Reporter's Notebook By Nick Watt
(AMSTERDAM) -- "Does that hurt yet?" the lab assistant asked after administering an electric shock.
"Yes," I replied. "But I think I can take a little more." It was sore. But I was trying to be tough and cool.
She upped the voltage and hit the switch again. I convulsed, jumped from my chair and heard laughter from the other side of the wall. The lab assistant was laughing because my colleagues -- producer Paolo and cameraman Andy -- were laughing.
I was wired up for a bizarre experiment in an Amsterdam basement. Not an S&M basement, you understand, but the basement of the University of Amsterdam's psychology department.
The lab assistant was calibrating just how much voltage I needed for the shock to be unpleasant without making me really, really sore. Why? I was playing guinea pig in an experiment.
These Dutch psychologists believe they have found a chemical way to alter our memories -- specifically, to expunge fear from bad memories.
This treatment might one day help people exposed to traumatic events -- explosions, car wrecks, plane crashes -- who have developed develop post traumatic stress disorder, deep and often irrational fears associated with their painful memories.
After my time reporting in Iraq, I was one of those people and was treated with a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy. What's different here is these Dutch researchers suggest that chemicals, not therapy, could be used to remove fear from our memories.
"Part of the reason you get those associations is that your body produces a large amount of adrenaline when you go through an unpleasant experience," Professor Neil Greenberg of the Kings College in London told me. "So any memory of that traumatic experience would again cause you to pour out large amounts of adrenaline."
But for this particular experiment to work, researchers first needed to create fear in me. Hence, the electric shocks. I was wired up, headphones on and positioned in front of a computer screen. Images flashed before my eyes. And every time an image of a particular spider popped up on the screen, I received an electric shock and heard a harsh, high-pitched screech through my headphones. After a few rounds of this, I had effectively developed a fear for that image of the spider.
Now, in the actual experiment, what happens is that the next day the guinea pigs return and go through the process again -- the shocks, the noise, the images. ... The memory and the fear of the spider are essentially reopened.
A few of the guinea pigs are given a drug, an adrenaline suppressant called propranolol. For those guinea pigs, the memory and fear of the spider is reawakened by the photo, the shock and the noise. But because they are under the influence of proporanolol, the memory is re-imprinted in their brain without the fear response, without the adrenalin rush that comes with fear. So basically these people have been cured of their fear of that nasty spider picture.
The problem for me is that I was only in Amsterdam for one day. I got only as far as having the fear of the spider created in my brain. No one gave me any drugs. No one cured me of my fear of that spider. So now I'm scared of that spider forever.
And by the way, I'm also scared of cows.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio
Entries in Shock Therapy (2)
Reporter's Notebook By Nick Watt
(PROVO, Utah) -- John Cameron said he was a naive and devout Mormon who felt "out of sync" with the world when he volunteered to be part of a study of "electric aversion therapy" in 1976 at Utah's Brigham Young University.
Twice a week for six months, he jolted himself with painful shocks to the penis to rid himself of his attraction to men.
"I kept trying to fight it, praying and fasting and abstaining and being the best person I could," said Cameron, now a 59-year-old playwright and head of the acting program at the University of Iowa.
But his undercurrent of feelings put him in direct conflict with the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) and its principles.
"As teens we were taught that homosexuality was second only to murder in the eyes of God," he said. "I was very, very religious and the Mormon church was the center of my life," said Cameron, who had done missionary work in Guatemala and El Salvador.
The 1976 study at Brigham Young, "Effect of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy," was written by Max Ford McBride, then a graduate student in the psychology department.
"I thought he was my savior," said Cameron, who enrolled with 13 other willing subjects, all Mormons who thought they might be gay, for a three-to-six-month course of therapy.
A mercury-filled tube was placed around the base of the penis and the students were shown alternating slides of men and women in various stages of undress. When participants responded to images of men with an erection, the closed electric circuit was broken and they received three-second electrical shocks at 10-second intervals. Each session lasted an hour. Participants set their own pain levels. Cameron said his shame was so deep that he selected the highest level.
And those weren't the only attempted cures that were used in that era. Others allege they were given chemical compounds, which were administered through an IV and caused subjects to vomit when they were stimulated.
Psychologists confirm those harsh experiments were used in a variety of medical settings by scientists of all faiths.
Church officials say they no longer support aversion therapy, but a generation who grew up in the 1970s say they have been scarred for life because of well-intentioned attempts to change their sexual orientation.
Today, the church still steadfastly opposes homosexuality, as witnessed by the millions of dollars in support it gave to pass California's Proposition 8, which would amend the state's constitution to outlaw gay marriage.
Carri P. Jenkins, assistant to the president of BYU, confirmed that McBride did study the effects of aversion therapy in the 1970s. She said the experiment was an "outgrowth of the behaviorist movement," which believed that any behavior could be modified.
Jenkins said other universities at the time used similar techniques, and none of this type has taken place at BYU since then.
Today, therapies are all "mainline therapeutic approaches," according to Jenkins, and all faculty are expected to be licensed and programs accredited.
The university, which is owned by the Mormon Church, said its policy on homosexuality is in line with Mormon doctrine -- today's students are not disciplined unless they engage in sexual activity, and that includes heterosexual sex before marriage.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio