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How brainwashing came to life and thrived

Jeff Stryker | August 5 2004

Director Jonathan Demme fiddles with the classics again. After a remake of "Charade," he now offers up "The Manchurian Candidate" for a nervous, post Sept. 11 era.

The original 1962 film featured Angela Lansbury as a political Svengali and Frank Sinatra as an Army major who tracks down Laurence Harvey, an American soldier captured during the Korean War and programmed through hypnotism for assassination by Chinese Communists. The film was based on a 1959 best-selling book by Richard Condon. For all the critical acclaim and subsequent political attention (Did Lee Harvey Oswald see it or not?), the movie flopped initially and was withdrawn from release after John F. Kennedy's assassination.

"The Manchurian Candidate" remake brings to a wider audience questions about the role of the state in brainwashing and mind control, a topic usually reserved for the "nutters" on the Internet, as a character in the new movie puts it succinctly.

Updating the politics of the era, the Communist evil empire has been replaced by a multinational corporation, Manchurian Global. Updating the science, hypnosis and brainwashing have been augmented with electrodes in the brain, microchips implanted in the body and electroshock.

The term "brainwashing" was first popularized by Edward Hunter, in his 1951 book, "Brainwashing in Red China." Brainwashing was his translation for a Chinese term "hsi-nao," meaning, roughly, "cleansing of the mind." "It is practically impossible to fight something until it has been given a name," Hunter wrote, saying that brainwashing had a more "flesh-and-blood" quality than a more clinical alternative, "menticide," which means murder of the mind.

The fear of brainwashing was rooted in wartime, fueled by anti-communist fervor and tinged with racism and xenophobia. Some U.S. prisoners of war in Korea renounced their citizenship in radio broadcasts and many signed confessions against American interests, including charges, still debated today, that the United States was engaged in germ warfare with anthrax.

For Americans to abandon their ideals, the Communists must have devised some nefarious new means of thought control -- or so it was thought.

The Army conducted shipboard interviews with more than 4,000 returning American prisoners of the Korean conflict. Robert Jay Lifton, one of the psychiatrists who conducted the interviews, analyzed them in his 1961 classic book, "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism."

Lifton concluded that the Chinese interrogation techniques were merely time-honored methods of psychological coercion: isolation, humiliation and the repetition of propaganda. But by this time, it was too late. The "flesh-and- blood" term brainwashing had come to life and refused to be contained, never really losing its power.

George Romney's 1967 comment that he had been "brainwashed" about the Vietnam War put the kibosh on Romney's run for the presidency, prompting opponent Eugene McCarthy to quip that a "light rinse would have done."

The question of whether religious cults were brainwashing adherents kept the notion alive through the 1960s and '70s. Brainwashing was claimed as a defense in a number of American court cases, but without much success (It did not work for Patty Hearst, for example). In recent years, claims of brainwashing have been asserted for sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, the American Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh and kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart.

"Today, the notion surfaces in court mostly in child custody disputes, where one parent accuses the other of 'brainwashing' -- more as a rhetorical flourish rather than any real scientific claim," said Alan Scheflin, a professor of law at Santa Clara University and author of "The Mind Manipulators."

To update the science of brainwashing for the new "Manchurian Candidate," Demme, the director, turned to Jay Lombard, a physician who treats brain disorders in Nyack, NY.

Lombard said it wasn't a big stretch to think that as scientists got better and better at understanding how the brain works, they could eventually use that knowledge to influence behavior. As an adviser to Demme, he said he "put on my devil's cap and used my own fantasies as to what might be possible. "

Other experts in neurosciences asked about the technology in "The Manchurian Candidate" agreed that true mind control -- the ability to create specific thoughts or memories with brain chips or electromagnetic waves -- is still the stuff of science fiction. But the movie's theme of medical technology morphing into nefarious military applications resonated nonetheless.

"The same thing that might help a fighter pilot control his plane by brain waves might also help a spinal cord patient control his environment," said Martha Farah, a scientist with the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, who is an exponent of the burgeoning field known as "neuroethics," a term coined by New York Times columnist William Safire.

The worry that research in the neurosciences might get out of hand is not without historical precedent.

Helen McGonigle, a Connecticut lawyer who represents victims of trauma and sexual abuse, knows she sounds like one of the nutters on the Internet when she talks about the history of military involvement in mind control.

When asked if she thinks the government is still in the business of mind control, McGonigle responded without skipping a beat. "Absolutely," she said. "The history of the Bluebird, Artichoke and MKULTRA definitely raise the bar of suspicion," McGonigle said, ticking off a series of government experiments involving hypnosis, sleep deprivation and the use of psychotropic drugs.

MKULTRA, underway from 1953 to 1966, involved research into mind-control agents at scores of prestigious institutions by prominent psychologists. MKULTRA scientists attempted to determine whether LSD could be aerosolized effectively; the CIA even hired a magician to teach field agents how to slip LSD into the drinks of unwitting subjects.

Other experiments involved various forms of sleep deprivation and hypnosis. Consider a research question posed in CIA documents from the Bluebird experiments in the 1950s: "Could we seize a subject and in the space of an hour or two by post-H[ypnotic] control have him crash an airplane, wreck a train, etc.?"

The techniques of Cold War mind control experiments -- slipping unwitting subjects a Mickey Finn -- seem quaint from the perspective of today's high-tech approaches. Indeed, many of the bits and pieces of neuroscience in the new movie are already science fact, even if they don't necessarily add up neatly.

Microchips have long been used to track animals and to tag surgical implants. Today's microchips, which are about the size of a grain of uncooked rice, can now be linked to Global Positioning System equipment for surveillance and equipped with technology to relay information about vital signs remotely. A "brain fingerprinting" technique is already accepted by some courts; scalp-measured brain waves can detect so-called guilty knowledge, such as familiarity with people, objects or even terrorist training. Just a few weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first implant to treat a mood disorder: an electrode placed on the vagus nerve to treat depression.

Wrye Sententia monitors these developments, fighting the good fight for "cognitive liberties" as the executive director of the Center for Cognitive Liberties & Ethics in Davis. "We say 'cognitive liberties' rather than 'freedom of thought,' because cognitive liberties marks the intersection of brain science and policy," she said. The center is not out to stop brain research, but believes the Constitution and other legal protections should guarantee both the right to be free from unwarranted mental intrusions and to have access to new neurotechnologies, for those who want them.

"The Manchurian Candidate"-style advances have prompted the center to expand its mission to monitor military activities, including the government's "weaponizing of psychoactive drugs." According to reports in Mother Jones last year and the New York Times magazine last week, university and government scientists interested in "non-lethal weapons" are considering the use of psychoactive drugs, such as ecstasy or Valium, as "calmative" weapons to subdue unruly crowds.

It sounds like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster.