Brainwashing has been presented in many science fiction films, usually as a way to get the main character to go berserk and attack their own friends. Although it’s sensationalized, brainwashing has backing in fact. Over the years, plenty of techniques have been tried. While many have failed, and some have succeeded to a certain degree, all are bizarrely, and sometimes horrifically, compelling.
The idea of brainwashing in popular culture usually includes repetition. Ideas are ground into a person and repeated monotonously, until he or she can’t think of anything else. While repetition of stimuli is a key part of brainwashing, if that were the only component in shaping one’s behavior, no one would ever exceed the speed limit and everyone would spend their income on penis enhancements. The difference between repetition and attempts at brainwashing is that in the latter, the subject loses the ability to resist and eventually comes to believe what he is told, either by loving Big Brother or conceding that there are five lights when his eyes show him four.
Brainwashing usually contains some element of punishment and reward to go along with the repetition. Confinement to an uncomfortable environment, mental alteration via sleep deprivation, and chemical alteration through diet or drugs are all tools that weaken people’s resolve and make them more susceptible to suggestion. It sounds simple, but punishment for resistance and rewards for compliance mold the behavior of everyone from lab rats to Nobel Prize winners. Everyone is susceptible, and piling up the disorienting factors leads to brainwashing.
Most pop-culture references to brainwashing spring from military situations. There’s a reason for this. Almost every military, throughout history, has used a mild form of brainwashing to build a cohesive and effective unit. The nearly mythical boot camp and training experience with shouting drill sergeants and endless physical exercise as punishment fulfills the requirements of the definition. Recruits lose their civilian sense of identity and gain a sense of themselves as part of a larger whole.
In most boot camp situations, soldiers do not lose their sense of individual identity or morality, as that kind of thought modification takes a more concentrated and extended indoctrination. To write or rewrite someone’s identity, the state needs to start young, and keep up the pressure. In movies or novels brainwashing appears to take weeks, but many societies made it a lifelong endeavor. Ancient Spartans got their reputation for single-minded military combat, as well as imperialistic tyranny, by taking their children out of home and putting them into military training as young as seven. The children were kept in barracks, and were taught that physical strength, discipline, and military prowess were the highest virtues in life. They were also taught that those who had these virtues were better than anyone else. No wonder Sparta kept the countries it had overtaken nearby enslaved for centuries.
A more modern and sinister example was the Hitler Youth. Some of those children-turned-soldiers began their training at age ten in 1933, and so by the time Germany invaded Poland, they were old enough to offer substantial support to the troops. The Hitler Youth organization was mandatory and focused on teaching children to accept the National Socialist doctrines with quasi-religious overtones regarding Hitler. The physical aspects of the training often left them exhausted. As children aged and the war went on, more training took place in encampments away from cities, with education that focused on making them good soldiers rather than intelligent citizens, and they were removed from homes and schools where they might have heard opposing points of view. As a result, many of the Hitler Youth became fanatical soldiers, fighting desperately with weaker weapons than the Allies’.
While this practice is an ancient one, the word “brainwashing” comes from more modern roots. It was coined by the CIA to explain why American prisoners of war might express sentiments that sympathized with their captors while they were detained in Korea. American soldiers taken prisoner in the Korean War were isolated, emotionally and physically abused, and threatened until they were willing to make statements saying that they had embraced communism. The attacks on their sense of self often involved telling them that they were not who they thought they were, and that the identities they claimed—man, soldier, American—were worthless. Their captors played on feelings of guilt for the things that soldiers might have done in the war and gave them the chance to “confess” their actions. Some confessed to germ warfare that they had not committed, either out of a belief that they had done it, or to avoid further retribution from their captors. The efficacy of the techniques was low in the long term, though, for when the soldiers had the chance to go home, only one in one thousand chose to stay.
One of the most highly publicized political brainwashing was the case of Patty Hearst, who at the age of nineteen was kidnapped by a left-wing militant group. She claimed that she was locked in a closet, threatened, and sexually assaulted, and given drugs. As a result of her treatment, she claimed that she sympathized with her captors and helped them rob a bank. This case of brainwashing also came with a break from the victim’s old identity. Patty Hearst famously changed her name to ‘Tania’ when she joined with her captures, signaling her new sense of self. When she was captured and tried, her lawyers argued that the isolation and abuses may have led her to believe the things she said and willingly commit crimes, but that the extensive, intentional brainwashing that she received negated any responsibility for her crimes. Due to inconsistencies in the story of her brainwashing, the court held her accountable for her actions in the bank, discounting the influence of the earlier treatment. Later, however, her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. Hearst renounced her actions after a short period away from her captors, and exactly what happened to her and how it affected her responsibility for the acts she committed remains a subject of debate to this day.
Although the idea of being brainwashed is frightening, some people voluntarily undergo brainwashing-type activities. Followers of Lyndon LaRouche, a political activist, underwent a process he called “ego-stripping” that involved emotional abuse. LaRouche wanted to make his subjects feel like there was nowhere safe for them except in his movement. People administering ego-stripping insulted and belittled their colleagues, friends, and partners on every topic they could think of. LaRouche believed, at one point, that a member of his movement had been implanted with the idea to assassinate him. He recorded his ego-stripping session with the man. The recordings of the sessions indicate that the subjects were deprived of food and receiving electric shocks, adding physical pain to the sense of isolation and worthlessness. Not only did the man confess, but large segments of Larouche’s followers claimed that they had been brainwashed by the CIA or the East German secret police and programmed to kill. None of those claims were substantiated by psychologists.
Although the thought of the CIA brainwashing members of LaRouche’s party to kill him sounds preposterous, it’s not entirely baseless. The confessions took place in the 1970s. During that period it was brought to light that the CIA was conducting extensive mind-control experiments, especially by administering drugs. Subjects were dosed with LSD, alternating doses of barbiturates and amphetamines, or pretty much anything else the CIA could get its hands on. Some of the subjects of these experiments were treated without informed consent, or often chosen to participate while engaging in illegal or embarrassing activity (like soliciting prostitution) so they weren’t likely to complain. Other experiments involved dosing subjects into a paralytic coma for months at a time. While many people sustained long-term physical and mental damage from the treatments, none of the documents yet released show any indication that a psychologically healthy individual could have his motivations rewritten by LSD or other therapies. Of all the ways there are to re-write the human brain, the track taken by the most high-tech spy agency have so far proven the least effective.
Science fiction paints a portrait of brainwashing techniques focusing on breaking down one’s mind, primarily using sudden changes of mental ability due to dramatic and brutal techniques that look good on a page or onscreen. In fact, the most effective brainwashing techniques are a daily grind done over a long period of time. In a way, that’s more terrifying than any fiction could portray.
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