Brainwashing: a Bubbe-meise?

Joel E. Dimsdale—

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

But that’s only part of the picture. Brainwashing is a type of persuasion that is achieved through force. It is not simply forced behavior or confession, but rather forced indoctrination or belief change. The nature of that “force” has a peculiar history that emerged in the 20th century.

Lenin met with Nobel laureate Ivan Pavlov to ask him for help in modifying the behavior of the Russian people to conform to communist ideology. Pavlov responded that behavioral conditioning could help overcome the past, and the Communists generously funded it later. “Greatly” doesn’t begin to grasp the extent of your support; They built him an Institute and funded 357 assistants to help him with his research on sleep, drugs, and behavior. But it was the flooding of the Neva River that gave Pavlov insight into the fundamental effects of trauma on behavior. When the river flooded Pavlov’s dog labs and nearly drowned his caged dogs, Pavlov observed that his dogs were never the same again: They forgot their learned behaviors, and the trauma changed their disposition. Based on such knowledge and his enormous patience, his conditioning experiments were so meticulously effective that he was able to train a dog to respond to a tone of “c” but not to “c #”.

Rightly or wrongly, the ghost of Pavlov has been invoked in most cases of brainwashing in the 20th century: the confessions of the old Bolsheviks during the Stalin trials, the desertions of American prisoners of war during the War. Korea, the Stockholm syndrome cases, and various horrible cults like Jonestown. Governments around 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 mischievous, but their intuitions suggest that there are common circumstances that make human beings more malleable. Sleep disruption, stress, isolation, and surreptitious group pressures are key ingredients used in brainwashing.

The term “brainwashing” is so outlandish and its outlines so confusing that many people dismissed it as a bubbe-meise. With the insurrection of January 6, 2021, the popularity of QAnon and anti-vaccines, we have come to the sad realization that groups can use persuasion techniques to promote all kinds of beliefs. Meanwhile, the tools of brainwashing evolve and offer ways to amplify that persuasion. Between advances in neuroscience and developments in social media, coercive persuasion capabilities are expanding dramatically.

George Orwell observed seriously: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot embossing a human face, forever.” From my point of view, we cannot ignore the potential developments of brainwashing in the 21S t century. But I think we have a choice. We need to consider how brainwashing developed in the 1920sth century to prepare for the new century. And we should listen to HG Wells, who warned that “the history of mankind increasingly becomes a race between education and catastrophe.” Now we are in such a race. 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 the University of California, San Diego. He consults extensively with government agencies and is the author of many other works, including Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of Nazi War Criminals. Lives in San Diego, CA.


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