Ideas & Ideology

Brainwash Culture

When Maoist cult leader Comrade Bala was convicted of long-term sexual abuse in London in late 2015, journalists described his victims as ‘brainwashed’. Around the same time, the term ‘brainwashing’ was being used to describe the process of online radicalisation amongst recruits to Islamic State. What do we mean when we use this term, so redolent of the ideological struggle of the Cold War? That a charismatic or quasi-demonic force has been exerted? Or that under the threat of violence, a forced conversion has taken place to an ideology alien to Western values? And why are screens, and moving images of all kinds, so often implicated in ‘mind control’?

Brainwash Culture, recently broadcast as a Sunday Feature on BBC Radio 3 and now available as a podcast, traces the history of this complex idea and explores its ongoing cultural appeal, particularly on film and television. The term ‘brainwashing’ first gained currency during the Korean War, when it seemingly explained the strange behaviour of American Prisoners of War (POWs) captured by Communists. In 1953, Colonel Frank H. Schwable ‘confessed’ to the use of germ warfare as part of the American military strategy in Korea. Schwable later claimed that he made the confession after being tortured to a point where the only means of resistance were insanity or death. Later that year, when 21 American POWs (and one British POW) chose to stay in Communist China rather than return to their homeland, the disturbing idea took shape that an American patriot, once physically and mentally broken, could be rebuilt in a Communist mould.

Still from film Don’t Be a Sucker
Still from American War Department propaganda film Don’t Be a Sucker (1943)

David Hawkins was one of those American soldiers who chose to remain in China before eventually returning home, and he recounts his experiences in the programme. Also featured are the reflections of psychiatrist and author Robert J. Lifton, who interviewed American POWs and private citizens who had experienced Chinese communist indoctrination in the 1950s. Although Lifton preferred to speak of ‘thought-reform’ rather than brainwashing, the term had already taken root in the public imagination.

As Brainwash Culture explains, cinema and television profoundly shaped popular understandings of ‘brainwashing’ and its cultural significance. Films such as Prisoner of War (1954), starring Ronald Reagan, and The Rack (1956), starring Paul Newman, explored what had happened to American soldiers in Korea. Meanwhile, the threat of “brainwashing” was quickly taken up more generally in debates about individual freedom and social engineering, with the lens turning upon the techniques and coercive persuasions of American advertisers and politicians. A recognisable genre of ‘paranoid cinema’ was spawned, the most remarkable example being The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which explored themes of Pavlovian conditioning, political conspiracy and ‘Momism’ (the post-war preoccupation with emasculating mothers). Later fictional treatments of the brainwashing menace and its relationship to invisible networks of power include The Ipcress File (1965) and The Parallax View (1974). These films, by subjecting both their protagonists and their viewers to hypnotic visual and aural sequences, remind us of the coercive qualities inherent in the moving image itself.

Presented by Professor Daniel Pick and featuring various historians of cinema and the Cold War, Brainwash Culture explores how cultural fantasy was surprisingly productive of experimental reality. Brainwashing takes on the qualities of a feedback loop where it becomes increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction in the techniques depicted and critiqued. This is perhaps why the concept continues to be so suggestive in new historical contexts, and yet too slippery to define once and for all.

Indeed, the evolution of ‘brainwashing’ – its cinematic imagery, controversies and cultural legacies – continues beyond the early years of the Cold War. During the 1960s and ’70s ‘brainwashing’ also became a useful way of describing relationships of coercion within institutions, particularly asylums, prisons and schools. More specifically, the ways in which brains were literally being manipulated in psychiatric hospitals – via the use of lobotomies, crude drug therapy and electroshock, was exposed and condemned by a loose coalition of thinkers now known as the anti-psychiatry movement. Within this group, film became an exploratory tool for documenting what were seen as both coercive and liberatory forms of therapeutic practice. Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967) and Peter Robinson’s Asylum (1972) remain highly innovative and influential examples of the documentary form.

Psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis – emerging disciplines often in conflict with each other in the post-war period – belong at the heart of this story. The ways in which the theories and practices of the ‘psy’ professions were woven into political and cultural projects, deliberately or otherwise, is one of the key themes of Daniel Pick’s current research project, Hidden Persuaders. This Wellcome funded five-year study examines how the fascination with controlling minds attracted CIA investment, proved irresistible to advertisers and marketeers, provoked counter-cultural attacks on psychiatric practice, and now influences contemporary debates on the use of state-sponsored torture and de-radicalisation.

More information can be found at our Hidden Persuaders website, blog and Twitter feed. The next issue of History Workshop Journal (81) includes a review of three important recent works on brainwashing in America by Marcia Holmes, Post-Doctoral Researcher on the Hidden Persuaders project.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Susan Carruthers: Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape, and Brainwashing (University of California Press, 2009)

Susan Carruthers: ‘The Manchurian Candidate and the Cold War Brainwashing Scare’ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 18 (March 1998)

Grey Room Special Issue, ‘On Brainwashing, Mind control and Media Warfare’ 45 (Fall 2011)

Marcia Holmes: ‘The ‘Brainwashing’ Dilemma’ History Workshop Journal Spring 2016)

Timothy Melley: The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction and the National Security State (Cornell University Press, 2012)

Daniel Pick and film historian Ian Christie discuss film, psychoanalysis and brainwashing at

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *