Dr Kathleen Taylor from Oxford University.
Hannah - What about using psychology findings to control the thoughts of the opposition? The word “brainwashing” was coined over 70 years ago. During the Korean war, American soldiers in Chinese prisoner of war camps came home communists, denouncing the American way of life - an apparent reversal of their beliefs. To find out about the science of “brainwashing”, I caught up with Dr. Kathleen Taylor from Oxford University.
Kathleen - The whole idea of brainwashing is really contested. This is not some kind of magical weird process. It’s just this basic application of psychology and neuroscience only taken to very extremes. Because it’s very coercive, you don’t get people doing brainwashing research, at least not in reputable institutions. So, there is no field of brainwashing research, that's the first point.
However, neuroscience is making some progress in understanding the kinds of changes that might take place in the brain when somebody is put in that kind of very stressful situation. So for example, the US military has done research looking at the effects of stress on the brain and looking at stress hormones and how they affect particularly pre-frontal areas because I think the essence of a quote, unquote brainwashing situation is when somebody is very, very highly stressed. They're put under an awful lot of pressure and that pressure might be emotional abuse, it might be lack of sleep, it might be forced to do repetitive behaviours, it might be isolation from all the things that they know so they're kind of disoriented, and it might be that their inputs are controlled so that their entire reality is under somebody else’s control. So, all of that is going to change the brain. Of course it is, everything changes the brain, but those allow the “brainwasher” to have much more control over what's actually going into the brain and obviously, what's going into the brain is to a certain extent, determining what is being thought by the brain and what is coming out in the terms of actions and behaviours.
So, you see for example that in cults, the once that exert the most bizarre control, the ones that really seem to be able to make people do very extreme things are the ones that are very isolated and having a lot more control of the person’s situation whereas cults like the Moonies, that people operate in society are much less extreme.
Hannah - What kind of implications are there for “brainwashing” in the world of politics?
Kathleen - I mean, there are loads, absolute loads. So for example, it is possible that as people develop more understanding of how beliefs changes happens in the brain that they want to use that in situations where you have people with beliefs that don’t match yours and that raises huge political and ethical questions. So for example, you have the simple questions of who decides whose beliefs are okay and whose beliefs aren’t. And then you have the whole ethical thing about whether changing somebody’s belief is actually like treating them for a mental illness or whether it’s like doing something else. I mean, there are really big questions about this. So, the whole idea of beliefs in politics and whether they can be changed and specifically, whether they can be changed artificially – I mean, people are really interested in working out how beliefs are based on how they're encoded in the brain. That's the first step to wanting to be able to change them and I mean, that's just one of the big issues that neuroscience is going to raise increasingly in the next years and decades. It’s one of the biggest.
Hannah - And I'm afraid that's all we have time for this month. Thanks to Fran Ashcroft, David Jett, Rod Flowers, Kathleen Taylor, Mark Lyndhurst, Ty Carter, Barrack Obama, and Amy Milton.
How can you tweak with people's belief systems to alter their viewpoints?
We are born with no beliefs. We learn to believe whatever gives us comfort or prevents pain. So if we are offered greater comfort or worse pain, we can change our beliefs.
In a book called The Rational Animal, Douglass Krendrick and Vladas Griskevicius discuss subconscious programs that the human brain runs in different situations when prompted by different stimuli. They argue that there are not necessarily different personality "types" but just one or more programs that get run more often, based on either the kind of situations a person ends up in a lot, or perhaps how successful those programs have been in meeting needs in the past.
Maybe that's why they invented the concept of the subconscious, because can we become partially aware of these responses, or override, or select between programs, and because some learned responses can become automatic as well.
I'm beginning to realize that “brainwashing” has a pretty wide range of states. Mild forms as in societal norms or pop culture marketing to very extreme situations as in captive abuse. Abruptly changing someone's fundamental beliefs that they have formed over a lifetime would be very difficult, I guess that is why torture is not very effective, or so I'm told. Over a more prolonged period, humans like all animals adapt as best they can, apparently people have been enslaved for years in otherwise free societies.
I’m not sure if you mean learned behavior on the part of the abuser or abused, or both.
Yes, I would think the dynamics of street gangs, would be very similar to cults and abusive relationships. The display of violence towards other people and objects is a subtle but ever present message - this could happen to you, if you are disloyal -without the group, you are nothing. cheryl j, Sun, 8th Dec 2013
I picked up a very perceptive line - in fact the only line I heard - from a radio play. The torturer said to his victim "You will come to love me because I am the only person who can stop the pain". The I arrived at my destionation and switched the radio off, but it was worth hearing just for that. alancalverd, Mon, 9th Dec 2013
Fear-based conditioning works pretty well for religions. I believe fear have such an effect on the hippocampus and amygdala that it can repress higher forms of learning. Hence, brainwashing may be a emotional response to the stress generated from fear, were our cognitive functions and subconscious become infiltrated from the coercive persuasion.
Propaganda probably works in multiple ways. Just repeat something often enough and people start to give it more credibility, even if its been disproven ( like autism and vaccines.)
Brainwashing or coercive persuasion is more dangerous than propaganda. Common sense and reasoning can overcome propaganda which is often promoted by authorities. For example the prohibition of cannabis is a form of state-sponsored propaganda to restrict access to natural medicine over synthetic drugs.