In 1963, Penguin published an arresting paperback, Techniques of Persuasion: From Propaganda to Brainwashing by J.A.C. Brown. If the title wasn’t sufficient to attract potential readers, the jacket illustration invited further scrutiny: an exposed brain, grey matter with a peeled-back central panel revealing, in red, the famous poster of Kitchener wanting YOU to enlist. But despite the dramatic cover, Brown’s message was sanguine. ‘Brainwashing’, in some shape or form, had always existed. There was thus no need for alarm. ‘We may well ask’, he wryly mused, ‘whether the Communists have devised any method which is half as efficient in “brainwashing” or with results which are half as permanent as the English public school.’
In his new history of brainwashing, Daniel Pick offers a nuanced revisitation of ground covered by Brown, as well as developments in ‘thought control’ unforeseen 60 years ago. In both studies, the 1950s loom large. It was in 1950 that the term ‘brainwashing’ – derived from the Chinese xinao (literally to wash the brain) – was first used in the United States. Journalist Edward Hunter reported on the mechanisms through which the newly established People’s Republic of China moulded citizens into ideological conformism. Concern over how brains might be radically repatterned, perhaps irreversibly, mounted over the course of the Korean War. The targets of alleged communist brainwashing now included thousands of American prisoners of war, held by North Korean and Chinese captors. When 23 of these POWs refused repatriation after the armistice, many Americans became convinced that only insidious mental coercion – whether effected through hypnosis, drugs, solitary confinement or hours of rote indoctrination – could have compelled these men to reject the ‘free world’ in favour of enslavement behind the ‘bamboo curtain’.
Fear that minds could be wiped and reprogrammed by malign external agents never disappeared. Pick’s history looks back in time, to preoccupations with mesmerising Svengali figures, and forward to the age of algorithms that push us down ever darker digital rabbit holes. Although Pick situates ideas about ‘captive minds’ in the context of the Cold War, his exploration sheds more light on how psyches and imaginations are impinged upon in ostensibly free societies than in the totalitarian states that first provoked such anxious rumination. Pick explores the seductions and delusions of mass media, consumerism, ‘group think’, advertising, opinion research and conspiracy theories.
Pick’s subtle insights stem from his own unusual professional background as both a professor of history and a practising psychoanalyst. Breaking from the straightjacket of academic convention, he places himself firmly in the analysis. His intention is neither to debunk brainwashing as the mere fever dream of paranoid cold warriors, nor to offer reassurance about the robustness of our mental defences against manipulation, if only we remain alert to the myriad ‘hidden persuaders’ lying in wait to beguile us. Written in – and reflective of – ‘dark times’, Brainwashed asks us to consider our own susceptibility to conformist pressures. Pick provides no pat conclusions. The human mind remains the fragile and pliable organ it always was, easily swayed and immensely hard to fathom, whether from without or within.
Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control
Wellcome Collection 368pp £20
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Susan L. Carruthers is Professor of US and International History at the University of Warwick and author of Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
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