An exorcism of long-dead diamond geezers

March 25, 2005

The term "brainwashing" was coined in 1950 by CIA operative Edward Hunter to describe the dramatic psychological transformation of US soldiers captured in the Korean War. Some of them emerged from prisoner-of-war camps as apparent converts to Maoist communism - as shown in the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate .

Psychology was at the time undergoing the "cognitive revolution", causing scientists to discard their Skinner boxes in favour of the information-processing model. The study of the mind was reborn after the long behaviourist embargo and was seen as the "software" running on the "hardware" of the brain. If the "memories" on a magnetic tape could be wiped clean, then why not the mind as well? This was all nonsense, as the analogy between the brain and the computer was fatuous.

But Kathleen Taylor is not really interested in the computational model of the mind, although, no doubt, she deplores its inherent dualism. Her book is another example of the fad for Descartes-bashing. According to Taylor, neuroscience is the "child of the Enlightenment" (a long infancy - the Society for Neuroscience was not founded until 1970).

Although she is a physiologist, Taylor has written a book on free will and the metaphysics of the self. In this, she is following the tradition of scientists such as Antonio Damasio (the original Descartes-basher), V.S. Ramachandran and Daniel Wegner.

The book is to be commended for pointing out the continuum between the various forms of brainwashing - from Chinese communists via Jonestown and the Manson "family" to the media and advertising. Taylor writes engagingly - in fact she won The Times Higher /Oxford University Press science-writing prize in 2002. However, this is not a science book: it is a combination of philosophy and political tract, albeit garnished with illustrations of synapses, ion-channels and so on. But seeing as everyone knows that memories and beliefs are stored in overlapping neural circuits, do neural "schemas" and "cogwebs" contribute anything new? Does the scientific demonstration of neural plasticity in young people add much to what the Jesuits already knew from experience: "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man." Unfortunately, such is the level of physics-envy within the psychological community that all theories about mental functioning have to be neuralised to gain any credibility.

It is not even that neuroscience can answer the nagging question of whether a case of brainwashing is genuine or just a case of social compliance.

Other than underwriting the general point - that brainwashing in the "real" sense is possible - does this book tell us whether the CIA could ever develop a brainwashing detector? I do not see how. Taylor was a participant in the ludicrous Channel 4 programme in which a "possessed" man was "exorcised" on live TV while wired up to an electroencephalograph. The studio audience of theologians and psychologists could not decide if "deliverance ministry" was just a form of social compliance and role-playing; the neuropsychologist manning the EEG machine could not tell them. At least "possession" is a specific phenomenon. Given that brainwashing (as defined by Taylor) covers everything from the Moonies to the media, it is hard to see how neuroscience could ever have anything definitive to say. But then philosophy and politics are the author's real passion. According to Taylor, since Descartes, we all have the notion of the self as an autonomous "diamond" possessed of its own magical powers of free will. Taylor claims that the self is in fact more like a piece of clay - malleable and interconnected - and free will is a contingent phenomenon.

But who still believes in the Cartesian "diamond" self? Within the philosophical community, it is hard to find a defender of a substantive theory of the self or a libertarian theory of free will. Most philosophers would agree with Galen Strawson that the self is not so much a diamond as a string of pearls, devoid of diachronic unity. And in the physical sciences, defenders of any sort of dualism are even scarcer. This book is not so much a case of pushing at an open door as opening the stable door to find the horse has already bolted. The diamond geezer is beginning to look more like a straw man.

As for the politics, it is clear where Taylor stands: Hobbesian views on authority are "poisonous" and the final chapter is a homily to liberal theorist Brian Barry's Culture and Equality . Cambridge historian Quentin Skinner was a mentor to the project. It makes for a heady brew, but I am not sure that I really want my instruction in the history of political thought second-hand via a physiologist.

Keith Sutherland is executive editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies , and publisher, History of Political Thought .

Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control

Author - Kathleen Taylor
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 324
Price - 18.99
ISBN - 0 19 280496 0

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