A neurobiologist and science writer remembers Robert G. Heath, a controversial psychiatrist whose brain experiments earned him a reputation among his critics as a monster, an identity the writer complicates.
Frank has traced and interviewed surviving patients, former collaborators, family members and current DBS scientists. The result is a rarity: a thrilling, well-researched read. Above all, it is a chilling reminder of how early neurosurgical experimentation knew few ethical boundaries — even firmly within the medical and academic establishment.
As she proceeds in her narrative...Frank proves nuanced and thoughtful about the sorts of cultural changes that have left Heath as the villain in a morality tale, where he is remembered at all ... Frank's account of recent work in deep brain stimulation has more than a little of the rah-rah about it—the same enthusiasm for the latest psychiatric trends that led Michael Crichton to write about Heath's primitive style of electric manipulation back in 1972. What Frank undeniably does get, however, is the difficulty of judging one age by the standards of another and the hard work necessary to balance the moral demands of one good against the moral demands of another. The Pleasure Shock is, for the most part, an adult book—taking a grown-up look at science in both its progressions and regressions.
To Ms. Frank, Heath was 'dapper,' 'charming,' 'tough as nails,' 'bubbling with ideas,' 'a gifted, curious scientist'—anything but the monster some of his contemporaries believed him to be. Ethical objections to his cavalier experiments or concerns about the purely speculative basis of his dangerous interventions, Ms. Frank seems to think, can safely be set aside ... No footnotes interrupt her cliché-ridden prose, and extraordinary claims are retailed with no attempt to assess the evidence on which they presumably rest ... In passing, the author mentions that the two major controlled studies to date on deep-brain stimulation have failed to show that it produces better results than a placebo ... But soon Ms. Frank is back in her speculative science-fiction world.