The Naked Scientists spoke to Dr Kathleen Taylor, Oxford University
02 April 2006

Interview with 

Dr Kathleen Taylor, Oxford University


The wiring of the brain


Chris - The science of brainwashing. Is it really possible to make someone do and think things that they don't want to?

Kathleen - Absolutely.

Chris - Tell us how.

Kathleen - Well there are various ways of doing it. I'm afraid for those looking for the Manchurian candidate process X where you press a magic button and it all goes funny, there is no process X. However, what we do have is a set of psychological techniques that have been developed over many centuries but reached a head in the last half of the twentieth century. This is when they started being used on quite large levels to persuade, coerce, bully and sometimes even torture people into changing the way they thought about the world, changing the information thy used to deal with the world and changing the way that they behaved.

Chris - And what sorts of general examples are we talking about here?

Kathleen - Well the word brainwashing was coined in the Korean War. It was coined by an American journalist called Edward Hunter, who was working for the CIA. He wanted a term to describe what happened to America GIs who were kept in Chinese communist prisoner of war camps, and who came out denouncing the American way of life and denouncing imperialist poison. He couldn't understand why these boys who'd gone in good Americans had come out with an apparent complete reversal of their beliefs. He wanted to call that something, so he called it brainwashing.

Chris - Was it unshakeable this new belief they'd taken on? Was it just a matter of persuading them that perhaps they'd got it wrong and needed to rethink what they'd been told over the last few years?

Kathleen - No. They were there often for quite a long time but in some cases the beliefs lasted for quite a long time. The people became fervent communist converts. In other cases they developed very severe mental illness, psychosis, trauma and the effects were really very devastating in a lot of cases.

Chris - So if you chucked these people in Irene's brain scanner, would you be able to see structural changes in the brain which would be a sign of someone having undergone this kind of therapy, for want of a better term?

Kathleen - It's difficult to know because you wouldn't have a previous case to compare them with. You'd have to study them beforehand, so the brainwashing and then study them afterwards. Of course you can't do that because it's totally unethical to brainwash people. So we don't have an answer to that. We would suspect that you might see changes but whether those would be at that level of such big brain regions that you'd be able to detect them on a scanner is unknown for individual beliefs.

Chris - But you can see that people have changed their behaviour when they've been brainwashed. What about if you zoom in on the brain in a brain scanner? Can you actually give some indication about what bits of the brain are being affected and how they're being affected?

Kathleen - Yes. What you might expect to see is that different areas of the brain are activated in response to different stimuli. For example, an American GI might previously have responded very positively to the American flag. Now he might respond very negatively, so you might get a threat response that you previously associated with communism.

Chris - Is this just training then? Is this just like having a mouse in a cage and doing something nasty to it until it stops doing what gave it a nasty shock?

Kathleen - A certain amount of that it true because these are all basic psychological processes. There's no magic involved.

Chris - Why can't you just undo it then?

Kathleen - Because you're using an awful lot of stress and an awful lot of threat, coercion and sometimes torture as well. That is very traumatising in itself and to get over that takes a lot of therapy.

Chris - So it looks like it can be pretty permanent then?

Kathleen - It's a pretty terrible thing to do to somebody, yes.

Chris - If you'd like to know a little bit more about this, Kathleen has written a book about it call Brainwashing: the science of thought control. It's out at the moment from OUP.



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