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What is Brainwashing?

The following is a transcript of this video.

In 1950, with the support of China’s Communist regime, North Korea invaded South Korea to instigate the Korean War. In response to the invasion, the United Nations rallied troops from over 20 countries to fight in support of South Korea. The United States, who at the time occupied South Korea and was its main source of financial and military support, sent 300 000 troops – which amounted to approximately 90% of the total troops organized by the UN.

Soon after joining the war, the United States began to notice that something very strange was happening. Upon being released from prisoner of war camps, many American troops, instead of telling horrific tales their times spent with the communists, preached the virtues of Communism and the superiority of the Communist way of life.

Dumbfounded as to how the Chinese were able to transform these previously patriotic citizens into preaching Communists, the US government called on CIA operative Edward Hunter to investigate the phenomenon. Hunter coined the word brainwashing to describe what the Chinese were doing to the captured American troops. In his book Brainwashing, Hunter painted a harrowing picture, explaining that the Chinese were using brainwashing in order to create a ‘slave race’:

“The intent is to change a mind radically so that its owner becomes a living puppet – a human robot – without the atrocity being visible from the outside. The aim is to create a mechanism in flesh and blood, with new beliefs and new thought processes inserted into a captive body. What that amounts to is the search for a slave race that, unlike the slaves of olden times, can be trusted never to revolt, always to be amenable to orders, like an insect to its instincts.” (Edward Hunter, Brainwashing)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines brainwashing as “The systematic and often forcible elimination from a person’s mind of more established ideas…so that another set of ideas may take their place.” According to this definition, brainwashing can be described as the purposeful attempt to change an individual’s ideas and beliefs. However, since everyone is bombarded on a daily basis with attempts to change their beliefs, brainwashing must be identified as a radical or extreme attempt to change an individual’s beliefs and ideas.

As Kathleen Taylor pointed out in her book Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, the extremity of brainwashing can be elucidated by identifying two distinct characteristics unique to the victim of brainwashing.

Firstly, one who is brainwashed adopts new beliefs and ideas that are drastically different from, and often completely antithetical to, their previous beliefs. Secondly, the brainwashed victim doesn’t adopt these new beliefs gradually over a period of months or years, but instead in a very short time span – and a lot of the time even instantaneously.

The 20th century British psychiatrist William Sargant noted that when contemplating the phenomenon of brainwashing, he came upon a stunning idea. Sargant hypothesized that the victim brainwashed for political purposes is no different in kind from the therapy patient whose beliefs are radically changed by a therapist or from the religious convert who is suddenly ‘shown the light’ by a priest. All three individuals undergo a ‘sudden conversion’, and thus, Sargant reasoned, all three cases must be capable of being rendered intelligible by the same underlying physiological and psychological processes.

Assuming the truth of Sargant’s hypothesis, the quest to understand how an individual can be brainwashed for political purposes becomes a much broader and more important quest: it becomes the quest to understand how ordinary individuals can be convinced by therapists, priests, politicians, or whomever else, to radically and instantaneously transform not only their deepest beliefs and ingrained attitudes, but their very identity and way of life.

In dwelling on this question, Sargant found the work of the 20th century Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov especially enlightening. Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for his research on the physiology of digestion, but later in his life he turned his attention to study the nervous system of animals. Such research in fact directly influenced the brainwashing techniques utilized by the Russians and Chinese in the 20th century.

In the experiment which interested Sargant, Pavlov imposed extreme physical and emotional stresses on a number of dogs. Pavlov observed that eventually, when enough stress had been imposed on a dog, it would collapse in a state of hysteria. Unable to handle the overwhelming stress, the dog’s brain would become inhibited and would ‘shut down’, rendering the dog temporarily incapacitated.

Interestingly, Palov noted that if the breakdown was severe enough, any behavior which he had previously conditioned into the dog disappeared. Moreover, if he attempted to condition a new behavior in the dog shortly after the breakdown occurred, he observed that the newly conditioned behavior became deeply embedded in the dog’s nervous system, and was subsequently very difficult to remove.

Upon reading of Pavlov’s experiment, Sargant immediately grasped its significance with respect to the question which plagued his mind: 

“The possible relevance of these experiments to sudden religious and political conversion should be obvious even to the most skeptical: Pavlov has shown by repeated and repeatable experiment just how a dog, like a man, can be conditioned to hate what it previously loved, and love what it previously hated. Similarly, one set of behavior patterns in man can be temporarily replaced by another that altogether contradicts it; not by persuasive indoctrination alone, but also by imposing intolerable strains on a normally functioning brain.” (William Sargant, Battle for the Mind)

In inducing a sudden conversion, be it for political or religious purposes, the key is, as Sargant noted, to impose “intolerable strains on a normally functioning brain”. Such intolerable strains are effectively produced by stimulating intense emotions within an individual, until the brain becomes overloaded and breaks down in a state of hysteria. As Pavlov’s experiment showed, once such a breakdown has occurred the individual will be left in a state of high suggestibility. Ready to release all previous beliefs and emotional identifications. In other words, such a person will be primed to accept new ideas, beliefs, and even a new way of life.

The 20th century philosopher William James also identified intense emotional experiences as extremely effective in inducing sudden conversions:

Emotional occasions, especially violent ones, are extremely potent in precipitating mental rearrangements. The sudden and explosive ways in which love, jealousy, guilt, fear, remorse or anger can seize upon one are known to everybody. Hope, happiness, security, resolve, emotions characteristic of conversion, can be equally explosive. And emotions that come in this explosive way seldom leave things as they found them.” (William James)

Nearly 200 years before Pavlov conducted his experiments – which would display to modern brainwashers the importance of stimulating intense emotions in their victim – John Wesley, an Anglican cleric and founder of the Methodist Movement, intuitively grasped the importance of stimulating emotions in the proselytizing process.

In his sermons, Wesley would convince the audience that on the off-chance they met their end suddenly without accepting the Lord into their life, they would burn in hell for eternity. Wesley’s personality was so charismatic and his sermons so convincing that he was able to stimulate in his audience an intense sense of fear and anxiety. Overloaded with emotional stress caused by envisioning eternal hellfire, many in Wesley’s audience would literally collapse in a state of emotional exhaustion. As Wesley wrote in his Journals:

“While I was speaking one before me dropped down as dead, and presently a second and a third. Five others sunk down in half an hour, most of whom were in violent agonies. The “pains” as “of hell came about them, the snares of death overtook them”.”

After breaking down from emotional exhaustion, those in Wesley’s audience became highly suggestible. Wesley took advantage of this state by offering his potential converts the possibility of saving their soul by walking the path to salvation. As he wrote:

“In their trouble we called upon the Lord, and He gave us an answer of peace. One indeed continued an hour in strong pain, and one or two more for three days; but the rest were greatly comforted in that hour, and went away rejoicing and praising God.” [Wesley’s Journal volume 2].

Through this technique of emotionally debilitating individuals with fear and then offering them salvation, Wesley was able to obtain innumerable converts.

While the inducement of emotional collapse can be used by political and religious leaders for the purpose of brainwashing individuals or attaining converts, emotional breakdowns had potential therapeutic value. As a psychiatrist, Sargant championed the technique of purposely stimulating feelings of anger and anxiety in neurotic patients until an emotional collapse erased from their nervous system the neurotic thoughts and behaviors which had previously plagued them.

However, while such a technique can be used for therapeutic purposes, Sargant recognized that in the wrong hands such a technique is used to control, manipulate, and exploit individuals. And in the hands of those who lead society and thus have power over the population, it can be a tool used for the purpose of ‘mass brainwashing’.

Throughout history, fear has been used as possibly the chief means of social control. The Nazis readily instigated fear among the masses, continually stating that the Jews would, given the chance, annihilate the entire German population. For example, Hitler once warned the German people that “The Jewish-capitalist world enemy that confronts us has only one goal: to exterminate Germany and the German people.”

In the modern day things have not changed. Modern governments release daily reports of grave threats to ‘national security’, or of potential terrorists conjuring up plans to destroy us all. President George Bush once instilled fear into the population with the following warning: “The terrorists’ directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans, and make no distinctions among military and civilians, including women and children.”

The purpose of these warnings and daily news reports is to instill in the average citizen a state of continual fear. This state of fear, as we have seen throughout the lecture, renders the average citizen highly suggestible, and increasingly ready to accept any government policy which promises him safety from these dreadful threats. H.L. Mencken wrote that:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

Although we are all bombarded with attempts to transform us into continually fearful, anxious, and thus highly suggestible ‘sheep’, Sargant had some wisdom to impart to us. When subjected to these fear provoking ‘news reports’ and warnings of enemies who want to kill us all, Sargant stated that the best attitude to adopt is not fear, anger, or indignation, but instead indifference mixed with a bit of laughter over the ridiculousness of such attempts:

“Whoever can be roused either to fear or anger by politician, priest or policeman, is more easily led to accept the desired pattern of “co-operation”, even though this may violate his normal judgment. The obstacles that the religious or political proselytizer cannot overcome are indifference or detached, controlled and continued amusement on the part of the subject at the efforts being made to break him down, or win him over, or tempt him into argument. The safety of the free world seems therefore to lie in the cultivation not only of courage, moral virtue and logic, but of humor: humor which produces the well-balanced state in which emotional excess is laughed at as ugly and wasteful. (Battle for the Mind)

Further Readings