Brainwashing - just keep an open mind...

April 8, 2005

Lecturers who encourage their students to be critical thinkers are not only giving them a good education but potentially protecting them against brainwashing, writes Olga Wojtas.

Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscience researcher at Oxford University's physiology department, has brought together the fields of neuroscience and social psychology to uncover the secrets of thought control. She concludes that those who are able to think critically and assess information are the hardest to brainwash.

Speaking this week at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Dr Taylor said there was no magic involved in making people believe something intrinsically improbable or that they would not otherwise believe.

"It's a very intensive and extreme form of social manipulation, using techniques we use every day in much milder forms - in persuasion, bullying and advertising," she said. "The techniques work because of how our brains are built."

Dr Taylor said that beliefs were built up by signals going through synapses between neurons in the brain. How strong a belief was depended on how strong these neural links were. As a synapse became stronger, they would flow faster.

Brainwashing was a term invented by the American military during the Korean War to describe what the Chinese called "re-educational thought reform", deployed to instil new doctrines.

Brains were built to change as the world changed, Dr Taylor said. Beliefs could be strengthened by repetition, by controlling what information the brain had access to and stirring up intense emotion at the requisite time.

They could be weakened by uncertainty, being challenged, or being cut off from input.

Brainwashing worked by narrowing horizons, and those with broad horizons who sought out new experiences were less vulnerable. It took more work to manipulate the beliefs of those who were clear about what they thought because they had already sought out points of view that challenged their own and assessed them.

"Education at its best teaches you to resist brainwashing because it teaches you to be critical, learning how to deal with facts and to analyse them," she said.

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