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Brainwashing—A Bubbe-meise?

Joel E. Dimsdale—

When I tell people I am interested in brainwashing, I get mixed responses. “Isn’t that kind of a stale, musty topic—Communists, bad science, and all that stuff?” That’s fair: brainwashing has some of those characteristics. It is an old phenomenon, linked to religious conversion and torture. It certainly rose to prominence in the context of the Cold War, and there was plenty of bad science (and unscrupulous scientists) involved in its development.

But that is only a piece of the picture. Brainwashing is a type of persuasion accomplished through force. It is not simply forced behavior or confession, but rather an indoctrination or forced change in belief. The nature of that “force” has a peculiar history that emerged in the twentieth century. 

Lenin met with the Nobel laureate Ivan Pavlov to ask his help in modifying the Russian people’s behavior to conform with Communist ideology. Pavlov replied that behavioral conditioning could help surmount the past, and the Communists handsomely bankrolled him subsequently. “Handsomely” does not begin to capture the extent of their support; they built him an Institute and funded 357 assistants to help with his research on sleep, drugs, and behavior. But it was the flooding of the Neva River which gave Pavlov insights about the foundational effects of trauma on behavior. When the river inundated Pavlov’s dog labs and almost drowned his caged dogs, Pavlov observed that his dogs were never the same—they forgot their learned behaviors, and the trauma changed their dispositions. Building on such insights and his enormous patience, his conditioning experiments were so meticulously effective that he could train a dog to respond to a tone of “c” but not “c#.”

Rightfully or wrongfully, the ghost of Pavlov has been invoked in most instances of brainwashing in the twentieth century—the confessions of the Old Bolsheviks during Stalin’s Show Trials, the defections of American prisoners of war during the Korean War, occurrences of the Stockholm syndrome, and various horrific cults like Jonestown. Governments across the world experimented with drugs to enhance interrogation and compel the truth. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and neurologists were at the forefront of research on coercive persuasion. Some were brilliant and some were rogues, but their insights suggest that there are common circumstances which render human beings more malleable. Sleep disruption, stress, isolation, and surreptitious group pressures are key ingredients employed in brainwashing.

The term “brainwashing” is so flamboyant and its contours so hazy that many people disparaged it as a bubbe-meise.  With the insurrection of January 6, 2021, the popularity of QAnon and the anti-vaxxers, we have come to the rueful understanding that persuasion techniques can be used by groups to promote all sorts of beliefs. Meanwhile, the tools of brainwashing evolve and offer ways of amplifying such persuasion. Between advances in neuroscience and developments in social media, the capabilities of coercive persuasion are dramatically expanding. 

George Orwell soberly observed, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” From my point of view, we cannot ignore the potential developments of brainwashing in the 21st century. But I do believe we have a choice. We need to consider how brainwashing developed in the 20th century to prepare ourselves for the new century. And we need to listen to H.G. Wells who warned that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” We are in such a race now. It is up to us to define the future contours of dark persuasion.

Joel E. Dimsdale is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry at University of California, San Diego. He consults widely to government agencies and is the author of numerous other works, including Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals. He lives in San Diego, CA.

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