The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


He dreamt of a “psychocivilized society,” its members capable of controlling their emotions through an electronic chip implanted in the brain. Rage, fear, lust, serenity: all could be turned on and off by remote stimulation of the limbic system via the device he called a “stimoceiver.”

This is not an early draft of The Matrix.

It describes the ambition of José Delgado, who, in the 1960s and early ’70s, was a widely celebrated neuroscientist at Yale.

Delgado’s fame peaked in 1965 when dramatic photographs of one of his experiments on emotion modification made the front page of the New York Times. The unarmed scientist stands in a bull ring in Córdoba, Spain. In one hand he holds a matador’s cape; in the other, a small remote-control box. Several meters away, a bull snorts and stamps on the ground. It charges toward the scientist. Only moments from being gored, Delgado flicks a switch that controls an electronic chip embedded in the bull’s brain. The animal stops and turns away. It seems passive and relaxed. Its “aggression” and “destructive fury,” reported Delgado, “ceased instantly.”

It’s when emotions get to be too much that we may fantasize about one of Delgado’s remote controls. When anxiety sends shocks behind the eyes, or fear thuds in the chest, or love is so rapturous we fear we’ll lose our footing. If we could just shut it off, even temporarily, to give ourselves a rest, to think! But even for masters of meditation or Stoic sages, these screeching emergency stops are hard to pull off. We might count to ten, or bite our lips, or tell ourselves “this too shall pass,” but few of us can conjure calm at the opportune moment.

Certainly, the journalists reporting Delgado’s experiment seemed swept up by the fantasy of calm-on-demand, although their descriptions are not altogether reliable. One of the areas of the bull’s brain that was stimulated was the caudate nucleus, responsible for moving the legs to make the body turn. It’s not entirely clear whether the bull’s “destructive fury” had been quelled, or whether the charging bull had simply been forced to make a sudden right turn—and was, understandably, rather discombobulated as a result.

Today, smoothing the mind’s scratchy edges is now largely achieved by pharmaceuticals, the so-called chemical restraints that render Alzheimer’s patients in understaffed nursing homes, or prisoners on overcrowded wings, pliable and calm. In the 1970s, however, it looked as if neurotechnology might just beat the drugs to it. Though it required an invasive procedure, Delgado thought his electronic implants might ultimately offer a more elegant solution to disordered emotions than the method favored in asylums at the time: the lobotomy. However, while the technology was still at an early stage, Delgado’s only human subjects were patients being treated for extreme illnesses such as epilepsy and schizophrenia at the Rhode Island Asylum. One woman with a history of drug abuse and jail time begged Delgado to implant one of his electrodes. He refused.

Deciding what counts as a “normal” emotional response can reflect the deepest prejudices of the societies in which we live. Five years after Delgado’s bullring theatrics, and amid the waves of civil unrest sweeping America’s inner cities in the 1960s, neurotechnology once again made the headlines. Two researchers at Harvard Medical School proposed that stimoceivers should be implanted in the brains of the rioters—most of whom were young black men. The proposal, which was never acted on, framed the RAGE of African-Americans protesting against chronic injustice as excessive and pathological, and requiring an invasive medical intervention. It is shocking today, and an incident many would rather forget. Yet this story, as with many similar ones in the history of emotions, reminds us just how politically charged—and changeable—the category of a “normal” emotional response can be.

See also: APATHY.