The Creepy Truth About Brainwashing

Brainwashing is a term that gets used a lot. It conjures up terrifying images of people no longer in control of their own actions or thoughts, of being forced to do things they would never ordinarily do. Let's face it, there's not a heck of a lot we're actually in control of on our journey through this crazy old world, but our thoughts should be one of them.

The idea that they're not is more terrifying than your standard, run-of-the-mill horror movie, mostly because it's much more real than any ghosts, goblins, or homicidal dolls that make up the standard movie fare. Brainwashing is very real, and even worse, it can happen to anyone. The most common kinds of brainwashing happen in such a way that most people might not even recognize it. How's that for scary? Let's dig into brainwashing, but first, a disclaimer: By the time you finish reading, there's no guarantee you'll still think your thoughts are your own.

People were terrified because it was a Communist tool

People weren't always worried about brainwashing and mind control — the idea really started to grip the public consciousness with the icy hand of terror in the 1950s. The concept had been brought up in the previous decade, but in September 1950, the Miami Daily News ran the headline, "Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party" (via Smithsonian).

Journalist Edward Hunter (later revealed to be a CIA propaganda agent) described the use of ancient secrets to turn ordinary people into Communist puppets, sent into battle on behalf of Mao Zedong. He used a word that was a direct translation of the Mandarin xi-nao ("wash" and "brain"), and it wasn't long before the American public thought they were seeing it in action.

Colonel Frank Schwable was shot down over Korea in 1952, and the following year, he and other Korean War POWs were suddenly confessing to all kinds of horrible war crimes, from using germ warfare to attacking innocent civilians. By the end of the war, around 5,000 former POWs came forward with similar stories, so clearly, something was going on here and it needed explaining.

The U.S. military denied the confessions were true, but why did so many people tell so many similar stories? Brainwashing — using strange, secret, ancient Eastern techniques — was the answer spread by pop culture and public imagination.

Torture and brainwashing have pretty much the same result

While the American public went on about brainwashing, psychiatrists and military personnel tried to figure out just what had happened to so many of their soldiers to make them confess to terrible untruths.

Gradually, they came to realize the men hadn't been brainwashed with some sort of mystical, ancient technique; they had been tortured. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (who has worked with military veterans and studied Nazi doctors) came up with a list of eight points that defined what Mao's government called "thought reform" (via Smithsonian). They were the essentially the things that needed to fall into place for control to be complete, and included things like putting a person into a situation where their captors had complete control to force their own ideals onto a nonbelieving person.

That's exactly what had happened to the POWs, who were exposed to what must have seemed like endless sleep deprivation, starvation, and solitary confinement, all while being bombarded by Communist propaganda. In a bizarre twist, torture techniques became a part of soldiers' training, while civilian psychologists did other horrible things in the name of learning more.

The early experiments that shaped brainwashing as we know it

A Scottish psychiatrist, a Canadian hospital, and government funding all came together in the late 1950s, and it changed countless lives forever.

Ewen Cameron was working at Montreal's Allan Memorial Institute, and he was trying to figure out how someone could have their entire personality, memories, and mind wiped and replaced with something different. His research method? By doing it to unsuspecting patients. His work was conducted on patients who were absolutely unaware of what they were a part of, and it was more horrible than it sounds.

The Guardian spotlighted the case of one of his patients, Velma Orlikow. She went to the hospital to seek help for her postpartum depression, and she kept journals about what she endured. High-voltage electroshock treatment and LSD were administered until patients forgot basic skills, and until Orlikow felt "like her bones were melting." Once patients were turned helpless and almost vegetative, they were re-imprinted by being exposed to messages repeated for hours on end, hundreds of thousands of times, over and over. When patients started hurting themselves midway through sessions, Cameron put them in drug-induced comas for up to a month and kept playing the messages.

Cameron died in 1967, and in the decades after the families of former patients have pursued legal action against those who funded his experiments on their unknowing loved ones.

When students were brainwashed into becoming Nazis

CIA-sanctioned experiments on mind control are one thing, and it's easy to sit back and think brainwashing is easy to spot. There's nothing further from the truth, and in 1967 a California teacher named Ron Jones proved just how sneaky it can be. According to The Guardian, Jones decided to see how long it would take to turn his history class into a Nazi-esque state, and managed it in a couple days.

It started with instructing students to sit and breathe in a particular way, and to stand at attention when they answered questions. Then came the salute, and the selection of students for a special secret police force. Within days, students had made banners and membership cards, were ratting each other out for actions that didn't conform to Jones' teachings, and were forcing others to join the "Third Wave." Some students even acted as his bodyguards, and when Jones told them they were part of a national movement, things really went off the rails. Friendships were destroyed, fights broke out, and parents started complaining.

Jones called an assembly, and it was only when he start showing students footage of Hitler and Nazi rallies did they realize what they had fallen into. From start to finish, it took five days to turn an ordinary high school classroom into a totalitarian state (via SF Gate). Jones was let go two years later, and never taught high schoolers again.

It happens in relationships all the time

Brainwashing isn't just about military POWs and large-scale conflict. It happens so frequently in relationships that there's another name for it: perspecticide. It's a form of abuse, and it essentially occurs when a controlling person starts manipulating their partner's beliefs. That partner might start to think their views and opinions are wrong, that they're to blame for things that aren't their fault, and that anything their manipulator says is 100 percent true, 100 percent of the time.

It's a devious form of emotional abuse, and Lisa Aronson Fontes, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Business Insider that it often happens when one partner controls all aspects of life. That's absolutely everything — she's studied couples where one refuses the other the luxury of privacy, where one keeps the other awake all night and in a constant state of exhaustion, where one controls all the money and finances, and where one even convinces the other they're under constant surveillance. This kind of abuse results in withdrawal, loss of self, and loss of identity, and it can be overwhelming and difficult for someone inside the situation to spot.

One man could control anyone's thoughts with a simple chip

Jose Manuel Rodriguez Delgado was a scientist who dabbled in a different sort of mind control: the kind that was done with electrodes and chips implanted directly into the brain. John Horgan interviewed Delgado in 2005 (via Scientific American) and says his work with so-called "stimoceivers" went as far as it did largely because the 1960s didn't have the same sort of ethical regulations as the 21st century does.

Delgado's work was driven by his hope to treat various illnesses by implanting electrodes into certain parts of the brain and using them to stimulate specific areas. A lot of his work was done on animals and patients at the State Hospital for Mental Diseases in Rhode Island, where he found he could turn violent, sullen, and withdrawn patients into chatty, outgoing, flirtatious people by implanting electrodes in the brain and occasionally zapping them.

His most famous animal experiment was done on bulls, who would charge him only to be stopped in their tracks by a simple push of a button, activating a chip that turned them into mild-mannered beasts. Delgado's boasts that he could create "a less cruel, happier, and better man" were unsurprisingly controversial, and gradually faded from mainstream science.

It can happen to anyone, and here's why

It's easy to sit back in front of the computer, comfortable in a big, safe chair, and think that brainwashing is something that happens to someone else. But there's only one requirement that makes someone vulnerable to brainwashing, and that's just being human.

CNN talked to Steven Hassan, a mental health counselor who knows firsthand what it's like. He was a devout follower of Sun Myung Moon and spent more than two years in the Unification Church before he could admit he had been coerced into joining a cult. He — and other experts — say that what makes someone vulnerable to what's traditionally called brainwashing is a "situational vulnerability," and it can happen to anyone.

Situational vulnerabilities are essentially difficult periods in life, like losing a loved one, or feeling the isolation of moving to a new city. People are looking for something to belong to, which makes them more willing to open themselves up to new things — including manipulation. When we're promised a way to take away our fears, our loneliness, and the difficulties in life, we're willing to go a long, long way. Cult survivor Alexandra Stein says brainwashing often happens "by accident," and we're all vulnerable because we all want to belong to something.

Why some psychologists hate the term's traditional meaning

There's nothing simple or straightforward about the idea of brainwashing, and some hate the fact the term is even used. When a group of psychologists published a list of inaccurate, misleading, and confusing words that should be avoided in an issue of Frontiers in Psychology, "brainwashing" was high on the list.

They say it's misleading, first because it incorrectly implies there's a different science behind brainwashing than other types of basic thought-changing processes, even ones as standard as a person reaffirming their commitment to achieving their goals in life. Rebecca Moore, a professor at San Diego State University, doesn't like the term because it "dehumanizes" people and robs them of their own agency.

She's familiar with the consequences of thought control: Two of her sisters were involved in the 1978 Jonestown mass suicides. Moore says (via the Independent) "brainwashing" takes a complex subject and simplifies it way more than it should be, and by simplifying it, it doesn't do justice to the people involved.

How social media is brainwashing people right now

Gone might be the days of top-secret experiments in government-funded hospitals, but that's not to say brainwashing (in the traditional sense) has disappeared from the world.

Psychology Today says there's a heck of a lot of it going on in social media. And not just in advertisements, although that's part of it. This is about the way social media sites gather data about us in order to present us with selected advertising and suggestions based on what they already know we're susceptible to. And it works. Studies have shown that when ads are specifically targeted to our personalities, they're more successful at getting people to perform a certain behavior. The ads that pop up on social media feeds might be selected because data suggests the target is an introvert, a cat-lover, or a history buff, and when ads key into that, they're more likely to make a target do what the advertiser wants. Usually, that's buying something.

That might sound pretty harmless to everything but your bank account, but there are other things going on in cyberspace. It's also called grooming, and in 2015 Business Insider reported on the discovery of a leaked document that told just how groups like ISIS were using social media to target vulnerable people and recruit them. Brainwashing is alive and well, and it's living on the internet.

Deprogramming is just as controversial (and weird)

One of the reasons psychologists have problems with the term "brainwashing" is that it's unclear just how permanent changes in thoughts and beliefs are (via Frontiers in Psychology). Still, the public's obsession with brainwashing gave rise to another type of mind-influencer: the deprogrammer.

The most famous is possibly Ted Patrick, who embarked on a deprogramming crusade after his son was "psychologically kidnapped" into a cult, as Skeptoid puts it. He went on to be hired by hundreds of families who believed their loved ones needed to be deprogrammed from brainwashing, and his methods were questionable at best. Anything that starts with a kidnapping is morally ambiguous, and that's how Patrick's deprogrammings usually started.

They continued with counselling by force and physical restraint if the client was inclined to fight their deprogramming, and the law absolutely got involved. Patrick — and other deprogrammers — have been convicted for their efforts, and even those he supposedly helped say they aren't too sure about what happened.

It's surprisingly easy to brainwash people

Brainwashing is essentially mind control, and here's the most terrifying thing of all: People do it to each other (lightly) all the time.

Inc took a look at some of the techniques frequently used to manipulate people into thinking a certain way, giving a certain response to a question, or to encourage someone to do something. Some are sort of harmless, like doing someone a favor with the knowledge you're going to be asking for something in return or asking a coworker for a favor in a social setting rather than a business one.

Others are a little more diabolical, and worth keeping an eye out for. Next time someone is trying to get you to agree with something, pay attention to their body language and yours. Mimicry is commonly used to subconsciously make a person more relatable, and ultimately, make a request harder to deny. Fast-talkers are messing with minds, too, as they're providing an overload of information that makes it more likely a person will agree with something without fully processing what they're saying or agreeing to. Wearing people down with long waits and longer conversations or asking at the end of the day is setting people up. They're vulnerable when they're tired and just want to get home, and that sounds an awful lot like those situational vulnerabilities that make people susceptible to brainwashing, even if it is small-scale and short-term.