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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
On Serendip

Does Brain Washing Really Change the Brain?

Yinnette Sano

The term brain washing as we know it today came about as a result of alleged scientific experiments conducted on imprisoned American soldiers, by Chinese soldiers during the Korean War in the 1950's. At the time the term was used both to create anti-communist sentiments in the United States and to explain how the Chinese communist government was not only able to convert their own people into believing communist ideologies, but also to do the same thing to foreigners imprisoned within the boundaries of China itself, and especially to disrupt the ability of prisoners of war to effectively organize and resist their imprisonment (1). The term brain washing is a bit dramatic and its use can be considered erroneous or misleading, as the actual brains of people who are "victims" of this type of mental manipulation are not being surgically altered and, as far as researchers know, nothing is being directly inserted to the brains of these people to create drastic changes in opinions and behavior. People who fall victim of "brain washing" however, have most likely been subjected to extreme outside stimulus, both physical and psychological, that when put together create a "brain washing" effect.

Terms such as coercive persuasion, mind manipulation, thought reform are many times used as equivalents to the term brain washing. One of the mayor misunderstandings about all of the terms is the idea that the actual brain is being stimulated or changed or probed in hopes erasing memories, mannerisms, and patterns of thought and then the victims being re-taught a set of new things in hopes of forgetting and taking the newly acquired knowledge as one which is authentically their own. In actually, for the most part, what is occurring in all of the cases stated above is the application of intense physical and psychological torture which creates stimuli that inevitably changes not only the behavior of the victims undergoing it, but also the values they possess as well as how they are able to process information. "To accomplish the goals of the exercise, many techniques came into play, including dehumanizing of individuals by keeping them in filth, sleep deprivation, psychological harassment, inculcation of guilt, group social pressure, etc. (1)" In the case of the Korean War these techniques had multiple goals that went beyond just controlling of subjects in prison camps of North Korea. They aimed to produce what was known as "confessions" by the victims themselves so as to convince the accused that they had taken part in illegal/immoral activities. The techniques also aimed to make the war prisoners feel guilty of these "crimes" against the state, and as a result, make them long for of a fundamental change in viewpoint toward the institutions of the new communist society/ and, finally, to actually accomplish these desired changes in the recipients of the brainwashing/thought-reform (1).

There were two studies done on the Korean War victims conducted by Robert Lifton, an American psychiatrist and author, and Edgar Schein a professor at MIT. These studies concluded that brainwashing, or mind control, had a temporary effect when used on prisoners of war. Lifton and Schein found that the Chinese did not engage in any systematic re-education of prisoners, but generally used their techniques of coercive persuasion to disrupt the ability of the prisoners to organize so as to maintain their morale and to try to escape (1). The Chinese soldiers did get some of the prisoners to make anti-American statements by placing them under continuously cruel environments of deprivation and then by offering them more comfortable situations. Despite these physical and psychological stresses Lifton and Schein noticed that these methods of force did not change most people's attitudes. Therefore Communists ideologies were not adopted. It was more a survival mechanism. Many of them acted like they believed in the Communist ideologies just so that they could survive and not be subjected to more physical and psychological punishment. There were, however, a few prisoners who after the war showcased an affinity for Communist ideologies, but whether it was due to successful indoctrination by the Chinese soldiers or because their personalities and beliefs pre-war coincided with Communism is debatable (2).

Throughout the semester we have talked and thought about how much of an impact outside stimulus can have on certain parts of the brain and therefore on human behavior. It is somewhat surprising that there is not more scientific evidence on the web, which looks upon brain washing, mind control etc. as more of a serious type of manipulative phenomena. It could very well be that it is hard to scientifically run tests that gauge how successful these types of methods are on individuals but, it could also be that as a condition it might not be considered important for research purposes perhaps because of the context in which it was introduced.

1) 1)Brain Washing, Psych Central

2)2)Hypnotic world,


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