Brainwashing is actually possible

Does brainwashing work?

And again many fear that foreign powers will intervene in our thinking, influence our decisions, turn our minds around. Cold War Lessons for the Digital Age.

We live in difficult times. In March, former Soviet spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned with a nerve gas in Salisbury, England. 30 kilometers from where I am writing this article, it is still in the hospital at the moment. The alleged perpetrator? Russia.

A month before Skripal was poisoned, the heads of six US intelligence agencies confirmed that a coordinated series of cyberattacks had been launched in 2016 to undermine the presidential elections. The mid-term elections of 2018, they all agreed, would already be under heavy attack. According to the special investigator Robert Mueller, this interference constituted an "information war". Who is behind the attacks? Russia.

The British company Cambridge Analytica was recently accused of secretly interfering in both the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote in Great Britain: Cambridge Analytica had obtained data from Facebook in order to influence voters in the interests of their customers.

Two points can be deduced from these incidents: First, we have apparently entered a new Cold War in which Russia is taking every means to achieve its ends (whatever they may be). Second, the most important battlefield in this new war is the internet. The covert manipulation of information enables the Russians and others to undermine the democratic principles of the West. Our freedom, it seems, is under attack.

We were already at this point.

On July 8, 1952, Colonel Frank H. Schwable, chief of staff of the 1st US Marine Squadron, was shot down over Korea. Shortly after he parachuted off his plane - right into the arms of the Chinese and Korean military - a terrible rumor surfaced.

Schwable was a trophy for his Chinese and Korean captors. As a colonel, he could become a propaganda tool. But how could he get that far? Seven months after the capture, the answer was clear.

In February 1953, footage of Schwable, a World War II veteran who had been awarded the Legion of Merit three times, was broadcast in China. On the broadcasts, he made an extraordinary admission: The United States was committing war crimes in Korea. American pilots bombarded civilians with biological weapons. The operation is codenamed VMF-13 and only a handful of high-ranking officials know of its existence.

According to Schwable, the bioweapons program was approved by the United States General Staff in October 1951. The first operational tests with B-29 bombers that took off from Okinawa took place in November, and soon other aircraft such as Tiger Cats, Skyraiders and Corsairs were also equipped with the devices for dropping bioweapons. The tests were so secret that even the pilots didn't know what they were carrying.

Schwable said they dropped canisters of germs at different heights over North Korea to determine how the bacteria spread. From this it can be calculated how they can be used most effectively. So the United States had dropped biological weapons on Korea - and they still did. That was, Schwable himself admitted, "a shame".

The charge was not new. For months the Chinese had accused Americans of biological warfare. As evidence, they distributed photos of oddly shaped canisters containing beetles and gel-like substances that had been dropped by US forces. But only Schwable's confession with code names, dates and names of officers in charge made the allegations credible. Not long after Schwable's testimony was broadcast, images of another 35 captured US pilots who had also participated in the operation followed.

There was only one problem. No biological weapons were used over Korea. All of the confessions were false.

What happened?

The intelligence services in the West recalled a case from Moscow almost two decades ago. Stalin had arrested members of his inner circle and brought them to justice for horrific but completely unbelievable crimes.

During the Moscow show trials, the Soviet public prosecutor repeatedly yelled at the defendants that they were "rabid dogs" that should be "removed and shot". And the alleged conspirators excelled in agreeing with their accuser.

Sergei Mrachovski, a man with impeccable revolutionary credentials, confessed to a bizarre conspiracy aimed at assassinating Stalin. Lev Kamenev declared that he was a "bloodthirsty enemy" of the Soviet Union who tried to kill Stalin's henchman Sergei Kirov in an act of "heinous betrayal". Edouard Holtzman declared that he and his friends were “not just murderers, but fascist murderers”. And for Yuri Piatakov, the crimes of his co-defendants - including his ex-wife - weighed so heavily that he asked permission to shoot them personally.

Although there was no evidence of their guilt, in this Kafkaesque nightmare the defendants not only demanded to be found guilty, they demanded the harshest punishment. Arkadi Rosengoltz said: "I don't want to live with this shame any longer." Alexei A. Shestov demanded that the proletarian court should not spare his life. And it doesn't have that either. He was shot. All were shot - after thanking the prosecutor for the honor of the maximum sentence.

During the show trials, it was suspected in the West that the Soviets had beaten the defendants' confessions. But the Schwable case was different. He wasn't Russian. He was an officer in the Marines. He did not appear to have been beaten or injured in any other way. It was as if something had changed him. Just what could that be?

A month after Schwable's confession, the director of the CIA went public. The communists, Allen Dulles explained, have discovered techniques that they use to force people to confess to crimes they never committed. "New techniques," he said, "wash the thoughts and mental processes of the past from the brain and ... create new processes and new thoughts that the victim repeats like a parrot."

The intention is to change a brain so radically, explained the CIA analyst Edward Hunter, that its owner would become a living puppet - a human robot - without the atrocity being visible from the outside. The victims are transformed into helpless machines that unwind confessions "like a record". Never before had such a horrific experiment been carried out on the human psyche. It attacks the spirit of the free man, collectively as well as individually. The Cold War had entered a new era of psychological conflict: the battle for heads. "We could call it brain warfare in its new form," said Dulles. "Brainwashing" was born.

65 years later, history repeats itself. Again the West is faced with the secret attempt to corrupt its free will. Again, the main culprit seems to be Russia. According to its accusers, the former Soviet Union is using technology to shake the very fabric of democracy. By collecting data, creating fake news and manipulating what we believe to be the truth, Russia is targeting our sacred cow: freedom. And the operation is so successful that until recently we didn't even know it was happening. Dan Coats summed up the situation in February: "We have to inform the public about it," the head of the American intelligence services announced to Congress, "that this is real." According to Coats, the time had come for Americans to stand up and say "we don't allow any Russians to tell us how to vote or how to run our country."

Russia is not the only player in this game, of course. Cambridge Analytica, the company that has gathered millions of data from Facebook subscribers to influence elections around the world, is the latest culprit to be brought to light. How many more are there? We do not know it. Who else interferes in our information? We have no idea. We don't understand the technique or the true nature of the risk. We just know that we are being attacked and we don't like that. Because if the threat is real - if our own choices aren't our own choices - then whose choices are they? And how should we react if someone tries to undermine our ability to make free and informed decisions? Everywhere we look: speculation, but no clear answers. Maybe we should learn from the past.

Reports of Chinese and Soviet advances in brainwashing horrified the world. It presented itself as a terrible alchemy of the techniques introduced by Aldous Huxley in "Brave New World" and George Orwell in "1984". The British brainwashing expert William Sargant compared manipulation techniques of the Soviets in 1956 with the total destruction by a nuclear war. Brainwashing was inhuman, rape of the soul. Nothing less than a combination of the theories of Doctor Pavlov and the ruse of Doctor Fu Manchu could lead to such results, wrote the Journal of Social Issues. The psychiatrist Joost Meerloo called it "menticide".

Faced with such a threat, the CIA had to respond. Immediately after the Korean “confessions”, the agency embarked on an escalating and secret hunt for brainwashing techniques. Truth drugs, hypnosis, subliminal advertising, sensory deprivation: the list of “black psychiatry” techniques the agency was studying grew longer and longer.Twenty years of CIA-funded scientists have dedicated themselves to finding: ways to make people lie or tell the truth; and means by which people can be confused, programmed or forgotten.

In 1962, a CIA-sponsored researcher injected a seven-ton elephant with 300 milligrams of LSD to see how it responded. (He died.) In 1967 the agency tested a microchip that, when implanted in a mammalian brain, enabled remote control of the animal ("Acoustic Kitty," the CIA's first remote-controlled cat, was run over on its first outing). For a decade, the CIA operated so-called safe houses in the United States. They were equipped with one-way mirrors and monitoring devices so officers could watch and record what happened when prostitutes drugged their unsuspecting clients.

Many of the experiments were not very amusing. At the Addiction Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky, Harris Isbell fed the CIA's experimental drugs to incarcerated criminals. In 1954 he administered double, triple and quadruple doses of LSD to seven inmates for 77 days at a time.

Not long after that, Ewen Cameron of the Allan Memorial Institute in Montréal, Canada, received nearly $ 75,000 from the CIA. His mission? To find out if it is possible to eradicate human memories. Cameron's ignorant patients, mostly middle-aged people with depression, were treated with LSD, mescaline, PCP, psilocybin - and various other drugs that Cameron got his hands on. The "treatment" consisted of giving the patients numerous high-dose electric shocks (up to 24 per day) for a month, so that they lost a considerable part of their memory. He then put her into a chemically induced sleep that could last 65 days. Cameron hid loudspeakers under her pillows that repeated messages endlessly. Could he after seeing the

Had the mind freed from memories restart the brain that way? Of course not. Instead, he harmed many of his patients so severely that they had to wear diapers for the rest of their lives.

The brainwashing research had gone astray. The CIA broke laws in the name of justice and undermined human rights in the name of freedom. Your program was staggering for two reasons: First, much of the research appears to have been offensive. The original aim was to find out how one's own agents could be protected from brainwashing if they fell into communist hands. But early documents in the archives show that the Americans increased the stakes once they started the experiments. They decided to refine the techniques so that they could be applied to the Soviets themselves: no longer as a means of defense, but as an attack.

The second reason: the whole program was a failure. Neither technique worked. There is neither a technique with which one can control the brain nor one which forces one to the truth. Memories cannot be operated on in a targeted manner. And murder cannot be ordered under hypnosis.

I'll get angry emails about the last paragraph. That happens every time I say that brainwashing doesn't work. Then I get sad, desperate cries for help from people who are convinced that the Mafia is bombarding them with low-frequency sound waves, the CIA is attacking their genitals with gamma rays, or a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy is enslaved the planet and they are a victim of it.

But I'll repeat anyway: brainwashing doesn't work. And it never worked. The confessions at the Russian show trials had been wrested from the defendants with a combination of brutality and physical threats to their families. In Korea, prisoners of war had been subjected to horrific treatment for months. Those who worked with their kidnappers did so out of fear. And, as Colonel Frank Schwable explained when he finally returned home: because the prisoners assumed that these "confessions" were so ridiculous that no one in the West would ever take them seriously. Schwable did not say the United States dropped biological weapons on Korea because he believed in them. He said it so that his kidnappers would stop causing him pain.

Granted, there are manipulative techniques that can be used to attack the mind in order to force people to change their beliefs. Some were actually used in Korea, and some are still used by cults and terrorist organizations to this day.

Even so, there is no surefire way to force someone to change their mind. John Marks, the researcher who published details of the CIA's brainwashing program back in the 1970s, told me there was no evidence that there was any silver bullet in this area. If science had really discovered a method that worked, it would have gone undetected for a year or two at the most: "These kinds of things cannot be kept secret."

Brainwashing was a myth born out of the Cold War hysteria.

And where are we 65 years later?

Once again, it seems, we are in danger.

Once again, a hostile nation has developed super-intelligent, super-secret technology capable of manipulating our decisions, tinkering with our free will, and undermining our freedom. And once again that nation is Russia. So how should we react?

Our knee-jerk reaction is the same as it was in the 1950s: panic. Now I am neither a Russia expert nor a computer expert. I've never tweeted and I don't know what Snapchat is. But after a few years researching the history of brainwashing, I have strong suspicions: Secret technical threats have an uncanny tendency to gain power in our minds much greater than what they actually have.

Is there a grain of truth in the claim that Russia tried to interfere in the American elections? Probably. Has Cambridge Analytica played with Facebook's metadata? Probably. (And now the company is broke.) Are others trying to do the same? With a probability bordering on certainty. But the brainwashing phenomenon shows that the threat is nowhere near as grave as it seems. Yes, the whole thing is scary. Yeah, it's sneaky. But what effect does voter manipulation really have? We do not know it. It is quite possible that the real risk is not the technical attacks from outside. It's our overreaction to it.

Should Russia be scourged for the attempts? In any case. And Cambridge Analytica? For sure. But should this issue give us nightmares? Not if you have learned from history.

Dominic Streatfeild is an English journalist. He wrote the book "Brainwashing", which was published by Verlag Zweiausendundeins. Translation: Barbara Klingbacher

This article comes from the magazine NZZ Folio from June 2018 on the subject of "Opinion". You can order this issue or subscribe to the NZZ Folio.