Throughout the history of science as we know it there have been those who have pushed beyond the boundaries of the known and the accepted. These are very often the people who have expanded our horizons as a species, and led the way through the darkness of more primitive beliefs. Yet although these pioneers and groundbreakers have pushed forward our knowledge, there have been perhaps just as many who have derailed to careen off into darker and more mysterious and perilous realms. These are the ones who have cast a strobe light upon knowledge that we maybe should not know or are not even meant to know, and one of these must surely be the Spanish scientist who opened the doors to the domain of mind control with his weird and frightening experiments.
The man named José Manuel Rodríguez Delgado didn’t start out as a mad scientist or particularly sinister and controversial. Born in 1915 in Ronda, Spain, he went on to study to be a medical doctor, earning his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Madrid, and then serving in the Spanish Civil War that followed shortly after as a medical corpsman. After the war ended, Delgado found himself having to earn his degree all over again after being captured and spending months in a concentration camp, and at first he had planned to be an eye doctor, like his father before him. It would be a chance encounter with the works of the Spanish neuroscientist, pathologist, histologist, and Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal that would change the course of his life, causing him to become fascinated with the workings of the human brain.
He would go on to earn an M.D. and doctorate in physiology from the University of Madrid, accepting a position in the physiology department at the University of Yale and becoming increasingly more obsessed with the human brain. He was especially enamored with the work of Swiss physiologist Walter Rudolph Hess, who had done pioneering research into electrical stimulation of the brain of cats, which was shown to be able to dramatically alter the animals’ behavior by implanting wires into the head and activating certain sectors. The director of Yale’s physiology department at the time, John F. Fulton, was also heavily involved in psychosurgery, pursuing the idea that destroying parts of the brain’s frontal lobe could make normally aggressive animals calm and complacent. It was an idea that would lead to the advent of lobotomies for the purpose of psychiatric treatment in humans, but Delgado had a different idea for all of this. He wanted to use electrical stimulation not to destroy the brain, but to aim it, influence it, and possibly even control it through electrodes strategically planted in the brain.
Delgado had already experimented with this idea to some extent, using laboratory animals such as rodents, dogs, and even primates to try and prove his idea that the brain could be manipulated, even remotely, through these electrical signals. These bizarre experiments were successfully able to use stimulation of the brain to basically turn off or turn on aggression in the animals at the flip of a switch, and he could train animals by generating painful sensations in them whenever a certain part of the brain was triggered, making them docile, compliant and obedient. He even used this in an experiment with a group of monkeys that were being bullied and terrorized by a very aggressive male, putting the power in their hands. Delgado rigged an electrode to the bully that would activate to nullify the aggression when a switch was flipped in the cage by another monkey. Before long, the monkeys used this switch whenever the aggressive one acted up, and Delgado would rather eerily say of this, “The old dream of an individual overpowering the strength of a dictator by remote control has been fulfilled, at least in our monkey colonies.” Pretty spooky.
During his time at Yale, Delgado perfected these ideas, and used his incredible intellect and knack for inventing gadgetry to help him towards his ultimate goal of using this technology on humans, writing numerous papers on these techniques along the way. His first step was to miniaturize the equipment. His first experiments used bulky, heavy packs of electronic equipment that the animals had to be connected to, so he began designing a battery pack that could be easily worn, which would power small chips the size of a coin. This was the basis of a device he called the “stimoceiver,” which was essentially a radio that connected to a brain wave stimulating electrode with a receiver that monitored the patient’s brain waves and allowed stimulation remotely, and the chips themselves were whittled down to as small as a quarter. He then graduated from experimenting on animals to using human subjects, and the results are at the same time both fascinating and ominous.
In 1952, Delgado began his experimentation on human subjects, using psychiatric patients at the Rhode Island Hospital in Massachusetts as guinea pigs, with most of them being those afflicted with schizophrenia and epilepsy. The lack of ethics at the time and the fact that he used patients that were considered beyond help allowed him to do pretty much anything he wanted, and he would conduct at least 25 such experiments on human beings. During these bizarre experiments, Delgado was able to profoundly influence and control the emotions and behavior of his subjects, with the flip of a switch creating such varied mental responses as sadness, drowsiness, alertness, relaxation, happiness, rage, euphoria, and others. He could also manipulate a person’s very personality, for instance in one case causing a normally conservative female patient to become flirtatious, or a somber, quiet boy who was made into a chatty, talkative extrovert. Perhaps even spookier than any of this was that he could even elicit physical responses with the stimoceiver, such as causing a subject to clench their fists, smile, twitch, or move a limb on command. He would write hundreds of peer reviewed papers on his work, as well as a 1969 book called Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society.
At the time it was all seen as pretty spooky, sinister even, and the fact that he was largely funded by the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Aeromedical Research Laboratory caused many to suspect that his aim was to create weaponized humans that could be activated to kill remotely. Delgado actively dismissed such concerns, explaining that the technology was not at that level and that the military had made no mention of using the technology for warfare. He would in later years at one point rather ominously say of the controversy at the time:
At that time, the technology was very crude. The only thing we could do was to increase or decrease aggressive behavior, but not to direct aggressive behavior to any specific target. Maybe they expected that. I don’t know.
That seems to be fairly evasive and imbued with a sense of foreboding, doesn’t it? While these experiments on humans were generating a lot of controversy at the time among people who accused him of trying to create mind-controlled Manchurian Candidate style assassins, perhaps Delgado’s most famous experiment was on an animal. It happened in 1974, after he had relocated to Spain with his family in order to help organize a new medical school at the Autonomous University of Madrid. While he was there he came up with the bonkers idea to implant a raging bull with a stimoceiver and see if he could control its actions in an actual bullfighting ring. To this end he procured four bulls from a breeder in Córdoba, inserted stimoceivers into their brains, and then set them free into the bullring. He was so confident that his technology would work that he used himself for the experiment, and gamely walked out into the ring with the huge, very grumpy animals ambling about. Amazingly, by just pushing a button on a handheld device he was able to cause the bulls to stop their charges and even change the direction in which they ran.
Soon Delgado was gaining worldwide recognition, and he and his work were all over the news, generating a considerable amount of discussion and debate. Conspiracy theories were also brewing, with rumors spreading that the government was pursuing this as a way to enslave, pacify and control the populace, and there were those who even believed they had already secretly been implanted with these stimoceivers. Not only were people increasingly more afraid of where this technology was potentially heading or where it already was, but it was also stirring much debate on the ethics of it all. It was primarily because of the negative feedback that he was getting that Delgado switched to studying less invasive methods of achieving what he wanted, through the use of magnets and non-surgical procedures. After this, most of his work appeared strictly in Spanish, research into brain stimulation became frowned upon, and he slowly faded away into obscurity. Delgado would lament the pushback against his life’s work, saying:
Can you avoid knowledge? You cannot! Can you avoid technology? You cannot! Things are going to go ahead in spite of ethics, in spite of your personal beliefs, in spite of everything.
He would eventually move with his wife to San Diego, California, where he would live a quiet life mostly off the radar writing books and papers up until his death in 2011. His work has gone on to mostly be forgotten, an oddity that one hopes will never be pursued any further. Yet there are plenty of conspiracies that this sort of thing indeed has been studied and pursued right up into the modern times, a sort of descendant of the work that Delgado helped to pioneer. After all, tech giants like Tesla’s Elon Musk have already been quite publicly exploring such technology with brain interfaces and whatnot, and it all really leaves a big, gaping ethical dilemma and point of debate. Is this something that we as a species really need? Is this in out best interests and how can it be misused, who will oversee and control it all? How long is it until nefarious parties use it to create those sleeper assassins everyone was worried about when Delgado was controlling bulls? Is this something that will bring in a new age of peaceful usage and the cure for neurological diseases, or will this be our downfall? Only time will tell, and in the meantime there will certainly be those mad scientists out there looking to push and prod at the boundaries of what we know, challenging our perceptions of our place in the universe and exploring avenues that may or may not best be closed off.