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Brainwashing is any form of mental conditioning under torture, starvation, sleep deprivation, hypnosis or social pressure to coerce a person either to make propaganda statements or to perform some other act not in keeping with one's loyalties or moral code.

History of the term

The first modern use of the word was by CIA operative Edgar Hunter. He used it to describe "re-education" or rectification practices used on prisoners of war by the Communist Chinese during the Korean War.[1] The chief concern was that seventy percent of American prisoners of war had confessed to various activities, including without limitation the use of biological agents, that fall under the category of "war crimes." Another fifteen percent collaborated actively with their captors, and only five percent resisted to the end. All prisoners had been subject to often brutal interrogation techniques, including sleep deprivation.

Acceptance of the term in American English was not without controversy; many people, and especially World War II veterans, did not believe such a thing was scientifically possible, and that POWs alleged to have been "brainwashed" were simple weakminded traitors. Since then, other terms to describe similar phenomena have entered into the medical and psychiatric lexicon, such as Stockholm Syndrome.

Marks reports that the CIA attempted to develop a brainwashing technique of their own. After years of experimentation, they concluded that no reliable method existed to make anyone do or say anything he would not otherwise want to do, except that months of the brutal regimen in Soviet or Chinese gulags would be sufficient to cause a prisoner to say or do anything to bring the ordeal to an end. Marks also notes that British and other allied prisoners did not confess or collaborate in such large numbers.[2]

Allegations of techniques for impressing an idea or a command on the subconscious mind arguably date back to the Crusades. Specifically, the Nizari Ismailis, under the leadership of Hassan-e Sabbah, gained a reputation for secret murder against the enemies of Shi'a Islam. Marco Polo and others alleged that the operatives of this sect that committed these murders did so while under the influence of hashish, administered to them in a training facility that was part barracks, part bordello. Thus this sect gained the Arabic name hashishiyyim, or hashshasheen, which in Vulgar Latin became asesini, or Assassins in English.[3][4][5]

The term later appeared in the context of religious conversion to the Unification Church, and the controversial services of Ted Patrick, who called himself a "deprogrammer." However, an investigation by the American Psychological Association in the 1980s ended with the conclusion that "mind control" (as applied to religious conversion of volunteers) was not a scientifically viable theory.[6]

The concept in detail

See also: Cancel culture

Robert Jay Lifton studied former American POWs from the Korean War and published a description of the specific techniques used on them. He said that all prisoners who made confessions to imagined war crimes had undergone the following stages in their conditioning:

  1. Assault on identity
  2. Guilt
  3. Self-betrayal
  4. Breaking point
  5. Leniency
  6. Compulsion to confess
  7. Channeling of guilt
  8. Releasing of guilt
  9. Progress and harmony
  10. Final confession and rebirth[7]

The CIA studied the use of hypnosis as a technique either of interrogation or of strengthening resistance to interrogation. The CIA concluded that hypnosis was not a reliable interrogation technique. Nor did the CIA have any confidence that a hypnotized subject could perform an action under a post-hypnotic suggestion. But at the time of the writing of this paper, the authors stated that further research was indicated. Whether such research was ever conducted is unclear.[8]

Tellingly, the CIA paper made reference to a number of papers asserting that hypnotized subjects could be induced to commit anti-social, self-destructive, or criminal acts.[9][10]

Today the United States Navy routinely trains its pilot officer candidates to resist harsh interrogation. The candidate simulates an emergency parachute landing behind enemy lines, and is ordered to attempt to evade capture, accept capture once it becomes inevitable, and endure a regimen of systematic abuse meant to approximate the abuse meted out to captured American pilots during the Korean War and the Vietnam War.[11]

References in popular culture

The Manchurian Candidate

The most thoroughgoing mention of brainwashing in popular culture was The Manchurian Candidate.[12][13] This was also the most controversial such mention, because the theme involved inducing a person not only to confess to a crime he had not committed, but to commit murder on command and then forget that he had done so.

The fictional technique, which no one has been able to replicate, was described only as "part light-induced, part drug-induced." The character of the psychiatrist in charge of the brainwashing program cites the Brenman and Wells papers also cited by the CIA in its study of hypnosis in interrogation.[9][10] This indicates the extraordinary depth of research conducted either by Richard Condon, the original novelist, or by George Axelrod, author of the treatment and script.

Remarkably, the premise of the film was that not only did the Communist psychiatrists hypnotize one man among several prisoners to be a conscienceless killer, but they also induced his fellow prisoners to plant a false story portraying him as a hero, and to repeat monotonously that they found him

the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I have ever met in my life

This although the character involved was in fact cold, spiteful, and misanthropic.

But the film also suggests that any such conditioning might unravel under a stress that proves too great for the conditioning to override. In the film, the hypnotized assassin shoots and kills his father-in-law, and then shoots the wife he had married only days before. The simple shock of that loss causes him to remember at least bits and pieces of the truth, though only in strange and frightening dreams. More to the point, his former commanding officer and another surviving ex-prisoner start to remember the truth in their dreams—because the enemy psychiatrists had perhaps neglected the conditioning of the survivors, or perhaps simply overestimated the power of their own technique. The former officer is then able to override the conditioning and learn the full particulars.

In short, the Communist psychiatrists depicted in this film make three key mistakes, all of which contribute to the failure of their plan:

  1. They hypnotize the subject's fellow prisoners to say nice things about him, but never bother to hypnotize the subject to "remember" that those same people considered him a friend.
  2. They never follow up on the conditioning of the other prisoners, with the result that those prisoners begin to remember, at first only in their dreams, a real sequence of events vastly and critically different from the sequence that they were ordered to "remember."
  3. The American operator gives the subject an assignment that involves killing someone he loves. The stress of that loss alone causes his own conditioning to break down and prompts him to turn for help to his former commanding officer, who by now knows the truth.

The shortcomings depicted in that film are consistent with the realization that the CIA eventually found themselves unable to develop a reliable technique for interrogation under hypnosis. To date the records of the United States Army, and those of the other armed services, contain no known instance of a former prisoner of war who carried out an act of war against the United States upon a command given as a post-hypnotic suggestion.


In the 1985 film, Volunteers John Candy portrays a comedic sketch of an American who is captured and brainwashed.[14]

The Family Man

In the more modern motion picture The Family Man, a young woman pleads with her father, "Promise you won't kidnap me and my brother and plant stuff in our brains?" [15]

See also

External links


  1. Hunter E, "'Brain-Washing' Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party," Miami News, September 24, 1950. Cited by John Marks, "The Search for the Manchurian Candidate", ch. 8 ("Brainwashing"), in The Psychedelic Library. <>
  2. Marks J, "The Search for the Manchurian Candidate", ch. 8 ("Brainwashing"), in The Psychedelic Library. Accessed April 8, 2009. <>
  3. Kjeilen, Tore, "Assassins," Encyclopedia of the Orient, 1996. Accessed April 8, 2009. <>
  4. Zalman A, "Assassins (Hashishiyyin) (Persia & Syria, 11th-12th Century)",, n.d. Accessed April 8, 2009. <>
  5. "Assassin", The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911. Quoted entirely by M. Snell at Accessed April 8, 2009. <>
  6. Molko and Leal v. Unification Church, brief amicus curiae of the American Psychiatric Association, No. SF 25038, Court of Appeal No. A020935, San Francisco Superior Court No. 769-529. Hosted at Center for Studies of New Religions. Accessed April 8, 2009. <>
  7. Layton J, "How Brainwashing Works", Accessed April 8, 2009. <>
  8. "Hypnosis in Interrogation", Central Intelligence Agency. Approved for release per CIA Historical Review Program, September 22, 1993. <>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Brenman, M. Experiments in the hypnotic production of anti-social and self-injurious behavior. Psychiatry, 1942, 5, 49-61.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Wells, W. R. Experiments in the hypnotic production of crime. J. Psychol., 1941, 11, 63-102.
  11. Dallas, David K., Ensign, USNR; personal interview; ca. 1984.
  12. The Manchurian Candidate, dir. John Frankenheimer, with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Khigh Dhiegh, United Artists, 1962.
  13. "The story was about a joint Soviet-Chinese plot to take an American soldier captured in Korea, condition him at a special brainwashing center located in Manchuria, and create a remote-controlled assassin who was supposed to kill the President of the United States." The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control, by John Marks
  15. The Family Man at the Internet Movie Database. <>