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mind control (brainwashing)

Mind control is the successful control of the thoughts and actions of another without his or her consent. Generally, the term implies that the victim has given up some basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes, and has been made to accept contrasting ideas. 'Brainwashing' is often used loosely to refer to being persuaded by propaganda.

conceptions & misconceptions of mind control

There are many misconceptions about mind control. Some people consider mind control to include the efforts of parents to raise their children according to social, cultural, moral and personal standards. Some think it is mind control to use behavior modification techniques to change one’s own behavior, whether by self-discipline and autosuggestion or through workshops and clinics. Others think that advertising and sexual seduction are examples of mind control. Still others consider it mind control to give debilitating drugs to a woman in order to take advantage of her while she is drugged. Some consider it mind control when the military or prison officers use techniques that belittle or dehumanize recruits or inmates in their attempt to break down individuals and make them more compliant. Some might consider it mind control for coaches or drill instructors to threaten, belittle, physically punish, or physically fatigue by excessive physical exercises their subjects in the effort to break down their egos and build team spirit or group identification.

Some of the tactics of some recruiters for religious, spiritual, or New Age human potential groups are called mind control tactics. Many believe that a terrorist kidnap victim who converts to or becomes sympathetic to her kidnapper's ideology is a victim of mind control (the so-called Stockholm syndrome). Similarly, a woman who stays with an abusive man is often seen as a victim of mind control. Many consider subliminal messaging in Muzak, in advertising, or on self-help tapes to be a form of mind control. Many also believe that it is mind control to use laser weapons, isotropic radiators, infrasound, non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse generators, or high-power microwave emitters to confuse or debilitate people. Many consider the "brainwashing" tactics (torture, sensory deprivation, etc.) of the Chinese during the Korean War and the alleged creation of zombies in Voodoo as attempts at mind control.

Finally, no one would doubt that it would be a clear case of mind control to be able to hypnotize or electronically program a person so that he or she would carry out your commands without being aware that you are controlling his or her behavior.

clarification of the term

A term with such slack in its denotation is nearly useless. In narrowing down the denotation the first thing to do is eliminate as examples of mind control those activities where a person  freely chooses to engage in the behavior. Controlling one's thoughts and actions, whether by self-discipline or with the help of others, is an interesting and important topic, but it is not the same as brainwashing or programming people without their consent.

Using fear or force to manipulate or coerce people into doing what you want them to do should not be considered to be mind control. Inquisitions do not succeed in capturing the minds of their victims. As soon as the threat of punishment is lifted, the extorted beliefs vanish. You do not control the mind of someone who will escape from you the moment you turn your back.

To render a woman helpless by drugs so you can rape her is not mind control. Using a frequency generator to give people headaches or to disorient them is not the same as controlling them. You do not have control over a person's thoughts or actions just because you can do what you want to them or render them incapable of doing as they will. An essential component of mind control is that it involves controlling another person, not just putting them out of control or doing things to them over which they have no control.

fiction and mind-control

Some of the more popular misconceptions of mind control originated in fiction, such as "The Manchurian Candidate." In that film, an assassin is programmed so that he will respond to a post-hypnotic trigger, commit a murder, and not remember it later. Other books and films portray hypnosis as a powerful tool, allowing the hypnotist to have his sexual way with a beautiful woman or to program her to become a robotic courier, assassin, etc. One such book even claims to be “based on a true story”: The Control of Candy Jones (Playboy Press, 1976) by Donald Bain. To be able to use hypnosis in this powerful way is little more than wishful thinking.

Other fictional fantasies have been created that show drugs or electronic devices, including brain implants, being used to control the behavior of people. It has, of course, been established that brain damage, hypnosis, drugs or electric stimulation to the brain or neural network can have a causal effect on thought, bodily movement, and behavior. However, the state of human knowledge on the effects of chemical or electrical stimulation to the brain is so impoverished that it would be impossible using today's knowledge and technology to do anything approaching the kind of mind control accomplished in fantasy. We can do things that are predictable, such as cause loss of a specific memory or arousal of a specific desire, but we cannot do this in a way which is non-intrusive or which would have the significance of being able to control a large array of thoughts, movements, or actions. It is certainly conceivable that some day we may be able to build a device which, if implanted in the brain, would allow us to control thoughts and actions by controlling specific chemical or electrical stimuli. Such a device does not now exist nor could it exist given today's state of knowledge in the neurosciences. (However, two Emory University neuroscientists, Dr. Roy Bakay and Dr. Philip Kennedy, have developed an electronic brain implant that can be activated by thoughts and in turn can move a computer cursor.)*

the government and mind-control

There also seems to be a growing belief that the U.S. government, through its military branches or agencies such as the CIA, is using a number of horrible devices aimed at disrupting the brain. Laser weapons, isotropic radiators, infrasound, non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse generators, and high-power microwave emitters have been mentioned. It is known that government agencies have experimented on humans in mind control studies with and without the knowledge of their subjects (Scheflin 1978). The claims of those who believe they have been unwilling victims of "mind control" experiments should not be dismissed as impossible or even as improbable. Given past practice and the amoral nature of our military and intelligence agencies, such experiments are not implausible. However, these experimental weapons, which are aimed at disrupting brain processes, should not be considered mind control weapons. To confuse, disorient or otherwise debilitate a person through chemicals or electronically is not to control that person. To make a person lose control of himself is not the same as gaining control over him. It is a near certainty that our government is not capable of controlling anyone's mind, though it is clear that many people in many governments lust after such power.

In any case, some of the claims made by those who believe they are being controlled by these electronic weapons do not seem plausible. For example, the belief that radio waves or microwaves can be used to cause a person to hear voices transmitted to him seems unlikely. We know that radio waves and waves of all kinds of frequencies are constantly going through our bodies. The reason we have to turn on the radio or TV to hear the sounds or see the pictures being transmitted through the air is that those devices have receivers which "translate" the waves into forms we can hear and see. What we know about hearing and vision makes it very unlikely that simply sending a signal to the brain that can be "translated" into sounds or pictures would cause a person to hear or see anything. Someday it may be possible to stimulate electronically or chemically a specific network of neurons to cause specific sounds or sights of the experimenter’s choosing to emerge in a person's consciousness. But this is not possible today. Even if it were possible, it would not necessarily follow that a person would obey a command to assassinate the president just because he heard a voice telling him to do so. Hearing voices is one thing. Feeling compelled to obey them is quite another. Not everyone has the faith of Abraham.

There seem to be a number of parallels between those who think they have been abducted by aliens and those who believe their minds are being controlled by CIA implants. So far, however, the "mind-controlled group" has not been able to find their John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist who claims that the best explanation for alien abduction claims is that they are based on alien abduction experiences, not fantasies or delusions. A common complaint from the mind-controlled is that they can't get therapists to take them seriously. That is,  they say they can only find therapists who want to treat them for their delusions, not help them prove they're being controlled by their government. Thus, it is not likely that the "mind-controlled CIA zombies" will be accused of having delusions planted in them by therapists, as alien abductees have, since they claim they cannot get therapists to take their delusions seriously. In fact, many of them are convinced that their treatment as deluded persons is part of a conspiracy to cover up the mind control experiments done on them. Some even believe that False Memory Syndrome is part of the conspiracy. They claim that the idea of false memories is a plot to keep people from taking seriously the claims of those who are now remembering that they were victims of mind control experiments at some time in the past. It is hard to believe that they cannot find a wide array of incompetent New Age therapists willing to take their claims seriously, if not willing to claim they have been victims of such experiments themselves.

subliminal advertising and mind-control

On a lighter note, one of the lesser myths about mind control is the notion that subliminal messages are effective controllers of behavior. Despite widespread belief in the power of subliminal advertising and messaging, the evidence of its significant effectiveness is based on anecdotes and unscientific studies by interested parties. You will search in vain for the scientific studies that demonstrate that playing inaudible messages such as "do not steal" or "put that back" in Muzak significantly reduces employee or customer theft, or that subliminal messages increase sales of snacks at movie theaters.

disruption and harassment are not mind control

The above considerations should make it clear that what many people consider mind control would best be described by some other term, such as behavior modification, thought disruption, brain disabling, behavior manipulation, mind-coercion or electronic harassment. People are not now being turned into robots by hypnosis or brain implants. Furthermore, it should be obvious that given the state of knowledge in the neurosciences, the techniques for effective mind control are likely to be crude and their mechanisms imperfectly understood.

Thus, if we restrict the term 'mind control' to those cases where a person successfully controls another person's thoughts or actions without their consent, our initial list of examples of what people consider to be mind control will be pared down to just five items: the tactics of religious, spiritual, and other New Age recruiters; the tactics of husbands who control their wives; the Stockholm syndrome; the so-called brainwashing tactics of the Chinese inquisitors of American prisoners during the Korean War; and the alleged creation of zombies in Voodoo. The last, however, can be dismissed as based either on fraud or on the use of drugs to render people helpless.

A person who is terrorized by his or her spouse or lover is not a victim of mind control, but of fear and violence. Still, there seem to be many cases where a battered person genuinely loves her or his mate and genuinely believes the batterer reciprocates that love. The victim stays, beating after beating, not because the victim fears what the abuser will do if he or she leaves, but because the victim really doesn't want to leave. Perhaps. But perhaps the victim doesn't leave because she or he is completely dependent on the lover/batterer. The abused doesn’t stay just because she or he has nowhere to go. The abused needs the abuser and stays because the abused is completely dependent on the abuser. If a man can reduce a woman to a state of total dependency, he can control her. But is it true to say that he has controlled her mind? To what extent, if any, can a batterer take away the free will of his victim? He can reduce her choices so that staying with him is the only option she knows. What is the likelihood of this happening? It seems more likely that she will reduce her own choices by rationalizing his behavior and convincing herself that things will get better or that they really aren't that bad. If a man is not using brute force or the fear of violence to keep a woman around, then if she stays, it may be because of choices she has made in the past. Each time she was abused, she chose to stay. He may have used sweet and seductive talk to persuade her not to leave, but at some time in the relationship she was free to reject him. Otherwise, the relationship is based on fear and violence and mind control does not enter the picture. A woman who appears to be under the spell of a batterer is not a victim of mind control. She is a victim of her own bad choices. This is not to say that we should not sympathize with her plight or extend aid to her should she ask.  She is where she is through bad luck and a series of bad choices, not because of mind control, assuming, of course, that the woman is not mentally ill. In that case, it is nature, not her man, that has reduced her capacity for free choice. The abuser takes advantage of the situation, but he does not create it.

recruiters, kidnappings and inquisitions

That leaves recruiters for spiritual, religious, or personal growth groups; kidnappers; and inquisitors. First, the tactics of the recruiters differ substantially from those of kidnappers or inquisitors. Recruiters generally do not kidnap or capture their recruits, and they are not known to use torture as a typical conversion method. This raises the question of whether their victims are controlled without their consent. Some recruits are not truly victims of mind control and are willing members of their communities. Similarly, many recruits into mainstream religions should not be considered victims of mind control. To change a person's basic personality and character, to get them to behave in contradictory ways to lifelong patterns of behavior, to get them to alter their basic beliefs and values, would not necessarily count as mind control. It depends on how actively a person participates in their own transformation. You and I might think that a person is out of his mind for joining Scientology, Jehovah's Witnesses, or Jim Roberts' The Brethren, but their "crazy beliefs and behaviors" are no wilder than the ones that millions of mainstream religious believers have chosen to accept and engage in.

Some recruits into non-mainstream religions seem to be brainwashed and controlled to the point that they will do great evil to themselves or others at the behest of their leader, including murder and suicide. Some of these recruits are in a state of extreme vulnerability when they are recruited and their recruiter takes advantage of that vulnerability. Such recruits may be confused or rootless due to ordinary transition difficulties (such as new college students), difficult life circumstances (such as failing in college or at a new job), or even tragic personal events (such as death of close friends or loved ones) or world events (such as war or terrorism). Some may be mentally ill or emotionally disturbed, greatly depressed, traumatized by self-abuse with drugs or abuse at the hands of others, etc. But it would not be to the advantage of the cult to actively recruit the emotionally disturbed. As one cult recruiter told me

Cults have complicated ideologies and practices that mentally or emotionally upset people have difficulty grasping. These structures are what allow the cult to control the person. Cults do not want people who are difficult to control.

Thus, while some recruits might be very vulnerable to those who would like to control their thoughts and actions, recruiters look for people they can make vulnerable. The recruiter quoted above also said

Cults seek out strong, intelligent, idealistic people. They also seek out the rich, no matter what their mental status is.

The goal is make the recruits vulnerable, to get them to give up whatever control over their thoughts and actions they might have. The goal is to make the cult members feel like passengers on a rudderless ship on a stormy sea. The recruiter or cult leader has a rudder and only he can guide the ship to safety.

The techniques available to manipulate the vulnerable are legion. One technique is to give them the love they feel they do not get elsewhere. Convince them that through you and your community they can find what they're looking for, even if they haven't got a clue that they're looking for anything. Convince them that they need faith in you and that you have faith in them. Convince them that their friends and family outside the group are hindrances to their salvation. Isolate them. Only you can give them what they need. You love them. You alone love them. You would die for them. So why wouldn't they die for you?  But, love alone can only get you so far in winning them over. Fear is a great motivator. Fear that if they leave they'll be destroyed. Fear that if they don't cooperate they'll be condemned. Fear that they can't make it in this miserable world alone. The manipulator must make the recruit paranoid.

Love and fear may not be enough, however; so guilt must be used, too. Fill them with so much guilt that they will want to police their own thoughts. Remind them that they are nothing alone, but with you and a god (or some power or technique) they are Everything. Fill them with contempt for themselves, so that they will want to be egoless, selfless, One with You and Yours. You not only strip them of any sense of self, you convince them that the ideal is be without a self. Keep up the pressure. Be relentless. Humiliate them from time to time. Soon they will consider it their duty to humiliate themselves. Control what they read, hear, see. Repeat the messages for eyes and ears. Gradually get them to make commitments, small ones at first, then work your way up until you own their property, their bodies, their souls. And don't forget to give them drugs, starve them, or have them meditate or dance or chant for hours at a time until they think they've had some sort of mystical experience. Make them think, "It was you, Lord, who made me feel so good." They won't want to give it up. They have never felt so good. Though they look as if they are in Hell to those of us on the outside, from the inside it looks like Heaven.

What religion doesn't use guilt and fear to get people to police their own thoughts? Even some therapists use similar methods to control their patients. They prey on the vulnerable. They demand total loyalty and trust as a price for hope and healing. They often isolate their prey from loved ones and friends. They try to own and control their clients. The methods of recruiters are not much different. Are the recruits, the converts to the faith, and the patients willing victims? How would we tell the difference between a willing victim and an unwilling victim? If we cannot do that, then we can't distinguish any true cases of mind control.

Recruiters and other manipulators are not using mind control unless they are depriving their victims of their free will. A person can be said to be deprived of his free will by another only if that other has introduced a causal agent which is irresistible. How could we ever demonstrate that a person's behavior is the result of irresistible commands given by a religious, spiritual, or personal growth leader? It is not enough to say that irrational behavior proves a person's free will has been taken from them. It may be irrational to give away all one's property, or to devote all one's time and powers to satisfying the desires of one's divine leader, or to commit suicide or plant poison bombs in subways because ordered to do so, but how can we justify claiming such irrational acts are the acts of mindless robots? For all we know, the most bizarre, inhumane, and irrational acts done by the recruits are done freely, knowingly and joyfully. Perhaps they are done by brain damaged or insane people. In either case, such people would not be victims of mind control.

That leaves for consideration the acts of kidnappers and inquisitors: the acts of systematic isolation, control of sensory input, and torture. Do these methods allow us to wipe the cortical slate clean and write our own messages to it? That is, can we delete the old and implant new patterns of thought and behavior in our victims? First, it should be noted that not everybody who has been kidnapped comes to feel love or affection for their kidnappers. It may be that some kidnapped or captured people are reduced to a state of total dependency by their tormentors. They are put in a position similar to that of infancy and begin to bond with their tormentors much as an infant does with the one who feeds and comforts it. There is also the strange fascination most of us have with bullies. We fear them, even hate them, but often want to join their gang and be protected by them. It does not seem likely that people who fall in love with their kidnappers, or who turn against their country under torture, are victims of mind control. There is certainly some explanation why some people act as Patricia Hearst did and why others under similar circumstances would not have become "Tanya". It is doubtful that mind control should play much of a role in the explanation. Some women are attracted to gangsters but have few opportunities to interact with them. We do not need to revert to mind control to explain why Hearst became intimate with one of her terrorist captors. She may have thought she had to in order to survive. She may have been genuinely attracted to him. Who knows? Mind control is a better defense than "changed my mind about a life of crime" when facing bank robbery and murder charges. 

Finally, it is widely believed that the Chinese were successful in brainwashing American prisoners of war during the Korean War. The evidence that their tactics of torture, isolation, sensory deprivation, etc., were successfully used to control the minds of their captives is non-existent. Very few (22 of 4,500 or 0.5%) of those captured by the Chinese went over to the other side (Sutherland 1979, 114). The myth of success by the Chinese is primarily due to the work of Edward Hunter, whose Brainwashing in Red China: the Calculated Destruction of Men's Minds (New York: Vanguard Press, 1951) is still referred to by those who see mind control tactics as a major menace today. The CIA provided most of Hunter’s fodder in their effort to inspire hatred of the North Koreans and communism, to explain why some American soldiers didn’t hate the enemy, and “to aggrandize their own role by arguing that they themselves must investigate brainwashing techniques in order to keep up with the enemy” (Sutherland 1979, 114).

It seems then, that if we define mind control as the successful control of the thoughts and actions of another without his or her  consent, mind control exists only in fantasy. Unfortunately, that does not mean that it will always be thus.

See also cult, est , hypnosis, mind, Rama,  Ramthasubliminal, wishful thinking, and zombie.

further reading

books and articles

Churchland, Patricia Smith. Neurophilosophy - Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986).

Delgado, Jose M. R. M.D. Physical Control of the Mind, Toward a Psychocivilized Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

Kandel, Eric R. & James H. Schwartz, eds. Principles of Neural Science 4th ed. (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 2000).

Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China (University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

Sargant, William. Battle for the Mind - A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press., 1957).

Scheflin, Alan W. and Edward M. Opton. The Mind Manipulators: a Non-Fiction Account. New York: Paddington Press, 1978.

Sutherland, Stuart. “The Myth of Mind Control,” The Encyclopedia of Delusions. eds. Ronald Duncan and Miranda Weston-Smith, New York: Wallaby Books, 1979.

Taylor, Kathleen. (2006). Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control. Oxford University Press.

Weinstein, Harvey. Psychiatry and the CIA: Victims of Mind Control (Washington, DC : American Psychiatric Press, 1990).

Winn, Denise. (2000). The Manipulated Mind: Brainwashing, Conditioning and Indoctrination Malor Books.


"Brainwashing": Career of a Myth in the United States and Europe by Massimo Introvigne

Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia: Notes from a Mind-Control Conference by Evan Harrington

Do tinfoil helmets provide adequate protection against mind control rays? by Cecil Adams

Government Research into E.S.P. and Mind Control

Allegations of "brainwashing" in new religious movements (sometimes called "cults") ReligiousTolerance.org

Biderman's Chart of Coercion

Rick Ross, deprogrammer, on "brainwashing"

Microwave Harassment and Mind-control experimentation by Julianne McKinney

Understanding the Victims of Spousal Abuse Frank M. Ochberg, M.D.

The "Not Me" Myth: Orwell and the Mind by Margaret Thaler Singer Ph.D.

Masters and Slaves: The Tragedy of Jonestown by Fanita English

The Battle for Your Mind by Dick Sutphen


Obituary: Sidney Gottlieb "For two decades he ran a CIA programme aimed at nothing less than control of the human mind. Its tools were mind-altering drugs, most notably LSD. Its subjects, almost all of them unwitting, were society's outcasts: prostitutes and their clients, mental patients, convicted criminals - people, in the words of one of Gottlieb's colleagues, "who could not fight back". At the end of it all, just as the conspiracy theorists would have predicted, Gottlieb himself pronounced that the entire exercise had been a waste of time."

Woman looks to sue for brainwashing at McGill CIA, Canadian government funded cold-war era experiments at Psychology Department by Josh Ginsberg

Last updated 20-Oct-2015

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