Someone grabbing at their exposed brain
While "brainwashing" may be a familiar term in pop culture, did you know it has roots in real-world situations, such as the Korean War? (Illustration by Molly Posten, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)

Brainwashing Isn’t Like It Is in the Movies, but Scientists Did Once Take It Seriously

This term is frequently thrown around in pop culture, but many people don’t know that it was used in real experimentation and research. 

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Someone grabbing at their exposed brain
While "brainwashing" may be a familiar term in pop culture, did you know it has roots in real-world situations, such as the Korean War? (Illustration by Molly Posten, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)

This term is frequently thrown around in pop culture, but many people don’t know that it was used in real experimentation and research. 

In the 1950s, American journalist Edward Hunter coined the term brainwash from the Mandarin phrase xi-nao — xi meaning “wash” and nao meaning “brain.” While some psychologists believe that brainwashing may be possible under the right conditions, many see it as unlikely, or at least less severe than what is portrayed by the media. Although the exaggerated aspects of brainwashing may be more science fiction than fact, that doesn’t mean people didn’t think it was real. Real fears motivated the U.S. to pump several resources into trying to both achieve and prevent it.

Brainwashing is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and is found under “dissociative disorders” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-III. It is considered to be an invasive form of influence, requiring certain conditions of isolation and the dependency of a subject in order for control to be exerted. Using isolation, malnutrition and sleep deprivation, a brainwasher can use guilt, self-betrayal and assaults on identity to force the brainwashed person into a nervous breakdown, all so that their belief system can be replaced with a different one.

The Science Behind Hypnosis
The Science Behind Hypnosis

Brainwashing is typically thought of as a process that results in a drastic change in the way someone thinks: This can include a change in beliefs, behavior and/or attitudes. It is important to note that people’s beliefs are constantly changed in small, various ways all the time, which is called social influence. Brainwashing refers to an extreme version of this. People are constantly being conditioned to adjust their behaviors based on rewards and punishments, but this does not mean they are being brainwashed.

Even under ideal brainwashing conditions, many of those who are brainwashed only experience the effects of changed attitudes and beliefs in the short term. This means the victim’s previous identity was not really destroyed, but left lingering below the surface. When the new identity stops being reinforced, the person’s old beliefs tend to return. If they regain their sense of self once those conditions are removed, is it still considered brainwashing if it didn’t permanently alter their mental state? Many experts say that brainwashing is often mistaken for coercion, persuasion and conditioning.

During the Korean War, American military personnel were captured and held as prisoners of war, or POWs, by Korean and Chinese military. When reports came out that the American POWs were acting strange, talks of brainwashing surfaced. The reports stated that, at the end of their detainment, several POWs falsely confessed that they waged germ warfare, pledged their allegiance to communism and petitioned the U.S. government to end the war. Twenty-one American soldiers also refused repatriation. The U.S. military couldn’t explain their behavior, but was this really brainwashing?

People shouldn’t overlook the fact that the American soldiers trapped in the Korean prison camps were tortured. This torture included solitary confinement, forced standing, sleep deprivation and starvation, as well as repeated exposure to communist propaganda. Marcia Holmes, a science historian at the University of London’s “Hidden Persuaders” project, said the POWs were not manipulated into performing these seemingly out-of-character acts, but were just extremely — and understandably — traumatized.

After the incident, the military decided to take the threat of brainwashing, real or not, seriously. In order to understand the brainwashing process better and how it may affect their soldiers, they began conducting studies on psychological torture. They did not consider that the American soldiers needed therapy or rehabilitation, but rather that they needed training. They wanted to make their soldiers stronger to stand up to torture so they created the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program, or SERE. They hoped to immunize the soldiers by using the same torture techniques they endured in the prison camps, but this time, in training.

Mental detachment was one of the survival techniques taught to soldiers as part of their training. Soldiers were encouraged to use various meditative techniques, such as mantra recitation and visualization, to psychologically remove themselves from their surroundings in order to be less vulnerable to suggestibility. Making soldiers aware of brainwashing methods tends to make it less effective as well.

The CIA began conducting experiments too. In 1953, Project MK-ULTRA was created in the hopes of both proactively and actively fighting against the Soviet Union with the research gathered from experiments. Studies included the use of sensory deprivation, hypnotism, electroshock and drugs such as LSD. The CIA attempted to destroy much of the evidence of the program but, through a Freedom of Information Act request in 1977, thousands of files ended up being revealed, and the experiments proved to be extremely unethical. Participants, who included drug addicts and prisoners, were often used without giving their consent.

It is believed that all of this research and experimentation was due to the fears of brainwashing, rather than the reality of brainwashing itself. The American soldiers in the Korean War were never proven to have actually been mind-controlled. Some believe the rhetoric of brainwashing was used as propaganda to scare citizens about the communist regime so that they’d support the military and maybe even join themselves. Somewhere between propaganda and hearsay, the fear became real and the search became serious for a mind control weapon.

For now, the sensational aspects of brainwashing are relatively inaccurate. The specific conditions required to pull off brainwashing are hard to create and the effects often only last for a short amount of time. It has also never been studied in a formal lab setting due to ethical constraints, so researchers can only base their information on first-hand accounts.

Brainwashing as it’s shown in the media may not be real, but fear is a powerful motivator. Just the thought of mind control being used in other countries made people take vigorous action in both trying to recreate and defend against it. People can learn from their mistakes by deciding not to succumb to fear and always taking a moment to consider things objectively before plunging into action. You don’t want to become a prisoner of your own fears — otherwise, you won’t need brainwashing to influence you.

Writer Profile

Tiffany Singh

University of Central Florida
English

Tiffany is a rising junior who loves to read and write. She spends her free time watching movies and playing with her dog.

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