Science's Scariest Experiments

We count down the top five creepiest pieces of research from the white coats.
30 October 2018


As horror fans celebrate their favourite time of year by dressing up as ghouls or exchanging ghost stories, at the Naked Scientists we’re delving instead into the demons of science history. From mind control to Frankenstein-esque horror, here are our top five gory science experiments to send chills down your spine.

1 – The tell-tale tap

It’s dark outside. There’s nobody home. Suddenly, you hear that noise again.

*tap, tap, tap*

Is it a branch on the window, or a menacing stranger tapping the glass?

It’s much, much worse than that; it’s a parasite crawling across your eardrum.

This self-inflicted torture was carried out by Dr Robert Lopez, a vet from New York, as he took his investigations of ear mites to the next level. Curious as to what effect they’d have on a human, he took some of the crawlers from an infected cat and placed them inside his own ear.

The good doctor then dutifully recorded the ensuing nightmare: the scratching as he heard the mites crawl around his inner ear and itching that was so severe he couldn’t sleep. This lasted for a few weeks before he felt better.

Finally free from this torment, Dr Lopez did what any reasonable, inquiring mind would do. He knew the key to good experimentation was repetition. He did it again. Twice.

As mad as this may sound, this research actually went on to earn an IgNobel prize for its findings. Dr Lopez wrote up his experiences in a paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, delightfully called “Of Mites and Man”, and detailed the fact that the symptoms were less severe for each sequential infection.

Apart from the fact that some people shouldn’t be allowed near cats, Dr Lopez's work indicated that people might develop immunity to mites over subsequent infections.

2 – The turn of the dial

We all like to believe we’re moral beings with good judgement and free will. Unfortunately, this might not be totally accurate. Inspired by stories of how seemingly normal people could do horrific things under orders, a US psychologist named Stanley Milgram wanted to find out just how far authority could push someone to act.

The premise was simple: a volunteer would be invited to help with a fake experiment on memory, and was shown the “participant” (read: stooge) being strapped into an electric chair. The volunteer was then taken into another room, where they could hear the other participant but not see them. The subjects would then be instructed to deliver electric shocks of increasing power to the “participant” every time they got a question wrong.

In reality, there were no shocks, but sound effects, screaming and banging were used to portray a convincing case of genuine pain. Eventually, the screaming would stop. Some of the volunteers were even told that the participant had a heart condition before starting the experiment. If anyone tried to stop or said they felt uncomfortable, the experiment leader would tell them they had to continue.

Every single participant administered the lower, 300 volt, shocks and 62% went to the strongest level of 450 volts. People showed signs of acute stress, including groaning, sweating, trembling and even seizures, yet still often followed the orders of the experiment leader. This finding sent waves across psychology: good people can do bad things if someone in a position of authority simply tells them to. We might think we’d behave with principles in a situation like this, but chances are, we’d also turn the dial up to the maximum.

3 – Experiment with the vampire

Heterochronic parabiosis sounds like another run-of-the-mill science jargon term, but if you break it down it’s pretty gory.

Hetero means different, chronic means age and parabiosis means living besides. This sounds almost adorable, but in the context of medical experimentation it actually means "the anatomical joining of two individuals”. This is an experiment where two animals of different ages are literally sewn together, sharing the circulation of their blood.

Apart from being a grotesque, real-world counterpart to the human centipede, these kinds of experiments in mice have revealed that young blood appears to rejuvenate the older mice. The geriatric gerbils became more active, got smarter and generally healthier, while the younger mice seemed to get more ill. This could just be the natural consequence of the indignity of being sewn to another mouse.

The vampiric implications of this study were not lost on the media, and of course, it wasn’t long before a clinic popped up in the US where you could buy young blood to inject yourself with. This horrified the scientists who ran the original study: their work was in mice and they hadn’t established what effect it would have long-term, so there’s no evidence it would actually work. It’s also not exactly safe: there are risks when you inject yourself with someone else’s blood, in severe cases it can cause organ failure or autoimmune diseases.

So, while the idea of the so-called vampire generation living up to their name might chill the bones of millennials, the lack of sense on display from some of America's wealthiest should perhaps be of more concern.

4 – The Stanford prison horror

A notorious psychology experiment which rocked the world back in the seventies was the Standford Prison Experiment. A psychologist named Philip Zimbardo set up the study, in which he wanted to investigate how much people would change their behaviour based on society’s roles. The inspiration was multiple reports of sadistic beatings in prison: did sadistic people become prison guards, or was it something about the situation itself which led to violence?

He built a mock prison, and 24 people without a history of violence were recruited. They were assigned to be either prison guards or prisoners. The prisoners were “arrested” from their homes, and treated like inmates, and were even stripped naked and had their possessions removed. They were issued prison uniforms and numbers, while guards were given khaki uniforms, sunglasses and clubs, and told that, short of violence, they were allowed to do whatever they wanted to keep order.

Reportedly, within hours the guards were starting to harass prisoners, waking them up with whistles or making them do push-ups. There was a ‘rebellion’ on the second day, and on the third, some prisoners were denied food and put into solitary confinement. The guards became more assertive and the prisoners became more submissive. The reactions reported were so strong that the experiment was stopped after six days, when it had been planned to run for a fortnight.

Perhaps the scariest thing about this experiment, though, is that it wasn’t valid. After being a mainstay of psychology textbooks for 40 years, and forming the basis for our understanding of morality, it has recently come to light that it wasn’t conducted with the rigour you’d expect from a robust psychology study.  Evidence came to light that the experimenters put pressure on the prison guards to act ‘tough’ and be mean, even when they didn’t want to. Forget a ghost or a vampire costume, for Halloween this year really scare your friends by dressing as the terrifying 'unreliable research'.

5 – The compliance of the lambs

Imagine you’re walking to the shops to get some bread. Then an idea sparks in your mind: wouldn’t it be nice to go to the nearest woods? When you get there it does feel pretty good, but what might feel even better is climbing to the top of the tallest tree. That feels great! But hang on; weren’t you just trying to buy some bread? Why are you in a tree? You’ve just been at the mercy of the whims of some laughing scientists, controlling your brain from their lab.

OK: this kind of thing isn’t remotely possible in humans, but scientists have actually managed to control mice, dogs, beetles, sharks and pigeons in this way. They've got mice to climb trees and explore brightly lit areas they would usually fear. It works through brain stimulation – electrodes in areas that sense reward and areas that process directional signals can be used to train rats to follow basic commands.

This could have broad applications, including human rescue: you could send mice with cameras on their backs into sites of collapsed buildings or tunnels to search for victims. Some have suggested it could have chilling applications in the military – imagine an army of exploding mice running over the horizon. Or could mind controlled rodents even form a new and appalling form of animal entertainment? Unsurprisingly, concerns about the ethics of these experiments have been raised.

Mind control may seem like science has gone too far, but the animal kingdom, never to be outdone, are already doing this to each other all the time. Many parasites exert control over animals: some make mice braver, so they’re more likely to be eaten, others make snails want to climb up on high things, again to get them eaten. Being eaten is usually a good thing for the parasite concerned, as it can move to the next host to reproduce, but it's not such a boon for its host.

And humans are not exempt. If you have a cat, chances are you’re infected with Toxoplasma gondii, which has, with some controversy, been linked to changes in impulsivity. Less controversially, the bacteria in your gut are also pulling the strings – they’ve been shown to have an effect on mood, anxiety, depression and our levels of hunger. They also outnumber the cells in your body. Spooky!



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