Trained in neuropsychology, Stephan Chorover raised his voice early on to caution against the use of brain surgery to change behavior, partly because such operations in their experimental phases were performed on vulnerable patient populations, including the poor and imprisoned.
"I think it is unjustifiable to alter portions of the human brain because it is impossible to do so without side effects," he told the Globe in 1973 during an interview about a proposed state law to ban experimental neurosurgery on prison inmates. "Psychosurgery is only the cutting edge of a wide variety of new technologies where doctors fail to report on the negative and untoward effects of their procedures."
In his writings and in the classroom, Dr. Chorover encouraged scientists and students to look closely at the wider social context of current and historical attempts to control behavior, and he offered sharp criticisms in his 1979 book "From Genesis to Genocide: The Meaning of Human Nature and the Power of Behavior Control."
"The story of psychotechnology, from genesis to genocide, is a tale of manifold superstitions and cruelties, of meanings invented, fostered, and propagated for their ability to excuse the exercise of power in ways that would otherwise be inexcusable," he wrote.
Dr. Chorover, one of the founding faculty members of what is now the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died Feb. 20 in his Jamaica Plain home of complications from bladder cancer and peripheral artery disease. He was 82 and previously lived in Brookline for many years.
Even the basic process of defining social problems that can be addressed by psychotechnology "reflects the interests and objectives of individuals and institutions holding political power," he wrote.
For example, he wrote, "throughout history, one group's doctrines have been another group's heresies, and behavior viewed as senselessly violent from one perspective may be seen as 'heroic resistance' from another. Thus, when repression is organized and carried out by those who claim legitimate authority, the activity may be labeled 'peacekeeping' and officially praised."
Dr. Chorover added that "the power of labeling is so strong that official violence is frequently redefined to make it appear correct, necessary, and just." He conceded that he had not always paid close attention to the political context of research and academic inquiry.
"My own earlier failure to consider the links between behavioral science and public policy was not the result of political naivete," he wrote in his book. "On the contrary, I was raised in a socially conscious and politically aware family and have generally maintained an active interest in public affairs outside my scientific and professional life. But I was trained, as most scientists are, to draw a sharp dividing line between the scholarly and social aspects of my own existence, and it has not been easy to overcome this false dichotomy."
An only child, Dr. Chorover grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. His mother, whose parents were from Austria, was a legal secretary. His father, a Russian immigrant, moved from job to job, including working in factories and on the docks.
That rootlessness prompted Dr. Chorover to seek stability. He arrived at MIT at the beginning of the 1960s and remained there the rest of his career. "My dad has said he thinks the fact that his father never really held a job for very long caused a lot of stress and anxiety for his mom," said Dr. Chorover's son, Jon of Tucson. "That's one of the reasons he arrived at MIT when he was 29 years old and never left. He was somewhat the opposite. He got a job and stayed his whole life."
At key points while growing up, Dr. Chorover heeded advice that led him into his academic career. An eighth-grade teacher advised him to take the entry exam for the Bronx High School of Science, where another teacher suggested he attend City College of New York. Dr. Chorover worked in a metal die factory by day and attended City College at night, and after graduating went to New York University, where he received a doctorate in neuropsychology.
Among his mentors during his NYU years was Hans-Lukas Teuber, who was prominent in the development of neuropsychology. When Teuber founded what was then called MIT's department of psychology, he recruited Dr. Chorover to join the faculty.
While still in college in New York, Dr. Chorover met Bea Feinstein. As he later told the story of meeting her, he was underneath a Ford doing repairs and heard "a voice with incredible legs." They married in 1964.
She was a social worker and he wrote a preface that "Beatrice is responsible for many of the ideas" in his book. "In particular I owe to her the notion that behavior is meaningful only in terms of its context. Her love has been my context and my contentment. Her presence is on every page."
The Chorovers "had a really wonderful marriage," said their daughter Katya of Cortez, Colo. "They were very committed and loved each other very, very much."
For many years, the family rented summer vacation houses on Mount Desert Island in Maine. Eventually, Dr. Chorover and his wife bought land there and designed and built their own house. They divided their time between that residence and a condo in Jamaica Plain after selling their Brookline home.
While in Maine, Katya said, Dr. Chorover "would get up before dawn and write for a few hours," and then would spend time on the water, sit with a book in the Adirondack chairs he had built, and converse with others.
"He was somebody who really helped people to open up and talk about themselves," she said. "He wanted to hear what people had to say and what they thought."
A service has been held for Dr. Chorover, who in addition to his wife, daughter, and son leaves another daughter, Nora of Jamaica Plain, and four grandchildren.
Though Dr. Chorover retired in 1998, he continued to teach classes in social psychology and aspects of feeling for another 15 years.
"When he retired, I think he initially was at a little bit of a loss for what to do with himself," his son said. "He often spoke about how his work gave his life a lot of its meaning. My impression is that he was always happiest when he was teaching."
Dr. Chorover was constantly busy, even in Maine. "He loved to get his hands dirty," Katya said. "The quintessential images of him are mucking around, either maintaining something or fixing something. He was very much a tinkerer, like his dad, constantly fixing things.''