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The Forbidden Experiment: A Book Review

kjusewiczh's picture

When I was thinking about what kind of book I wanted to review for this assignment, all I knew was that I wanted to learn and think about something new. In the end The Forbidden Experiment by Roger Shattuck grabbed my interest. This 214 page book is extremely interesting and thought provoking, in fact it is one of those books you pick up and don’t want to put down until it is finished. This book retells the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron and the men who tried to bring him back into society, of whom Itard was the primary teacher of the boy. Shattuck chronicles his life and his progress through documents written by these men, as well as making some conclusions of his own.

Shattuck writes that when this boy was first found, he did not speak or interact with anyone or anything if it did not relate to eating or sleeping. This boy was completely without human interaction. Shattuck writes that it was estimated that he had been in the woods alone for at least 4 to 6 years and was between 11 and 12. Shattuck then proceeds to very carefully condense all the documents originally written about the boy into a very fascinating description of the boy and his behaviors.

The part of the book where Shattuck describes how the boy was originally found is one of my favorite parts of the book. He is described as looking like a completely normal boy with a two notable exceptions, the first is that he refused to wear clothes and the second is an inch and a half long scar across his neck. This, however, is not the interesting point that Shattuck describes. The boy could not speak and appeared not to be able to hear what people were saying to him; his only concerns were food and sleep. The boy also seemed to not be affected by extremes in temperature. The boy is also described as constantly making compulsive movements, such as rocking, when he was eating.

These fascinating descriptions of the boy bring up in my mind a something that we talked about in class. The first is the ability that the brain has to ignore or block out inputs. While the boy is described as being deaf because he did not appear to hear humans when they were talking to him, the boy would respond to noises that were related to food. The boy is also described as not noticing the frigid air of the winter or noticing the fact that the potatoes he loved to eat were burning hot. It appears that the boy completely ignored sensory inputs, probably because in the wild he needed to in order to survive.  Although these inputs are being received, the boy’s I-function seems to be taking over and “choosing” to ignore these inputs that could be detrimental to his survival.

Shattuck then goes on to describe the boy’s trip to Paris and his initial welcome there, which ultimately ended in all the top scholars and doctors in Paris deciding that the boy was a deaf-mute idiot. However, the story gets interesting again when Itard enters into the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron’s life. The first thing that Shattuck describes is why Itard decided to take on the case of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Itard was a young and promising doctor who decided against the advice of all the other prominent doctors in Paris to take on the boy’s case because he believed that this boy represented the ultimate case of the natural man and he believed that he could prove how humans learn.

Following this look into the reasons why Itard decided to take on the case of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Shattuck delves into the methods Itard used to try and teach the boy how to enter society once again. This section is the most interesting part of the book to me because of the way that Shattuck uses Itard’s reports and his own analytical abilities to describe the training that the boy went through. Shattuck describes how Itard tried to train the boy to act like a “civilized” boy, eat new foods, develop his sense of touch, hear, and talk. Most of these things the boy was extremely successful at. He, however, was not able to hear many sounds or to speak.

Shattuck then describes how the boy’s successes and failures were due to Itard’s training method. Shattuck postulates that had Itard focused less on verbal communication and more on signing and reading the boy could have learned to communicate fairly well with people. Shattuck also says that Itard was so eager to find someone or something that could act as the missing link between civilization and nature that he often neglected to see just how amazing the progress the boy made was. Shattuck ends the book by analyzing the work Itard did with the boy and how he could have improved this work. Shattuck also goes on to compare the case of the boy with other well known documented cases to show both how unique and how common it is.

The end of the book brings three main points from class into my mind. The first is how amazing the human brain is and how much it is able to learn even after it has stopped developing. We learned in class that at the beginning of a human life we have a huge amount of neural connections, but as we grow up these connections get revised so as to delete the unnecessary ones. However, the boy grew up in the woods and thus had to make different connections. Yet, despite this the boy was still able to make huge amounts of progress and learn things despite the opinion that he was an idiot. This part also shows the limitations of the brain as well. While the brain is able to accomplish great things, it can only work with what it has. After a point the boy stopped learning with Itard’s methods because his brain was not able make him speak or hear certain sounds. The final thing this book brings to mind is the inability people have to separate their sense of reality from others. For Itard speaking was the only way to communicate, but for the boy, there may have been other ways.

In the end, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone. Shattuck presents a very interesting case with many connections to our lives. This book allows us to see ways in which people can learn as well as the power and limitations of the human brain. I would especially recommend this book to anyone taking Neurobiology and Behavior because many points that are made in class can be related to this book, thereby enriching the book and the class experience. When I read this book I could not put it down until I finished it, and I believe that the same thing will happen to anyone else who reads this book.