Brainwash: Power, paranoia and our fevered imaginations

BRAINWASH: The Secret History of Mind Control [Order from Amazon UK | Order from Amazon USA]
by Dominic Streatfeild
Hodder £20 pp440

“Brainwashing paranoia,” writes Dominic Streatfeild, “is horribly contagious.”

The term brainwashing was invented in 1950 by the journalist Edward Hunter in an article in the Miami Daily News. It seems to have come from the Chinese xi-nao or “mind cleanse”, a sort of Mutt and Jeff routine used by the communists to convince doubters of the wonders of the revolution.

The word caught on. Indeed, as Streatfeild shows in this marvellously engrossing book, it caught on to the extent of creating the phenomenon it aspired to describe. Brainwashing was to become one of the great paranoid mythologies of the cold-war years. It survives today in the desperate explanations offered by western secularists to explain the actions of suicide bombers. But, in fact, it is no more than a consoling myth. “Brainwashing eliminates the need for complicated explanations that involve research, analysis or thinking. It makes complicated situations simple. And because of that it makes us feel better.” Brainwashing, argues Streatfeild, can’t, for the moment at least, be done and has never been done. His case is pretty much overwhelming. This book is a series of wonderfully detailed and cleverly told stories, each of which debunks the brainwashing myth.

The myth really began with the Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38, in which members of Stalin’s inner circle appeared in court to confess to improbable crimes of which they were not guilty and to demand the death sentence for themselves. These were followed by the post-war trial in Hungary of Cardinal Mindszenty when a brave dissident was transformed, by the time of his court appearance, into a meek penitent. The obvious explanation was that all these people had been tortured and/or intimidated to the point where confession seemed the easiest or possibly even the safest option. Indeed, Mindszenty seemed to be secretly signalling the absurdity of his confession to the outside world. But more exotic explanations were sought. These people had not been intimidated, they had been changed. They were, in some deep sense, different people. Their brains had been washed.

This idea had its roots in a range of variously deluded scientific hypotheses, the primary one being behaviourism. Streatfeild calls this “the science of predicting and controlling human behaviour”. This, however, is oddly inadequate. Behaviourism was, in fact, predicated on the conviction that internal mind states are irrelevant, and all behaviour is the product of external forces. Change the forces, therefore, and you change the person.

This is palpable nonsense, a fantasy generated by semantics rather than science, but people believed it because, at the time, they were ready to believe anything. Technology — crucially, nuclear weapons — seemed to be running out of control. And, if we could create these superbombs by tinkering with the ultimate constituents of matter, then why shouldn’t the Soviets, the Chinese or the Koreans create controllable zombies by tinkering with their minds?

The conviction that this was possible was rapidly reinforced by John Frankenheimer’s superb 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate (as opposed to the dismal remake in 2004) and by various po-faced psychologists and doctors pursuing their own crazed, incoherent extrapolation of materialism. So, just as one side of cold-war paranoia had made people see flying saucers everywhere, so another side made them see brainwashing.

Streatfeild’s stories are either laughable or tragic tales of human incompetence and delusion. All of them spring from the basic belief in brainwashing. Subliminal advertising is at the laughable end of the scale. This is based on an experiment in a cinema that seemed to show that frames flashed on the screen, so fleetingly that they could not consciously be seen, would make people buy more Coca-Cola and popcorn. For years, it was blithely accepted as an established truth that such subliminal ads worked. In fact, the experiment had never been done and all attempts to repeat it failed. It just doesn’t work.

Laughable joined hands with tragic in the legal pursuit of the British heavy-metal band Judas Priest, who had, lawyers claimed, used subliminal messages in their songs and album covers to encourage teenagers to kill themselves. And then, with the Canadian psychiatrist Dr Ewen Cameron, we topple over into the fully tragic.

Cameron, inspired by the evident failure of psychoanalysis to cure severe mental illness, decided, like many others, that a physical cure was the only option. His strategy was deep, prolonged sleep punctuated by a horrific regime of ECT at rates and intensities never before tried. He was literally trying to wash the brains of his patients, to cleanse them of memory, prior to reprogramming them with nothing but healthy thoughts. The first half of the process worked — patients did, indeed, forget who they were — the second half, of course, didn’t.

There were the cults such as the Moonies, who were said to have brainwashed their converts, and there were the deprogrammers whose task was to brainwash them back to normality. And there was the wave of satanic child-abuse “revelations” based on the belief that it was possible to brainwash people into forgetting or suppressing traumatic events in their lives. And so on.

Throughout, Streatfeild’s narrative control cannot be faulted. You know where every story is going, but how he gets there is always a thrill. His research is formidable. Particularly fine is his weaving together of the various cold-war efforts to reprogram humans with ever more exotic cocktails of drugs, hypnotism, torture and sensory deprivation. All failed and all seem to have been abandoned — although his ending suggests that somebody, somewhere will be trying again.

I would, however, make two criticisms of the book, neither of which should discourage you from reading it. First, it could do with more context. Both conceptually — as in the case of the failure fully to explain behaviourism — and historically, there is a lack of the sort of background that would provide an explanatory location for his stories. Such background might go some way to showing why people needed or chose to believe in brainwashing.

Second, I am not convinced that he has fully made his case. Certainly, the creation of controllable zombies has proved impossible. But the brains of Cameron’s patients were indeed washed and, even if subliminal advertising doesn’t work, other kinds of advertising do. We can, unquestionably, do things to people that change their behaviour. Whether these things also change their identities is the ultimate issue. How, after all, would we know?


Books and films such as The Manchurian Candidate, made great play of brainwashing, but by the 1960s the CIA were convinced it didn’t work. For evidence, they had a real-life experiment, in the shape a possible Soviet double agent named Nosenko. He was interrogated and isolated during a three-year period without the CIA ever working out if he was telling the truth or not.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Times, UK
July 23, 2006 Book Review
Bryan Appleyard

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 24, 2006.
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