Brainwashing and thought control in the news but far from new

Pittsburg Morning Sun/June 22, 2003
By Steven Halley

Brainwashing and thought control have been in the news a great deal lately. They have been used in the context of the suicide bombers who willingly kill themselves and others for the "good of the cause."

They have also been used in the context of some extreme religious groups by the way they indoctrinate followers to accept a certain set of beliefs that may seem bizarre to the average onlooker.

I became interested in the idea of "brainwashing," and found an excellent book by William Sargant entitled "Battle for the Mind." In this book, Sargant explains clearly that we all are capable of falling victim to alterations in our thinking through specific techniques.

Ivan Pavlov, the famous Russian scientist, is the man credited with helping us understand more about our abilities to implant thoughts and behaviors in others. He did it with remarkable experiments on dogs. He is most famous for training a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell, without seeing or smelling any food. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for this work. His later work is lesser known, but perhaps much more important. He was able to show scientifically that behaviors in animals could be established or erased by creating the appropriate amount of stress for the animal. For example, with the right amount of stress, he could make a dog react aggressively to a caretaker with whom the dog was once extremely loyal. He applied stress to his animals through emotional means and through medical means. Regardless of the method, each animal had a certain level of tolerance to stress. Once that level was surpassed, the animal began to break down, and changes in the animal's behavior could be observed.

Sargant noted that the same observations that Pavlov made in dogs are also applicable to humans. During World War II, soldiers who were subjected to weeks of intense battle were observed as having similar behaviors as the animals in Pavlov's lab. The soldiers were able to tolerate a certain amount of stress, and then once that level was passed, the soldiers began to behave in manners consistent with Pavlov's experiments.

Sargant goes on to explain that emotional reactivity is crucial in thought control and behavior change. When a person becomes emotionally involved, this person enters a state of mind that is wide open for suggestibility. Sargant, a religious man himself, illustrates this with the example of charismatic ministers of all faiths who are skillful at hooking their audience with emotionally-charged messages. Sargant says ministers are more likely "to achieve success if they can first induce some degree of nervous tension or stir up sufficient feelings of anger or anxiety to secure the person's undivided attention and possibly increase his suggestibility."

Sargant is clear that brainwashing and thought control occur in many arenas. Sure it can occur in the religious world, but it also can occur in the political world. For example, a political prisoner is not allowed to sleep or eat much for a lengthy period of time. During this time, he is being intensely confronted with the "evils of democracy." Finally, as the stress grows to an intolerant level, the prisoner becomes willing to denounce democracy, and accept his captors point of view. A dramatic, but genuine thought shift occurs.

After reading Sargant's book, I understand better how a person could be convinced to become a suicide bomber. We presently live in a world full of fear, which was compounded tremendously after 9-11.

As a society, we fear a variety of things. Terrorist and weapons of mass destruction are two obvious examples. Our fear may make us vulnerable to the powers of suggestion by authorities as to how to best ease our anxiety. The difficulty is in discerning what we should be genuinely fearful of, and what fears are being used to push us toward alternative ways of thinking.

Ah, the million dollar question!


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