Brainwashing and coercive control

September 25, 2012 at 10:58 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Cover of Brainwashing

I was recently asked, again, about the definition of brainwashing. The context was a brief discussion — on UK Radio Four’s Today programme — about the Moonies, whose leader had expired a few days earlier. Was what the Moonies did brainwashing?

Well, you tell me what you mean by brainwashing, and I’ll tell you.

If you’re thinking ‘Manchurian Candidate‘, with mysterious tech making zombies of people, no, we can’t do that. Yet. With neuroscience, never say never, but to date, I don’t know of any practical technology. (My new book, The Brain Supremacy, looks at potential developments.)

And there have been attempts, because mind control is a very desirable goal for some people. Maybe all of us in our darker moments, if we’re honest. After all, aren’t great wealth and status good techniques for bending people to our will, and who hasn’t, on occasion, longed for those? Being rich provides insulation against the annoying agency of other humans.

If you’re thinking of brainwashing as extreme psychology, that’s more like it. Brainwashing isn’t magic. It’s the appliance of science — using coercive control to manipulate human brains indirectly, via the stimuli that reach them. Isolating the victim, controlling what they get to see, hear, and do, raising uncertainty about former beliefs, repeating the new ones over and over again, and using strong emotions, often in a group setting.

It’s by no means perfect. The effects can be startling, but are often only temporary — once back in its former environment, a person’s brain can often quickly readapt. It’s hard to inflict enough change, in a short time, to override the habits of years. Plenty of people left the Moonies, as my co-discussant on the programme, Eileen Barker, pointed out. (She also objected to the term ‘brainwashing’, but that battle I fear has long been lost.)

Yet the Moonies aren’t a good example for showing just how powerful coercive control techniques can be. They live among the rest of us, and their ability to isolate and control people is therefore not so great. Look at a cult like Jonestown, fatally alone in the Guyanan jungle, and you start to see the appalling power of ‘ordinary’ psychology, taken to the extremes of psychological torture.

Brainwashing is just that. The techniques work because of how the brain works: because it is so flexible and responsive, always monitoring its environment and reacting to new stimuli, constantly updating internal ‘models’ of reality. When the patterns of neural activity which encode beliefs, thoughts and impressions are not triggered by some input, they are not as ‘real’ for the person as those patterns which are currently active. They don’t contribute to decision making and behaviour. If you never think about something — or someone — because you are always doing and thinking something else, that thing or person will become less real to you.

No need for a pill (although mind-altering drugs are sometimes used) or a machine (although that may yet happen). Brainwashing uses methods evolved, over centuries, by people seeking to dominate other people. Imperfect they may be, but they can still do phenomenal amounts of harm.


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  1. […] I know those techniques. I wrote about them in my first book, Brainwashing. (For a brief description, see my earlier post.) […]

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