Bernard Tursky, Peter D. Watson, D.N. O’Connell. “A concentric shock electrode for pain stimulation.” Psychophysiology 1, no. 3 (January 1965): 296-298.]

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?

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