The Obsessively Ambitious Canadian and the American Academic Philosopher Turned Marinecraft Expert and Yachtsman.
In 1943, the Psychiatrist D. Ewen Cameron, MD, accepted a joint administrative position; becoming both the Chairperson of the Psychiatry Department at McGill University in Montreal and Director of the Allan Memorial Institute (a newly created Psychiatric facility co-administered by McGill and Canada’s Royal Victoria Hospital. Cameron held both of these positions from the time of his Appointment in 1943 until 1964.
It was there that he developed the techniques which would (among other things) be used to inflict permanent damage to the brain of the American Korean War veteran, college professor, philosopher, author, and future yachtsman --Robert Pirsig.
Specifically, during his tenure as the administrator of the prestigious Canadian Allen Memorial Psychiatric Institute, Cameron, in an effort to “secure his legacy”, became (according to colleagues) increasingly reckless; erratically departing from the systematic methods constituting the foundation of sound scientific inquiry --becoming increasingly willing to “try anything” in order to “make a name for himself” by discovering the major treatment breakthrough which would, once and for all, prove to be the definitive cure for severe, seemingly intractable mental illnesses; specifically Agitated Depression, Bipolar Mood Disorder (then known as manic-depression), and Schizoaffective Disorder.
History has shown, that in the case of Cameron, blind ambition “trumped” adherence to sound scientific, research based medical practice. Evidence of this comes from the the established facts that (although very few people are familiar with D. Ewen Cameron today) by the 1950’s Cameron was one of the most prominent figures in Psychiatry around the globe. He was elected president of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychopathological Association, the Society of Biological Psychiatry, the Quebec Psychiatric Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, and the Chief Architect and first President of the World Psychiatric Association.
These accolades were the “professional fruits” of Cameron’s obsession with the notion that “the answer” lay in discovering physical methods to “erase” or “obliterate” the disturbing thoughts, emotions, and repressed (Freudian) conflicts of mentally ill patients and then “replacing” them with ideas that he judged to be “more beneficial”.
The terminology he chose for the obliteration of the “defective” neural circuitry in the brain was “depatterning”. The terminology he chose for for the subsequent “inception of healthier” thoughts and emotional capture patterns was “reprogramming”.
The methods which Cameron ultimately settled upon to achieve these results were as follows:
- “Depatterning”: “the extensive breakup of existing patterns of behavior --both normal and pathologic, by means of intensive Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) administered daily during a drug-induced (combination of barbiturates and opioid derivatives) sleep state for a period of 30-60 days except for “brief waking periods for bowel movements and nasogastric feedings”. Following the combined 60 day regimen of the “synergistic combination” of daily ECT sessions while in a drug-induced narcosis; Cameron would evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment. Here, in his own words, is Cameron's definition of “successful depatterning”:
- “Depatterning is complete when the patient loses all recollection of the fact that he formerly possessed a space time image which served to explain the events of the day to him. With this loss, all anxiety disappears; his conceptual span is limited to a few minutes and to entirely concrete events. He volunteers a few statements on questioning. He says that he is sleepy or that he feels fine. He cannot conceptualize where he is, nor does he recognize those who treat him. There is also an extremely interesting constriction of the range of recollections and anticipations...His remarks are entirely uninfluenced by previous recollections -nor are they governed in anyway by his forward anticipations. He lives in the immediate present. All psychotic symptoms have disappeared.”
- (Cameron, D.E., Production of differential amnesia in the treatment of schizophrenia, “Comprehensive Psychiatry”, 1960 1, 26-34).
Following “depatterning”, the patient was ready for the next phase which Cameron termed “reprogramming”.
- “Reprogramming”: The playing of audiotaped messages repeatedly from a continuous tape looping (utilizing a technique invented by the musician, record producer, recording studio innovator and solid bodied electric guitar virtuoso Les Paul; specifically his radical use of tape splicing, overdubs, etc.) delivery system. The messages were delivered through headphones after the patient was again placed into a drug-induced sleep state (as described above) identical to that used in the depatterning phase.
Cameron was able to acquire a state-of-the-art multitrack tape recording console that allowed him to deliver separate messages repeatedly and simultaneously to groups of 8 patients...each individually housed in separate chambers.
The messages themselves consisted of material derived from previous (Freudian) psychoanalytical sessions. Cameron called the tape looping, repeating messages “Psychodynamic Implants”, a term implying that they had “Freudian Significance” for each individual patient (such as statements involving experiences with the patient’s mother.
The messages were changed over time, some emphasizing a patient’s “negative traits”, others suggesting alternative ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others.
None of this really worked, and considerable data has been analyzed that shows considerable harm (sometimes irreversible) was done to these patients.
Donald Hebb, the noted Psychologist and Neuroscientist, who was very familiar with Cameron's program (they were colleagues at McGill University) remarked that the fatal flaw was that “Cameron wasn't driven to know, learn, and help patients --he was driven by an obsession with becoming important --to make the breakthrough that would earn him a place in history. It made him a bad scientist. He was criminally stupid.”
(Quoted by Gillmor, D., Morgue Psychiactrique: Psychiatric Hubris, vie à, Montréal, vol. 1, No.2 January-February 1988, pp. 30-39).
Cameron died in 1967, and much of his “work” has been forgotten --however, it later came to light in a most peculiar way.
In 1977, The New York Times printed an article describing a recently declassified CIA-supported program investigating behavior control techniques, and Cameron was mentioned as one of the recipients of the intelligence agency's funds.
The article explained that during the Korean War, the CIA was concerned that the Chinese and North Koreans were using “brainwashing techniques”, when, in 1956, a CIA Psychologist noticed an article by Cameron published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The journal article contained a detailed description of the depatterning and reprogramming regimen.
The CIA decided to facilitate Cameron’s “research program” by funneling funds to him through a fictitious organization called “The Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology”. Between 1957 and 1960 Cameron received $54,467 from the CIA via the “front” organization.
Most of the funds were used to purchase and install the sophisticated 8 track tape recording, splicing, and overdubbing equipment and to hire a professional recording engineer (a veteran from RCA Records who were about to acquire Elvis Presley from SUN Records)...oh well; it's only rock and roll eh?
In a tragic twist of fate, one of Cameron's patients was a brilliant science prodigy who dropped out of college, joined the army, served in Korea, became a professor of Rhetoric and Ph.D. student in Philosophy, began to behave erratically, was Institutionalized, “treated” with the depatterning/reprogramming regimen, wrote a bestselling book in which he used major concepts from Academic Philosophy to try to reintegrate his “reprogrammed self” with his “prior self”, and eventually became a yachtsman and marine consultant in New England.
His name was Robert Pirsig. Here is a link to a rare interview with Pirsig which appeared in the Guardian. The interview was conducted in 2008.
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