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Is Brainwashing Possible?

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

An article in Science makes the following assertion “The human mind can be controlled using psychological techniques, though psychologists disagree about the extent to which a person can be brainwashed.” Known variously as “coercive persuasion,” “mental depatterning,” or “thought reform,” the concept of “brainwashing” has a somewhat lurid reputation that has been fostered by fictional treatments.

Brainwashing is “a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas.”

Merriam-Webster

Forced Confessions

In the 1930s, people that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin deemed to be enemies were paraded in public to confess to crimes they had not committed. One such victim was Georgy Pyatakov, a leader of the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1937, he told a court in Moscow “Here I stand before you in filth, crushed by my own crimes, bereft of everything through my own fault, a man who has lost his Party, who has no friends, who has lost his family, who has lost his very self.”

He was found guilty of a variety of crimes against the Soviet Union and executed.

Pyatakov's groveling apology and those of others in the show trials are sometimes held up as examples of brainwashing; but is it? Stalin's thugs were fond of using torture to extract confessions—coercive persuasion. Does that qualify as brainwashing? It's well established that people subjected to torture will say anything to stop the pain.

During the Korean War (1950-53) stories emerged of American prisoners of war being subjected to brainwashing by their Chinese and North Korean captors. A few soldiers falsely confessed to using biological weapons while expressing sympathy for Communism. The North Koreans used brutality on their prisoners while the Chinese employed indoctrination and interrogation.

Following the war, the U.S. Army investigated the allegations of brainwashing. Its 1956 report, Exploitation of Prisoners of War, called the concept a “popular misconception” and added that after “exhaustive research of several government agencies failed to reveal even one conclusively documented case of 'brainwashing' of an American prisoner of war in Korea.”

U.S. POWs in Korea. Of the 11,500 Americans held captive during the Korean War, many of whom were subjected to indoctrination, 21 defected to China or North Korea.

U.S. POWs in Korea. Of the 11,500 Americans held captive during the Korean War, many of whom were subjected to indoctrination, 21 defected to China or North Korea.

Government Brainwashing Experiments

Writing for Psyche, psychiatrist Dr. Joel E Dimsdale notes that “Throughout the 20th century, governments invested heavily in research on coercive persuasion. Government agencies, foundations, and universities collaborated on extensive studies of the use of drugs to change behaviour or extract information.”

This is where we meet Dr. Ewen Cameron, a disgrace to the psychiatric profession. Working on a covert contract for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Cameron conducted brainwashing experiments at McGill University in Montreal in the 1950s and '60s. It was part of a 20-year project of the CIA called MKULTRA that was aimed at developing mind control techniques using psychological manipulation and drugs.

Under the guise of treating patients with schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression, Cameron developed a three-stage program aimed at wiping their brains clear of mental illness and then reprogramming them.

  • Stage one involved putting patients into a drug-induced coma that lasted up to 86 days;
  • Stage two was the use of high-voltage electroshock therapies three times daily; and,
  • Stage three is described by the Alliance for Human Research Protection (AHRP) as putting the person “in isolated confinement, in LSD altered states of consciousness, and deprived of sensory stimulation, adequate food, water, and oxygen, the subject would be bombarded by 'psychic driving' by use of a football helmet clamped to the head with taped messages played for hours non-stop up to a half-million times” dictating behavioural changes.

Did Cameron's brutal regimen work? AHRP gives us the answer: “Cameron’s techniques have no therapeutic validity whatsoever . . . ” The experiments were conducted without the informed consent of patients and resulted in some of them being mentally debilitated for the rest of their lives.

Did the MKULTRA program yield any useful knowledge about brainwashing before it was shut down in 1973? We'll never know unless someone inside the CIA leaks the information.

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Cult Membership

People join cults such as Heaven's Gate, the People's Temple, and Branch Davidians voluntarily, usually because they are looking for something to believe in or because they need to have a feeling of belonging.

Some cults are relatively harmless and provide members with the psychological support they are looking for, others, called destructive or totalist cults, are deeply malevolent.

Returning to Dr. Dimsdale, he says that with totalist cults “initiation ceremonies are sometimes held after a period of sleep deprivation. When sleep is curtailed, judgment deteriorates and people become more suggestible.” Other controlling techniques that are sometimes used by these cults are:

  • Encouraging behaviour that might make the person feel guilty;
  • Clandestine application of drugs; and,
  • Curtailing freedom.

A strong sense of dependence on the cult is created, but is it brainwashing?

Writing for howstuffworks.com, Julia Layton notes that “A destructive (or totalist) cult exploits its members' vulnerability in order to gain complete control over them, often using unethical psychological techniques to bring about thought reform.”

Such cults cannot exist without a charismatic leader who has the persuasive ability to make people follow him without question, to the point of killing themselves.

That sounds a lot like brainwashing.

Professor Melissa Burkley looked at how Keith Raniere used relatively simple psychological tricks to coax people into his sex cult, Nxivm. For Psychology Today she writes that “He certainly had a good grasp of how to use basic psychology against people in order to get them to comply. And, despite what we tell ourselves, we are all vulnerable to manipulation via these basic psychological principles.”

Could this happen to any of us?

Could this happen to any of us?

Mass Delusion or Brainwashing

There is overwhelming evidence that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was free, fair, and open. There is zero evidence the election was fraudulent and stolen from Donald Trump. Yet, a January 2022 poll carried out by Axios-Momentive found that 40 percent of those surveyed (102 million people of voting age) believe that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the election.

Bonus Factoids

  • Edward Hunter was a propagandist with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. He is credited with creating the word “brainwashing” in 1950 when bogus confessions were made Western prisoners of war held by China.
  • In 1955, the Central Intelligence Agency ran Operation Midnight Climax as part of its brainwashing experiments. It involved hiring prostitutes who would bring their clients back to a CIA safe house. There, the men would unknowingly be slipped LSD in a drink and taken to a bedroom equipped with a two-way mirror. CIA agents sitting behind the mirror to observe the action concluded that a good time to extract secrets from a subject was immediately after sex.
  • The Manchurian Candidate was a 1959 novel, later a movie, in which the central character, an American, is captured by the Soviet Union and brainwashed into becoming an assassin in his native country. Inspired by the story, Israel's spy agency Mossad tried to reproduce the same thing in real life. They attempted to brainwash a Palestinian prisoner into assassinating the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat. They smuggled the would-be assassin, known only as Fatkhi, into Palestinian territory and waited for news of Arafat's murder. However, Fatkhi only pretended to have been brainwashed and went straight to a police station to tell his story of how Mossad had tried to dupe him.

Sources

  • “How Brainwashing Works.” Julia Layton & Alia Hoyt, science.com, October 4, 2021.
  • “North Korean Brainwashing During Korean War.” archive.org, undated.
  • “1950s–1960s: Dr. Ewen Cameron Destroyed Minds at Allan Memorial Hospital in Montreal.” Alliance for Human Research Protection, January 18, 2015.
  • “Brainwashing Has a Grim History that We Shouldn’t Dismiss.” Joel E. Dimsdale, Psyche, November 24, 2021.
  • “How Cults Work.” Julia Layton, howstuffworks.com,
  • “3 Psychological Principles Nxivm Used to Brainwash Its Members.” Melissa Burkley, Psychology Today, November 18, 2020.
  • “More than 40% in US Do not Believe Biden Legitimately Won Election – Poll.” Maya Yang, The Guardian, January 5, 2020.
  • “Rise And Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations.” Ronen Bergman, John Murray Publishing, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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