Excerpt from The Manipulated Mind
by Denise Winn
To isolate the components of the so-called brainwashing
process, it is necessary to take a detailed look at what went on
in the Chinese prisoner of war camps in Korea. The
American soldiers, repatriated in 1953, who had seemingly
collaborated with the enemy and adopted a Communist
viewpoint albeit briefly, were not the first to focus world
attention on the phenomenon of sudden political conversion.
Between 1936 and 1938, Stalin's Moscow Show Trials,
where top Bolshevik figures publicly confessed to utterly
fantastic crimes that they couldn't possibly have committed -
and even seemed to have willingly adopted their prosecutors'
view of them as scum - caused alarm to ripple far abroad.
That staunch revolutionaries could suddenly have been
transformed into grovelling repentants was unthinkable.
That some insidious process was at work became a reality for
the Americans when their own men later succumbed to the
Chinese and made equally fantastic confessions, in some
cases, that the Americans had been engaged in biological
warfare against the Communists. So the experts were called
in to try to find explanations.
Their detailed analyses of the characters of the men, the
stresses they were obliged to undergo and the tactics used by
the Chinese provide the most comprehensive picture of what
has been called brainwashing. In later years, claims made in
court that individuals such as Patty Hearst or members of
cults had been brainwashed have all been based on the
findings arising from Korea.
Different experts have placed differing emphases on the
events that occurred and have sometimes offered up differing
conclusions. It is worth reviewing their evaluations and
drawing together all the common threads.
Edgar Schein, an MIT psychologist, gathered his data in
August 1953 at Inchon, Korea, when the repatriates were
being processed, and on board the USNS General Black,
when the men were en route back to the United States during
the first two weeks of September. In an article called 'The
Chinese indoctrination program for prisoners of war: a study
of attempted "brainwashing"', published in Psychiatry in
1956, he outlined what had happened to the soldiers in
Korea, as told by them to him, and drew his own conclusions.
He claimed, as a result of his investigations, that there
was nothing new and terrifying about Chinese brainwashing
techniques. They had, in effect, combined a number of
traditional and well-known ploys to weaken resistance, such
as group discussion, self-criticism, interrogation, rewards
and punishments, forced confessions, exposure to propaganda
and information control. What was new was not the
method but the manner of combining, in a systematic
fashion, a variety of tried and tested methods.
The following description of events experienced in
Korean POW camps is drawn from Schein's published
The Chinese attitude to their captives differed even at the
outset from that of the North Koreans. Whereas the latter
were brutal to their prisoners, took their clothing away,
deprived them of regular and sufficient food and meted out
heavy punishment or death if a prisoner tried to resist them,
the Chinese welcomed captives with warmth, even congratulating
them for having been 'liberated'.
Over the next weeks and months, however, the soldiers
suffered severe physical and psychological pressures and
implicit in most of what the Chinese said or did was the
suggestion that these stresses would be removed and life be
much happier if they took up a more 'cooperative' attitude to
The men had to undergo long marches, lasting maybe two
weeks, en route to the prison camp assigned for them.
During the march they received little food and, in the
interests of survival, were forced to compete with each other
for what scant food, clothing and shelter was on offer which,
Schein says, made it impossible for them to maintain group
ties. Throughout, the Chinese raised the men's hopes by
promising improvements in conditions (though stays in
temporary camps along the way were no improvement
whatsoever) and then dashed them by 'explaining' that the
UN was being obstructive or that too many prisoners were
being uncooperative and therefore all would have to suffer.
Propaganda leaflets were distributed and the men were
forced to sing Communist songs.
Permanent camp, when it was finally reached, however,
forced the men to suffer physical and psychological stresses
far beyond what they had so far endured.
(Schein does not here detail the physical tortures imposed
on the men but Meerloo lists a number that were included in
official American and British reports. These included:
1. Standing to attention or sitting with legs outstretched in
complete silence from 4.30 till 11 pm and constantly being
woken during the few hours allowed for sleep.
2. Enduring solitary confinement in boxes 5 ' x 3 ' x 2 ' . One
soldier was known to have spent six months in such a box.
3. Having liquids withheld for days 'to help self-reflection'.
4. Being bound with a rope, one end of which was passed
over a beam and then around the neck, like a hangman's
noose, the other around the ankles. The prisoner was then
told that if he slipped or bent his knees, he would be
5. Being forced to kneel on jagged rocks, with arms
stretched up above the head, holding a large boulder.
6. Being obliged, in one camp, to hold in the mouth a slim
piece of wood or metal that a jailer pushed through a hole in
the cell door. Suddenly the jailer would knock the outer
end of the wood or metal sideways, usually breaking the
prisoner's teeth or splitting open his mouth.
7. Being forced to march barefoot on to a frozen river,
where water was poured over their feet. Prisoners then had to
stand for hours, frozen to the ice, reflecting on their
According to Schein's account the prisoners had to get up
at dawn, exercise for an hour and then, after cereal or potato
soup for breakfast at 8 am, spend the day at assigned duties or
undergoing indoctrination. Whether a midday meal was
served or not depended on the prisoner's 'attitude'.
Living groups comprised ten to fifteen people and the
Chinese were careful to separate the men by race and rank so
as to undermine the established structure of the group,
particularly by removal of leaders. Bearing out the insistence
from the Chinese that rank was irrelevant, they were all of
one brotherhood now, sometimes very young or bumbling
prisoners were put in charge of the rest. If any spontaneous
semblance of order arose among the men, the Chinese broke
up the group.
Personal affiliations and ties were consistently weakened.
The men were not allowed any religious expression and often
their mail from home was withheld, though the Chinese
maintained that no one was writing because no one at home
cared what happened to the men.
Throughout, the Chinese were attempting to recruit men
to so-called peace committees. Those that joined then had to
play a part in the indoctrination by trying to prevent
resistance among the other men and to produce propaganda
leaflets to aid the cause, but under the guise of camp
recreation activities. Awareness that this was going on made
such groups as did form among the men weak and unstable
because of fears that informers might be in their midst.
Schein divides the Chinese attack on the Americans'
beliefs, attitudes and values into two kinds: direct and
Direct methods included daily lectures two to three hours
in length, the content of which was concerned with disparaging
the United Nations, and the United States in particular,
and praising Communist countries; forcing prisoners to sign
peace petitions and confessions; and making radio appeals
and speeches calling for peace. Schein notes that individual
confessions regarding the United States' use of germ warfare
were particularly damaging to the men who heard them.
Whereas most found the lectures naive and inaccurate, they
were more profoundly impressed by explanations of how
these bombs had been used by America, put to them by a
couple of their own officers who actually travelled from camp
to camp for this purpose. Men who had formerly believed the
germ warfare accusations to be pure propaganda found
themselves questioning their validity after all.
Indirect methods included interrogation on American
military techniques which were heavy on psychological
pressure. The interrogations might last for whole weeks,
with the interrogator actually living with the prisoner and
being extremely friendly towards the man. During interrogation,
statements made by a prisoner were reviewed
repeatedly, in the demand that the prisoner resolve all
inconsistencies between early and later versions. When a
man refused to answer questions, he might be forced to copy
down someone else's answer into a notebook. What might
have seemed to the man an ineffectual way of trying to make
him change his own opinions to those he was writing was in
fact used for a very different purpose: his writings were
shown to other prisoners to dupe them into believing that he
had voluntarily composed them himself.
All the men were regularly made to 'confess' before each
other or to criticise themselves in public if they broke the
rules of the camp. (There were very many trivial rules.)
Prisoners found this particularly humiliating.
The Chinese made the most of the effects that the use of
rewards can bring. Prisoners who cooperated were offered
special favours, food, clothing. Others were tantalised to
cooperate by promises of repatriation. The men were also so
starved of contact with their families that they would
willingly incorporate propaganda peace appeals into their
letters home, as they were an insurance that the letters would
be sent. Some made propaganda broadcasts purely as a way
of letting their relatives know they were alive. Whatever the
motive, the effect was that other prisoners suspected they
had fully cooperated with the enemy and became mistrustful.
So many who lost the friendship of the group continued
to cooperate for real.
Schein saw the Chinese tactics as working, in so far as they
did, because of the following reasons.
The soldiers first had to contend with immense and
debilitating physical privations. In this weakened state, they
had to cope with the severe psychological pressure of fear
that they would never be repatriated at all or that they would
die or suffer terrible reprisals. They were also in a position
where their normal beliefs, values and attitudes were
consistently being undermined by their captors, thus preventing
their maintaining a strong and constant sense of self.
The confusion induced could in no way be alleviated by
validating themselves against their peers, as group ties were
systematically destroyed. Each man was alone to question his
role in life. Mutual distrust, fostered by the known existence
of informers and the feared existence of informers where
perhaps there were none, could only confirm each man in his
isolation. The confusion, if it became insupportable, could
be alleviated in one sure way: collaboration with the
Communists. For that was the only 'certainty' on offer.
The Chinese, for their part, consolidated their gains by
other specific psychological tactics. They used repetition to
break a man down, making their demands and accusations
over and over again until, worn out, prisoners gave in. They
operated a careful pacing of demands, starting with trivial
requests and gradually working up to the highest demands.
They forced the prisoner to participate in his own conversion.
Listening quietly to lectures was never enough, the
man had to make responses, verbally or in writing. Finally,
by couching their indoctrination in the guise of a plea for
peace, the Chinese were able to appeal to the all too worn
down and war weary soldier.
Hinkle & Wolff
Schein's view was that no one stress is entirely responsible
or overly responsible for the breakdown that can lead to so-called
brainwashing. Drs Lawrence Hinkle Jr and Harold
Wolff have asserted, however, that the Chinese made a
concerted effort to produce particular emotions in a particular
order, which then led to capitulation and collapse. They listed
them in an article in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of
Medicine in September 1957. The emotions to be aroused
were: anxiety; suspense; awareness of being avoided; feelings
of unfocused guilt; fear and uncertainty; bewilderment;
increasing depression; fatigue; despair; great need to talk;
utter dependence on anyone who befriends; great need of
approval of interrogator; and increased suggestibility. This
all culminated in confession, rationalisation of confession and
final profound relief.
The US Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry in 1956
held two symposia on forced indoctrination, to which Dr
Wolff presented research. He outlined eight of the Communists'
methods for achieving the above ends. The description
here is based on that in Peter Watson's excellent book,
War on the Mind.
1. The Chinese enforced trivial demands, such as the
keeping of insignificant rules or forced writing, to accustom
the prisoners to being compliant.
2. They took pains to show the prisoners that they were in
total control of the latter's fate, pretended to take cooperation
for granted and tantalised them with possible favours. From
this prisoners learned the uselessness of trying to maintain any
semblance of control themselves. They learned helplessness.
3. Occasionally the Chinese would offer favours when they
could least be predicted, rewarded any show of cooperation,
promised better conditions or demonstrated unexpected
kindness, all of which served to give the men motivation to
comply and to prevent them from adjusting to deprivation.
4. Threats of torture, death, no return home, isolation,
interminable interrogation or threats against family and
friends served to deepen the men's fears, anxiety and despair.
5. Degradation, such as the prevention of personal hygiene,
humiliations, punishments, insults, foul living conditions
and no privacy had the effect of making continued resistance
seem pointless and counter-productive. Forced to be concerned
only with the most basic of values, it seemed that
compliance could not but help raise self-esteem.
6. By forcing the men to be in darkness or bright light, in
an unstimulating environment without the diversion of
varied food or books or freedom of movement, the Chinese
could force the men to dwell on their captivity, with the
resultant confusion arising from excessive introspection.
7. Complete or semi-physical isolation served the same
ends, as well as depriving the victim of any social support
other than that of his jailer, on whom he became increasingly
8. Physical pressures, such as semi-starvation, induced
illness, sleep deprivation, prolonged periods of standing or
interrogation and constant tension, all worked on the men
until they were mentally too weakened to resist.
In an article published in The Manipulation of Human
Behaviour, edited by Biderman and Zimmer, Hinkle explained
why and how the physical stresses took their
particular mental toll.
The brain's 'internal milieu', he wrote, contains a number
of organic and inorganic substances in solution; disturbances
in the levels of these can adversely affect the way the brain
functions. Not only may the brain itself be directly affected
by these fluctuations but it may also be indirectly affected
when fluctuations impair other vital organs. The kinds of
common conditions which may cause disturbances include
sweating, water deprivation, salt deficiency, excessive water
or salt, vomiting, diarrhoea and burns. Some people when
extremely anxious start breathing too rapidly and this can
cause chemical changes in the blood which in turn can affect
Because the brain can only use carbohydrates for energy,
not fat and proteins as can other organs, it is very quickly
affected by any drop in sugar levels in the blood - sometimes
again caused by over-anxiety. A deficiency of B vitamins in
the diet can directly affect the brain. Indirectly, the brain can
be harmed by any malfunction of the lungs, liver and heart,
as the efficient working of the brain is dependent on the swift
removal of all metabolic end-products present in the fluid
The 'brain syndrome', as it is termed, describes the
progressive mental deterioration that occurs when the brain
is seriously impaired. Initially a patient is restless and overtalkative,
then gradually he becomes delirious, confused and
finally loses consciousness. In the early stages, however,
there is no obvious sign of brain damage. The patient
manifests mainly emotionality, depression, irritability,
jumpiness or tension, all of which could be attributed to
particular life circumstances. Speech deteriorates slightly
and he gets a little vague and forgetful, but the patient can
still perform intellectually, if a little less efficiently than
usual. Hinkle says:
'In this state the subject may have no frank illusions,
hallucinations or delusions but he overvalues small events,
misinterprets, blames others and accepts explanations and
formulations which he might reject as patently absurd
under different circumstances. He does not confabulate
but he may be willing to state that a report is "clearly true"
or that an event "actually occurred" when in fact the report
merely could be true or the event might have occurred.
His intellectual functions, his judgement and his insight
decline to a similar degree.'
Hinkle suggests that, as the prisoners in Korea were all
kept in bad conditions, they might well have suffered these
initial stages of the brain syndrome. Also, as the brain needs
information of various kinds to process and to keep it active,
periods of isolation or the repetitive carrying out of only one
mental activity as a work duty were likely to tire the brain and
cause it to deteriorate although, again, the effects would not
be immediately obvious.
Despite the fact that such physical tolls on the brain must
affect its functioning, Hinkle points out that deterioration
does not occur at the same rate in all people. He believes that
the personality of the individual plays a strong part in
determining who holds out longest.
'In short, the brain, the organ that deals with information,
also organises its responses on the basis of information
previously fed into it. This information, in the form of a
personality developed through the experience of a lifetime,
as well as immediate attitudes and the awareness of the
immediate situation, conditions the way the brain will react
to a given situation. There can be no doubt that personality,
attitudes and the perceptions of the immediate situation
seriously influence the ability of a brain to endure the effects
of isolation, fatiguing tasks and loss of sleep.'
Not only does personality affect when brain syndrome
starts, it also affects the form that syndrome will take -
determining whether a particular man will become talkative,
withdrawn, anxious or angry, paranoid or trusting.
He ends by saying, 'Disordered brain function is indeed
easily produced in any man. No amount of "will power" can
prevent its occurrence.'
Psychologist Joost Meerloo draws on psychoanalytic and
conditioning theory to explain the brainwashing of the
American soldiers. He coined the term 'menticide' to describe
it. Meerloo was a one-time chief of the Netherlands Forces
psychology department who became an American citizen in
1950. He was called as an expert to give evidence to the
military inquiry on the Colonel Schwable case. (Colonel
Schwable, an officer of the US Marine Corps, 'confessed' in
Korea that America had been carrying on bacteriological
warfare against the enemy, citing supposed missions, meetings
and strategy conferences as well as naming names.)
Meerloo's position is that successful menticide techniques
make full use of people's deep underlying guilt feelings and
their unconscious need to be conditioned by and conform to
traditional patterns. He believes people fear the freedom and
the conflicts that complete autonomy brings.
He actually claimed that the Chinese capitalised on the
findings of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in regard to
conditioned behaviour. Pavlov discovered that he could
make dogs salivate when they heard a bell. By ringing a bell
whenever he gave them food, he led them to associate the two
events. He had 'conditioned' an unnatural response. He went
on from this discovery to find out much about conditioned
behaviour (see Chapter 4) and the circumstances that could
facilitate or impede it.
One such finding that Meerloo believes the Communists
picked up was the fact that conditioning could most easily be
effected if the process was carried out in a quiet environment
with few distracting stimuli. Political victims, therefore,
were more easily conditioned if kept in isolation from each
It was Pavlov who first found that some animals learn
more quickly if they are rewarded for doing so, by affection
or the giving of food, whereas others responded more
effectively if they suffered a painful penalty for mistakes.
The differences, Meerloo suggests, are likely to be related to
the nature of earlier conditioning by parents. As, in people,
the effect might be that one person could resist indefinitely in
the face of punishment whereas he could easily be won over
by rewards, interrogators could not use rewards and punishments
indiscriminately if they wanted results. They knew
that they had to find out first which category their prisoner
The use by the Chinese of boring repetitive routines was
based, says Meerloo, on the Pavlovian finding that any kind
of previous conditioning, no matter how strong, could be
rendered ineffective - inhibited - by boredom.
Finally, he suggests that the Chinese developed a suggestion
made by Pavlov that weak, secondary stimuli could also
have conditioning qualities - the tone in which words are
spoken being as effective as the actual words used for shaping
behaviour. Pavlov didn't pursue this area of thought far but,
in the 1950s, the role of linguistics in mass indoctrination was
studied by other Russian physiologists.
Meerloo is careful to state, however, that it is too simplistic
to believe that permanent changes can be made to a person's
thoughts and behaviour just by straightforward application
of Pavlovian theories of conditioning. He does believe that it
can be a powerful means for capitalising on the deeper
emotional insecurities of man, once aroused. For instance, in
isolation, when a prisoner is closed off from the world and
deprived of the usual range of stimuli from the senses, his
mental activity changes. He starts to dwell on long forgotten
anxieties that rise to the surface and his fantasy life grows
more real than his real life. In that state he is vulnerable, as he
cannot check the validity of his feelings and fantasies against
In fact, far from saying that conditioning of behaviour is
the main thrust of brainwashing techniques, Meerloo emphasises
that a human being's own basic drives and needs can
lead him unwittingly to take a part in the brainwashing
process. Need for companionship doesn't disappear when a
guard or an interrogator is the only person available who
could possibly offer it. Few personalities, he says, can resist
the need to yield if they are suffering overwhelming loneliness.
The first step towards yielding may well be that the
prisoner, when in isolation and convinced, by the enemy,
that everyone has deserted him, accepts and even welcomes
the jailer as a substitute friend.
Similarly, the victim may have to 'pay' for his capitulation,
his (to himself) unforgiveable need to draw comfort and
friendship from whatever source he can, by becoming even
more cruel to himself than the inquisitor could be. This
passive attempt at annihilating the enemy adds even more
stress to an already intolerable load: the prisoner is fighting
himself as well as his captors, leaving himself doubly
Just as successful brainwashing cannot be achieved by the
cold application of techniques that take no account of the
prisoner's personality, his fear, insecurities and basic needs,
so, says Meerloo, training soldiers to withstand physical
tortures is for similar reasons ineffective as a method to help
them resist being brainwashed by captors. It is not physical
torture that is the most effective weapon of brainwashing;
the very teaching of evasive techniques to withstand torture
can itself induce psychological reactions in the soldiers so
trained that can work against their resistance, not for it. The
aroused anxiety and the dread anticipation, knowing what
may happen, can lead a prisoner to capitulate all the sooner.
It is only by applying effective mental strategies that anyone
can resist and those mental strategies have to be drawn from a
balanced perspective on life. Without that perspective
operating in ordinary daily life, they cannot be pulled out of
the hat ready to apply when or if one suddenly finds oneself
in a powerful coercive and unnatural milieu. (See Meerloo's
Mental Seduction and Menticide.)
Robert Lifton's study of brainwashing techniques (which
he termed thought reform) also relies for its conclusions on
psychoanalytic theory. Lifton took part in the examination of
the American POWs on the troopship back to the United
States but his real work began when he went to Hong Kong
and interviewed in depth a number of Western and Chinese
civilians who had been living in China at the time of the
Communist takeover in 1948. Subsequently they had escaped
to Hong Kong. In his book Thought Reform and the
Psychology of Totalism, he described and assessed the
experience of fifteen Chinese intellectuals who had undergone
reform in universities and revolutionary colleges and
twenty-five Westerners who were believed by the Chinese to
be antagonistic to the Communist regime and underwent
reform in prisons.
One of the Westerners was a Frenchman, Dr Charles
Vincent, who had lived and worked in China for twenty years
before his arrest. Accused of being a spy, he was in prison for
three and a half years. Of him and another prisoner, Father
Luca, both of whom were trapped into making extensive
confessions of acts never carried out, as well as unfounded
denunciations of friends, Lifton said:
'... Their environment did not permit any side-stepping:
they were forced to participate, drawn into the forces
around them until they themselves began to feel the need
to confess and reform. This penetration by the psychological
forces of the environment into the inner emotions of
the individual person is perhaps the outstanding psychological
fact of thought reform.'
Lifton identified the processes at work as follows:
1. Assault on identity-- Dr Vincent was told that he was
not a real doctor, Father Luca that he was not a genuine
Father. Both as they began to lose their bearings started to
question what and who they were.
2. Guilt-- Both men found themselves condemned by an
infallible environment. They became so permeated by an
atmosphere of guilt that the accusations being levelled at
them merged with subjective feelings of sinfulness and
having done wrong. They knew they were guilty of something,
they felt very guilty, and gradually grew to believe that
punishment must be deserved.
3. Self-betrayal-- The denunciation they were forced to
make, of friends and colleagues, had a dual effect. It
increased their feelings of guilt and shame. But, equally
fundamental, by denouncing all those with whom they had
associated in their lives, they were effectively denouncing all
that their lives had been up till that point. They were not so
much betraying friends as being forced to betray the vital
core of themselves.
4. Breaking point-- The combined effects of severe guilt,
shame, and self-betrayal led them to feel alienated from
themselves.. They began to fear total annihilation and as
everything that happened fanned rather than dispelled that
fear, they moved inexorably towards breakdown.
5. Leniency-- The inevitability of total annihilation
would suddenly be overturned by a showing of unexpected
leniency on the part of their captors. A brief rest from
interrogation, a brief encounter in which they were treated
momentarily as individuals, summoned for the men a spark
of renewed identity. Suddenly, annihilation was not the only
outcome they could envisage. Annihilation could - and now
must - be avoided and there was only one immediate way to
achieve that. For a man in such a position, said Lifton, 'the
psychological decompression of his environment serves to
win him over to the reform camp'. The men virtually became
grateful participants in their own reform.
6. The compulsion to confess-- Confession, in that it
offered a way to resolve the overwhelming guilt engendered,
gradually became more and more attractive. The compulsion
to end the horrors of confusion and identity loss by
owning up to that guilt was finally irresistible.
7. The channelling of guilt-- The amorphous, formless
guilt that had been drawn from within them could be given
an understandable form if they adopted the 'people's standpoint'.
Their guilt could be attributed to a life of wrong
action created by a wrong ideology.
8. Re-education: logical dishonouring-- To achieve 'true'
re-education, the prisoners had to extend their self condemnation
to every aspect of their former lives - to see their lives
as a long series of utterly shameful acts.
9. Progress and harmony-- The tightness of their new,
reformed position was reinforced by the many emotional
needs that were met as a result of their holding it: they could
feel group intimacy in their living and working, they could
participate in pursuing a common goal, they could experience
the relief of solving all problems, resolving all confusion.
Instead of alienation, they could experience themselves
as in harmony with their surroundings.
10. Final confession and rebirth-- In this new spirit of
harmony, the men were fully ready to supply with conviction
statements about what they now were and what they had
rejected. They experienced a virtual rebirth.
Lifton claimed that, in all the cases of apparent conversion,
similar emotional factors seemed to be played on:
particularly, a strong and readily accessible negative identity,
an unusually strong susceptibility to guilt, a tendency
towards identity confusion (particularly if a cultural outsider)
and an all-or-nothing type of emotional set.
Particularly interesting, however, was Lifton's finding
that those who appeared to resist reform during their prison
experience had similar characteristics. They also had the
tendency towards needing to go wholeheartedly one way or
the other and, by their habitual use of denial and repression
to keep themselves in check, ended up in the situation where
those least threatened by the power of the brainwashing
techniques actually feared they were in most danger of
capitulating to them. Although they were seemingly registers,
they were in a constant struggle against the desire to
Lifton pinpointed the features which seemed to him to be
characteristic of ideological totalism and necessary for the
maintenance of its hold over individuals: control over all
forms of communication; mystical manipulation (totalism as
a furtherance of established higher purposes); demands for
purity; creation of a cult of confession; stress on 'sacred
sciences'; loading of language (what Lifton calls thought-terminating cliches); putting doctrine above the person; and
the 'dispensing of existence' - deciding those who have a
right to exist and those who don't.
Schein, Hinkle, Wolff, Meerloo and Lifton all agree that
personality was an important factor in whether an individual
capitulated to or resisted Communist influence. All have
said, in one form or another, that those with well-integrated,
stable personalities were the ones least susceptible to psychological
pressure. However, Dr. William Sargant, a British
psychiatrist, believes that what happened in Korea was just
one form of the sudden conversion syndrome, a phenomenon
which can be explained by physiology alone. Personality,
in so far as it plays a part in Sargant's thinking, dictates
not ability to resist but length of time it takes to collapse.
People of stable personality may take longer to fall, he says,
but far from being immune, they are the most likely to
remain faithful longest to their newly implanted convictions.
(He believes that had it not been for language difficulty and a
certain unsubtlety of technique, the Chinese could certainly
have won over more soldiers.)
Sargant offers a package to explain what he sees as the
inevitability of conversion once the right stresses are imposed
on the brain. He explains dramatic religious conversion,
brainwashing or dramatic political conversion, false
confessions and psychoanalytically-induced insights by physiological
events to which only certain mentally ill people are
immune. He relies for his assertions on the work of Pavlov.
Unlike Meerloo, he doesn't claim that the Chinese achieved
what they achieved because they studied Pavlov but he does
believe that Pavlov's findings regarding reactions to stress are
the key to understanding any sudden conversion, political or
religious. He says, in Battle for the Mind, where he explains
his theory, 'The politico-religious struggle for the mind of
man may well be won by whoever becomes most conversant
with the normal and abnormal functions of the brain and is
readiest to make use of the knowledge gained.'
Sargant's interest in the work of Pavlov stemmed from his
experiences during the Second World War, treating shellshocked
soldiers. His reading of Pavlov threw light, for him,
on why the soldiers recovered from mental breakdown if they
could be induced to experience emotional discharge of an
intense nature, and led him to posit that the success of
religious and political conversions was based on the manipulation
of the same physiological processes.
In the course of his work on conditioned learning in dogs
(see Chapter 4 for a full explanation of conditioning), Pavlov
started to make discoveries about the dogs' reactions to
stress. He found that his dogs could be divided into four
temperament types. The first two he called 'strong excitatory'
and 'lively', the second group being less extreme in their
excitability, but both groups likely to respond to stress by
showing heightened excitement and aggression. The other
two types were more passive in their reaction. One Pavlov
termed the 'calm imperturbable' type, the other the 'weak
inhibitory' type. This last group tended to react to stress with
extreme passivity in order to avoid tension. Strong experimental
stresses reduced such dogs to a state of paralysis and
an inhibition (or blocking) of brain function. However,
Pavlov found, the other three types of dogs, if exposed to
more stress than they too could stand (the amounts being
higher than for the weak inhibitory type), also reached a state
of brain inhibition. He decided that this inhibition must
therefore be a protective mechanism designed to protect the
brain when the system was pressed beyond all endurance.
Which category a dog fell into was decided, he believed, by
environmental stresses to which it had been exposed right
from birth and to which it had been conditioned to react in
particular ways, in accordance with its own temperament.
Lively and calm, imperturbable dogs could withstand much
more stress than either strong or weak excitatory types.
The inhibition which occurred when all dogs had passed
their limit of endurance (Pavlov called it transmarginal
inhibition) had definite stages of build-up, signalled by
particular abnormal behaviour patterns. Pavlov found that
he could induce brain inhibition by imposing four different
types of stress and monitor the development of the abnormal
To induce the intolerable stress, he would increase the
voltage of electric shock applied to the dog's leg as part of its
conditioning process. If the shock was too strong for its
system to tolerate, the dog started to break down. Another
method was to signal the arrival of the dogs' food and then
make them wait a long time for it to appear. The dogs reacted
very quickly to waiting under stress. Thirdly, he might
confuse the dogs by giving them conflicting signals, so that
the dogs became uncertain what to expect. Finally, he might
induce stress by physical means, such as overworking them
or depriving them of food.
Pavlov found that if he first wore down the dogs in one or
more of these ways, new conditioned behaviour patterns —
such as responding to a given signal in a given way - were
much easier to implant. However, whereas the weak inhibitory
type dogs broke down much faster, they were likely to
forget those new behaviour patterns once they recovered.
The dogs that were harder to break down were more likely to
hold on to the behaviour patterns for a long time after.
Pavlov presumed that, due to temperament, they held on to
the new patterns as tenaciously as they had once held on to
their old ones.
During this whole process, Pavlov isolated three distinct
stages that led on to collapse as extreme stresses mounted.
First came what he termed the 'equivalent' phase of brain
activity, when a dog would react in the same way to all
stimuli of whatever strength. (Pavlov measured this by saliva
production.) One might equate this with the familiar
phenomenon of a person reacting no more strongly to an
important experience than to a trivial one: the exhausted
woman who receives a cup of tea and the news that she has
won the football pools with equal mild pleasure.
When exposed to even stronger sustained pressures, the
dog would move into what Pavlov called the 'paradoxical'
phase. Here, the brain would cease to react to strong stimuli
at all, as a protective measure, while still capable of
responding to mild ones. This therefore gave rise to a
circumstance which, in humans, could be manifested as an
inability to cry on hearing of the death of a loved one but to be
intensely irritated and upset by the loss of an ear-ring.
The third and final stage of brain inhibition Pavlov called
'ultra paradoxical'. Now the dog reacted with a positive
response where normally it had a negative one and vice versa.
For instance, it would try to elicit affectionate attention from
a laboratory assistant it had previously disliked, and attack
one it had previously been fond of.
Once these three stages had been set in train, Pavlov
noticed, the dogs often behaved in a hypnoidal fashion.
Sargant remarks that clinical reports of patients under
hypnosis often reveal them to act in ways consistent with
Pavlov's inhibition phases.
A final unexpected discovery occurred for Pavlov when his
dogs were nearly drowned during the Leningrad floods, as
they were trapped in their cages. At the last minute a
laboratory assistant was able to rush in and save them but the
terror of the experience, a stress beyond all stresses,
produced yet another brain response. The dogs forgot all
that they had been taught by conditioning up to that point.
That is, all the conditioned reflexes that Pavlov had implanted
in them had vanished and it took months to restore them.
Pavlov believed that the higher centres of the brain in dogs
and in humans were in a constant state of flux between
excitation and inhibition; that when one part was highly
excited, another area was inhibited as a result. For instance,
a person undergoing an ecstatic experience may be temporarily
oblivious to pain. He also noted that one part of the
brain cortex which had been over-excited might become
fixed, leading to a pattern of repetitious movements or
behaviour. He thought this might explain, for example,
Sargant uses these findings from Pavlov to extrapolate
about the mechanisms of recovery from shell-shock, religious
conversions, and the eliciting of false confessions. (He
maintains that those who believe the exercise of will-power is
sufficient to beat the brainwashers are sadly mistaken. Active
resistance only puts yet more pressure on the brain and
After his reading of Pavlov's work, Sargant says he became
aware how far the behaviour of shell-shocked soldiers whom
he was treating at the time accorded with Pavlov's inhibition
stages. Some, for instance, might be suffering severe fright
paralysis of the limbs. If they tried to move them, they
couldn't. But if they were thinking about something else,
they were amazed to find that they could move the paralysed
limb — an example of the paradoxical stage, says Sargant.
Men who came to the clinic in a state of nervous
breakdown and emotional paralysis could be released from
their suffering if Sargant induced an abreaction - an intense
emotional discharge. This might be achieved by giving them
a drug to help lower their defences and then coaxing them to
talk of the experience they had had and which they had, till
now, repressed. If the soldiers could be drawn to the limits of
their endurance in this way, they experienced a sudden
intense outpouring of their feelings and a reliving of the
events in question, an exhausting experience that led them
finally into emotional collapse. When they came out of it,
they were like different men. They could see what had
happened in perspective, they could face up to the horrrors
and fears they had undergone in the trenches.
The principle of emotional discharge, the release of
locked-in emotions, is behind most modern psychotherapies.
However, Sargant makes a significant point. The
abreaction could be induced even if the events being reacted
to were implanted by the doctor and had never happened.
For instance, the doctor might ask the patient to describe
himself fighting his way out of a burning tank and the patient
would eventually experience emotional collapse, even
though the event had never happened. What is vital, to
Sargant, therefore, is not the unblocking of repressed
memories and their concomitant emotions but the build-up
of stress to its extremes, by whatever means, with a view to
eliciting a freeing emotional discharge.
After the abreaction was over, the men lost their fright
paralysis or whatever compulsive behaviour pattern had
been established. All that neurotic behaviour had been
knocked out by the collapse. Sargant sees this as akin to what
happened with Pavlov's dogs.
In using Pavlov's findings to explain seemingly inexplicable
religious and political conversions, Sargant stresses the
suggestibility state that is engendered as a result of extreme
anxiety. He recalls how the terrors of the Blitz enabled large
numbers of people to believe unlikely stories, such as the
rumours following Lord Haw-Haw's broadcasts from Germany.
Sargant relates such occurrences back to Pavlov's
finding that, once extreme stress was induced, dogs could be
made to give up their old conditioning in order to take on the
new set of responses conditioned by the laboratory assistants.
And, if they were of balanced temperament, they would hold
on to those new behaviour patterns as firmly as they had
resisted losing the old.
Sargant sees this mechanism working in revivalist meetings,
where extreme emotional stress induced by the preaching,
the atmosphere, the guilt and fear, led to collapse and
then adoption of the new thinking. Similarly, in Korea, the
Chinese in effect used the same breakdown system to
implant a new set of beliefs. Pure intellectual indoctrination,
he says, would be useless.
A proof that it is stress of any kind that is the key to
conversion, rather than underlying sympathy with the new
views, might be, as Sargant suggests, the fact that those who
attended Wesley's evangelistic meetings and were roused to a
pitch of anger and indignation at what was going on were just
as likely to break down under the stress of the negative
emotion - and come to, saved. Sargant also cites Arthur
Koestler's account of the night he made his decision to
become a Communist (he remained with the party six years).
Koestler himself says that a whole series of 'grotesque events'
clinched the making of a decision he had been moving
towards for some time. The events in question were a heavy
hangover, a broken down car, a heavy financial loss at poker
and a drunken sexual encounter with a person he disliked.
None of the stresses were connected with or threw light on
his position as regards Communism but they precipitated his
sudden decision to join the party.
Any extreme experience of emotion can make a person
highly suggestible and either reverse his conditioned behaviour
patterns or else wipe them out altogether, according to
Sargant. The degree of stress and the individual's level of
ability to withstand stress will determine the actual outcome.
Sargant does not claim that every single person can be
brainwashed. He excludes certain categories of the mentally
ill whose emotions are so impossible to arouse or who are so
disconnected from their feelings that they cannot be brought
to collapse. Such people cannot be made to abreact in
hospitals, for instance.
However, he does say, in connection with brainwashing:
'Granted that the right pressure is applied in the right way
and for long enough, ordinary prisoners have little chance of
staving off collapse; only the exceptional or mentally ill
person is likely to resist over very long periods. Ordinary
people . . . are the way they are simply because they are
sensitive to and influenced by what is going on around
them; it is the lunatic who can be so impervious to
Psychological factors in the brainwashing process are not
ignored by Sargant. He considers the guilt, isolation,
physical weakening, etc., are all a vital part of the build up
to intolerance level. But the conversion experience itself he
sees as due to the physiological events happening in the
brain, an inevitability of our physical make up. He therefore
offers different explanations for actions which others
see as based in our emotional drives and needs as human
He suggests» for instance, that 'one of the more horrible
consequences' of interrogations where the victims suddenly
start to feel great affection for an interrogator who has been
treating them ruthlessly, is a warning sign that the ultraparadoxical
stage of abnormal brain activity may have been
reached. The victim likes instead of hates his persecutor.
Others, already mentioned, tend to put such seemingly
contradictory behaviour down to the fact that human beings
need warmth and attention from at least someone and if the
interrogator is the only one around to provide it, then his
will have to do. Ian McKenzie, writing on hostage-captor
relationships in the Bulletin of the British Psychological
Society, thinks that Aronson's gain-loss theory may also
have some bearing: the theory suggests that increases in
positive, rewarding behaviour from another person have
more impact on someone than consistent, unvarying approval.
Respect or liking has to be won, it can't be taken for
granted. Therefore, when it is given in any little way, it
means more, or has more immediate effect, than liking that
Sargant has been much attacked from many quarters for
his firm adherence to a physiological explanation for brainwashing
and sudden conversion and the kind of examples of
behaviour that he uses to support it.
Psychologist T. H. Pear, in The Moulding of Modern
Man makes a lyrical objection. He doesn't mention Sargant
by name but his approach is clearly covered by the criticism
and Battle for the Mind is listed in the Bibliography. Pears
'The inventor of the term "brainwashing" deserves no
thanks from anyone trying to understand the techniques,
some ham-handed, some astute but sporadic and others
cleverly integrated, which are given that name. The word,
misleadingly descriptive, attracts those who believe that
the only way to unravel the mind's workings is to grasp the
activities of the brain; presumably, to explain the physical
events occurring when a gramophone record is played may
lay bare the whole story of Verdi's Requiem, including his
temperament and the religion which inspired him, not to
mention the mental processes of the singers and the
Dr James A. C. Brown, a British psychiatrist who died in
1964, also thought that Sargant was rather short on acknowledgement
that there is a man behind the brain cells.
His own starting point, in his Techniques of Persuasion, is
the belief that people's attitudes in life are not all of the same
strength and permanency, by their very nature. Only some
attitudes can be changed by other people, others never. The
deep attitudes are those which develop from an early age and
create a perspective on life which rarely alters; the less
entrenched attitudes are those that might more correctly be
called opinions and which are much more amenable to
alteration. Furthermore, what may seem to be radical
changes in a person's beliefs are in fact most likely in keeping
with their basic character anyway. Brown says:
'Opinions are but briefly held and likely to reflect current
public feeling; in many cases they reflect rather what the
individual thinks he should feel than what, in fact, he does
feel. They are readily changed and may be susceptible
either to propaganda or to reasoned argument. Attitudes,
on the other hand, are likely to be long-lived and do not
necessarily reflect the feelings of the general public
although they tend to reflect those of some group with
which the individual has become associated. Ordinarily
they are rooted in character traits which cause the
individual to select from the flood of stimuli constantly
impinging upon his senses only those which are consonant
with his own deep-rooted beliefs. Although they are
capable of changes which are quite real in the social sense,
these changes are apt to be more apparent than profound.
'Thus the change from Communism to Fascism or, in the
field of religion, to Roman Catholicism, is quite real
socially in that these bodies proclaim vastly different
doctrines which result in entirely divergent behaviour, but
emotionally and from the standpoint of character all are on
the same level on the authoritarian-democratic scale
because all share the same attitude toward authority.'
Therefore, when he talks specifically about brainwashing
he says, 'Despite their great doctrinal differences, all forms
of totalism are brothers under the skin and appeal to the same
type of person and those "converted" by brainwashing in any
final sense are converted not in spite of, but because of,
Brown, while acknowledging the value of Pavlov's
findings about stress behaviour, rejects the interpretation
put on them by those keen to show that brainwashing
techniques can literally reverse human behaviour. He finds
even Pavlov's assertions suspect in this area: for instance, is it
such an inexplicable and sudden reversal of behaviour for a
dog which liked a laboratory assistant and then gets tormented
by him in experiments to turn against him afterwards?
Similarly he finds suspect cases cited by Pavlovian disciples
to prove the 'same' things happen in humans: a woman who
suddenly wants to kill the child she loves doesn't manifest
such feelings out of the blue; they were there in some form all
along and were kept repressed until they overflowed into
consciousness, he says.
The Reverend Ian Ramage is upset by what he sees as
Sargant's somewhat over-generous application of Pavlovian
findings to events in the ordinary world. He finds large
structural flaws in Sargant's reasoning — particularly as regards
Sargant's claim that the religious conversion syndrome
is all due to goings-on in the brain cortex. Of course it is his
particular interest to disprove such a connection but his
reasoning is clear and worth consideration: in his Battle for the
Free Mind he makes a distinction between breakdown and
emotional abreaction, whereas Sargant appears to link them:
'In the traumatic experiences which lead to battle neurosis
and the terrors deliberately imposed in brainwashing,
we may well have processes roughly parallel to the
experimental stress situations imposed on Pavlov's dogs,
resulting in various stages of abnormal behaviour and
culminating in terminal exhaustion and collapse. However,
it must be pointed out that nowhere in these experiments
with dogs, as described either by Dr Sargant or by Pavlov
himself, do we see anything that even looks like emotional
abreaction. The abnormal behaviour of Pavlov's dogs was
always the direct result of imposed stresses - not of the
release or acting out of pent up emotion. To restore them
after breakdown, Pavlov's dogs were never treated abreactively
but were given simple sedation. The fact is that
emotional abreaction simply will not fit in at all into the
Pavlovian formula of breakdown under stress because it is
psychologically and dynamically the exact opposite of such
a process - it is the recovery from breakdown.
'... When we inquire what are the common features of
both breakdown and recovery which lead Dr Sargant to
see both processes as amenable to similar explanations, we
find that both involve something which can be described
as "collapse"; and both involve striking changes in behaviour.
However, an examination of Dr Sargant's own
evidence will show very clearly that the changes in
behaviour involved in the two processes are exactly
opposite; that in the respective contexts of breakdown and
abreactive recovery, the word "collapse" means two
entirely different things . . . The collapse which super-
venes as a result of intolerable strain is a condition which
endures for some time and is manifest in breakdown,
restriction of personality, debilitating symptoms and
patterns of abnormal behaviour... The collapse that
supervenes at the end of emotional abreaction is a
comparatively short-lived physical exhaustion resulting
from violent emotional discharge. It soon passes quite
spontaneously to be followed at once by healing, liberation
of personality and the disappearance of neurotic symptoms
and abnormal behaviour patterns.'
Ramage is referring, in the last sentences above, to the
experience of the shell-shocked soldiers. He comments on
the fact that Sargant seems to link the violent emotional
experience of Pavlov's dogs in the flood serving to wipe out
all their carefully conditioned reflexes to the emotional
discharge of the soldiers which wiped out all their previous
neurotic symptoms, such as limb paralysis or tics. This,
Ramage says, implies that in Sargant's mind-conditioned
reflexes and neurotic symptoms are essentially the same.
The soldiers' neurotic symptoms were developed as a
defence against facing up to what had happened to them in
their war experience. Once the experience had been brought
to the surface and the associated feelings expressed, the
neurotic defence system was no longer necessary. Pavlov's
dogs did not develop of their own free will the tendency to
salivate at the sound of a bell or to associate the sight of an
ellipse with a reward; they were taught to do so. The
conditioned behaviour was not a defence.
Ramage does not deny Sargant's thesis altogether. He
accepts that the imposition of intolerable stress can have the
effects he describes and can therefore be applied to the
brainwashing phenomenon. But cathartic emotional discharge
leading to healing is something else - and that is what
is going on, he says, in therapeutic abreaction and religious
Not even Sargant has maintained that brainwashing or
sudden conversions necessarily last forever. He said:
'It is one thing to make the mind of a normal person break
down under intolerable stress, eradicate old ideas and
behaviour patterns and plant new ones in the vacant soil; it is
quite another to make these new ideas take firm root.'
The only way to do so, he says, is to consolidate the gains made.
So Wesley, for instance, after winning converts at his
emotional hell-fire sermons, quickly divided his new flock
into groups which met at least once a week. Other preachers
of his ilk who thought their work was done once conversion
was achieved soon lost most of those they had so dramatically
won for God.
An effective method of consolidating the ground won by
political or religious conversion techniques is to maintain
controlled fear and tension, says Sargant, and cites the
Chinese Communist doctrine that wrong thought is as evil as
wrong action. Such a doctrine would have the highly
desirable outcome that most would not dare to question the
rightness of what they have come to believe as that would
clearly be wrong thought - and punishable, should the
wrong thought slip out unintentionally in conversation or
even in one's sleep.
Quite clearly brainwashing does not last forever - if it
actually occurred in the first place - once the brainwashed
individual ceases to be in the environment where the
inculcated ideas are current. The American POWs who
returned home did not retain Communist ideals: many, of
course, may not have believed them in the first place but only
collaborated to make life easier.
Lifton's subjects, once they reached Hong Kong, did not
stay 'reformed' either but the psychological effects of the
whole process were long-lasting. Most couldn't instantly
adapt to Western life. It was as if, Lifton says, they had some
psychological business to attend to, to re-enact what had
happened and master it. Of course they also felt alienated in
their new country as most of the Westerners had lived in China
for very many years.
Years later, however, they were still grappling with
powerful emotions and ideas implanted by the Communists,
although hotly anti-Communist. Many still had fears of
annihilation. But some claimed that they felt strengthened
because they had had the experience of testing out their
emotional limits in a way few of us are ever called on to do -
and they survived.
Hinkle and Wolff say that even the most thorough
brainwashing can wear off in a short period. Even those
indoctrinated for five years could revert in a few months,
once away from the environment.
As environment and the prevailing current of opinion have
such bearing on whether brainwashing effects last, Brown
comes to the conclusion that, as a technique for changing
beliefs and behaviour, it isn't even necessary. Social forces
alone will do the work.
'... The individual will accept a substitute belief either
because it is capable of performing the same function as
the old one - for example in satisfying the need for a
totalist creed which provides certainty and controls his
"bad" impulses - or because the belief has become
orthodox and it is "natural" to conform, unless he is
prepared to become a social outcast. Thus in a Communist
community brainwashing is likely to work but is hardly
necessary, since in the long run people tend to conform
because they are social; but when applied to non-totalist
individuals who are returning to a non-Communist
society, it will not work at all.'
He does not, however, in this comforting dismissal, take
account of so-called brainwashing techniques which may be
applied within a society that allows the expression of various
ideologies. Individuals who join cults are prepared to be
social outcasts from the rest of society while conformists
within their own group. Being a conformist and being a
social outcast are therefore not mutually exclusive.
To dismiss brainwashing as ineffectual in the long term is
to ignore the fact, as so far shown, that the social and
psychological factors and unconscious conditioning which
combine to create it may each be powerful influencing forces
on their own. In all the foregoing accounts of the Korean
brainwashing experience, all the ingredients are seen as
roughly the same, only explanations differ,
1. The soldiers were forced to question beliefs they had
never questioned. Their certainty was undermined.
2. Their behaviour was shaped by the use of rewards
and other conditioning processes.
3. They were led to believe that no one at home cared
what happened to them. They felt out of control and learned
4. Degrading conditions and public humiliations served
to undermine their egos.
5. They were forced to participate in their own indoctrination
process by writing statements or organising camp
6. Removal of their leaders left them without a clearly
defined authority structure, and weakened group cohesion.
7. The Chinese, by pacing their demands and only
making large requests after being granted small ones, imperceptibly
won their commitment,
8. Need for friendship and approval led them to comply
with their jailers.
9. Induced anxiety, guilt, fear and insecurity led to suggestibility
and a need to confess,
10. The unpredictability of their captors' behaviour
confused their expectations and assumptions. Without a
'norm' to which they could adapt, they felt even less in
None of these stressors is situation-specific. Although the
effects were heightened by severe physical duress in Korea,
each can be seen in operation in more ordinary everyday
contexts- The next four chapters attempt to show how circumstances,
conditioned responses, physical and emotional
reactions can all act to weaken that which we choose to regard
as the unassailable self. Rather than the prey of victimising
external forces, we may, if anything, be victims of our own
false conceptions of what constitutes individual integrity...
-- from The Manipulated Mind by Denise Winn (Octagon Press, 1983)