Friday, March 25, 2005

Battle for the Mind by William Sargant

Much human behavior is the result of the conditioned behavior patterns implanted in the brain, especially during childhood. These may persist almost unmodified, but more often become gradually adapted to changes of environment. But the older the person, the less easily can he improvise new conditioned responses to such changes; the tendency then is to make the environment fit his, or her, increasingly predictable responses. Much of our human life consists also in the unconscious following of conditioned behavior patterns originally acquired by hard study.

That’s from Battle for the Mind by William Sargant, a little book I picked up quite by chance a few years ago in a used bookstore. The subtitle, The Mechanics of Indoctrination, Brainwashing and Thought Control, appealed to some streak of curiosity within me, and so I bought it, put it on my pile, and promptly skipped over it for years in favor of other titles. I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it. I really and truly enjoyed it. Written in 1957, it takes a scholarly look at the brain physiology behind belief systems and what makes the brain imprint on certain thought patterns and not others, and how those thought patterns can be and are changed by scientists, politicians, and priests alike.

The quote above seems right out of Huxley and, indeed, Huxley is quoted later in the book in such a way that makes me want to read more of him. This concept was one that troubled me most as a parent. Early on I had thought it important to let my children grow and develop in their own way, to avoid, as it were, all the gender-specific conditioning that society requires. I still feel some affinity for that ideal, but now I have come to realize how quixotic that quest can be. We are all creatures of conditioning. Be it society’s expectations or a parent’s, the dream of my children growing into their own people seems more and more remote as I watch them interact with the world around them. But back to Sargant.

Since certain techniques of religious and political conversion can be made quite as fearful and as exhausting to the brain as active combat experiences, the importance of Swank’s findings must be very heavily stressed. His statistical and clinical facts should be brought home especially to those who like to believe that the avoidance of breakdown in battle, or under brain-washing, is simply a matter of exercising sufficient will-power and courage. On the contrary, the continued exercise of will-power and courage may, in certain circumstances, exhaust the brain and hasten a final collapse. When dogs co-operate in experiments testing their tolerance to stress, they are all the easier to break down: the loyal efforts they make prove their undoing.

It took me a while to get my brain around the concept embodied in this quote. Looking at Pavlov’s experiments on dogs, as well as his own observations of men under battle stress in World War II, Sargant postulates that people are especially susceptible to suggestion and new schools of thought when their brains are fatigued by uncertainty, anxiety, and stress. Whether it is the unceasing fear of death from enemy shelling or the equally unceasing fear of eternal damnation for sins committed in this world, the after-effect is the same. And it is nearly impossible to avoid changing your perceptions under these circumstances, since it all boils down to fatigue, and every brain, no matter how strong, eventually gets fatigued. Resist, and you tire your brain out even more quickly. Go along, and there won’t seem like any reason to resist after the fatigue sets in. But this “go along” idea, that people can be more easily “brain-washed” if they cooperate with their aggressors, leads Sargant to an even more thought-provoking conclusion.

It is not surprising that the ordinary person, in general, is much more easily indoctrinated than the abnormal. Even intensive psychoanalysis may achieve very little in such severe psychiatric disturbances as schizophrenia and depressive melancholia, and can be almost equally ineffective in certain settled states of chronic anxiety and obsession. A person is considered "ordinary" or "normal" by the community simply because he accepts most of its social standards and behavior patterns which means, in fact, that he is susceptible to suggestion and has been persuaded to go with the majority on most ordinary or extraordinary occasions.

This should be self-evident when you sit down to think about it, but I guess I’ve never approached it in these terms before. It is in fact the many legions of “ordinary” people who are more conditioned than the rest of society. They accept the status quo, they fit in, and those who don’t are not so much anti-social as they are independent and not open to suggestion. But this concept has its dangerous side as well. As Sargant stresses later:

Ordinary people, let me repeat, are the way they are simply because they are sensitive to and influenced by what is going on around them; it is the lunatic who can be so impervious to suggestion.

Stray too far from the poison of the crowd and you’ll be branded and ostracized as a dangerous element. In this context, a lunatic is, by definition, someone who lives life the way I thought I wanted my children to, independently and on their own terms. A little conditioning, it seems, may not be entirely a bad thing.

Sargant spends a lot of time in the book discussing religious indoctrination in the same terms he uses for the political and psychological. In doing so, he provides me and my philosophy a lot to sink our teeth in, but he also goes out of his way a few times to stress that he is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Religion, and especially Christian religion, is in Sargant’s view a good thing and a beneficial influence on out society. Even if some have used “brain-washing” techniques to deliver and reinforce doctrine, he evidently feels that no one is worse off for having been so indoctrinated.

It reminds me a lot of Copernicus’ remarks upon publication of his mathematical model showing the sun and not the Earth as the center of the solar system. Mathematics, he stressed, is for mathematicians, and he went out of his way to state that just because the mathematics were more elegant with the sun in the center, that was no reason for anyone to think it really was or that he was trying to convince others that it was. Writing in 1957, I can’t help but wonder how much of Sargant’s equivocations on religious indoctrination were truly his own beliefs and how much were Copernicuran bluster. But let’s get to some meat.

In highly civilized Christian countries today, a similar attempt is sometimes made to invest God’s representative on earth with as much religiously-toned emotion as possible. But, in order to safeguard infants and young children against damnation, the rite of baptism, originally reserved for adults and a powerful ceremony indeed, is now carried out a few weeks or months after birth. Confirmation has, in general, taken the place of baptism as an initiatory rite, and among Protestants still provides a strong emotional stimulus for boys and girls at the age of puberty; but in Latin countries the “First Communion” also tends to be taken too early for full emotional effect. It seems certain that such stimuli should be made emotionally disturbing to produce the desired effect—even severe enough sometimes to induce mystical experiences. Once a mystical experience is associated with the Cross, or some other religious emblem, it can be revived and confirmed by the emblem’s subsequent appearance.

Couple of things to mention here. First, it’s really quite creepy the way he draws parallels between political brainwashing and religious indoctrination, and this quote typifies the connection. Here’s another

The cure for the most severe types of religious melancholia, for which nothing could be done in [William] James’s day, has turned out to be even more drastic than he predicted. Melancholics, whom even orgiastic revivals leave cold and unimpressed, are now quickly benefited by simple convulsions, mechanically induced by passing an electric current through the brain.

So in other words, the first quote tells us that religious concepts can be implanted in youthful brains during times of high emotional distress, and the second quote tells us that for those who begin to take the threat of eternal damnation a little too seriously, a little electroshock therapy can be applied to get the affected brain back on the right track. All this yet he still maintains that a religious indoctrination is of benefit to both the individual and society. What was it I said about Copernicurean bluster? Then there are the quotes that give even more ammunition against organized religion.

The Catholic Church regarded the Black Death as a punishment for the general wickedness of Christendom and used the threat of its return as a means of bringing the people to a state of submission and true repentance.

Wait a minute. What are we repenting for again?

He [Jonathan Edwards] also said that the eternally damned would be ‘…tormented also in the presence of the glorified saints. Hereby the saints will be made more sensible how great their salvation is. The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven.’

Yes, thank you, God, for not ripping out my entrails the way you do eternally to those horrible sinners. I’m much better than they are. And Sargant also quotes a Reverend Noah Porter as saying:

But if experience and observation have taught me anything, it is, that there is a way of discussing these subjects most logically in the pulpit, which does little good…(listeners must) be made to feel they are their own destroyers, that fallen, dependent and lost as they are, salvation is more freely and sincerely offered to them, and that if they perish, the blame must for ever rest upon themselves.

Isn’t free will great? Do whatever you want, but burn forever in hell unless you do what I want. Remember, salvation is freely offered. All you need give up is your objectivity. The most damning passage against religious indoctrination (which, remember, is good for the individual and society if it’s a Christian one) may be:

The most kindly, generous and humane of men have in fact been conditioned, throughout history, to commit acts which appear horrifying in retrospect to those who have been differently conditioned. Many otherwise sensible people cling to strange and cruel views merely because these have been firmly implanted in their brains at an early age, and they can no more be disabused of them by argument than could the generation that still insisted on the flatness of the earth, though it had been circumnavigated on several occasions.

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Geez. You sure are writing a lot about the Battle for the Mind book. Aren’t you supposed to be writing your own book or something? Well yes, I guess I am writing a lot about Sargant’s book at the expense of my own, but there’s so much here that I would like to try to retain. In his chapter on Brain-Washing in Religion and Politics, he quotes a number of authors on the subject.

Somerset Maugham in his book Don Fernando says this about their founder St. Ignatius’s famous book Spiritual Exercises, used by Jesuits as their training manual: ‘When you look at the exercises as a whole you cannot but observe how marvelously they are devised to effect their object…It is said that the result of the first week is to reduce the neophyte to utter prostration. Contrition saddens, shame and fear harrow him. Not only is he terrified by the frightful pictures on which his mind has dwelt, he has been weakened by lack of food and exhausted by want of sleep. He has been brought to such despair that he does not know where to fly for relief. Then a new ideal is set before him, the ideal of Christ; and to this, his will broken, he is led to sacrifice himself with a joyful heart…The Spiritual Exercises are the most wonderful method that has ever been devised to gain control over that vagabond, unstable and willful thing, the soul of man.’

And then there’s this.

In a special appendix to his The Devils of Loudun Aldous Huxley has emphasized the strength of these methods under discussion: ‘No man, however highly civilized, can listen for very long to African drumming, or Indian chanting, or Welsh hymn singing, and retain intact his critical and self-conscious personality. It would be interesting to take a group of the most eminent philosophers from the best universities, shut them up in a hot room with Moroccan dervishes or Haitian Voodooists and measure, with a stop-watch, the strength of their psychological resistance to the effect of rhythmic sound. Would the Logical Positivists be able to hold out longer than the Subjective Idealists? Would the Marxists prove tougher than that Thomists or the Vedantists? What a fascinating, what a fruitful field for experiment! Meanwhile, all we can safely predict is that, if exposed long enough to the toms-toms and the singing, every one of our philosophers would end by capering and howling with the savages.’ He also says: ‘…new and previously undreamed-of devices for exciting mobs have been invented. There is the radio, which has enormously extended the range of the demagogue’s raucous yelling. There is the loud-speaker, amplifying and indefinitely reduplicating the heady music of class hatred and militant nationalism. There is the camera (of which it was once naively said that ‘it cannot lie’) and its offspring, the movies and television…Assemble a mob of men and women previously conditioned by a daily reading of newspapers; treat them to amplified band music, bright lights, and the oratory of a demagogue who (as demagogues always are) is simultaneously the exploiter and the victim of herd intoxication, and in next to no time you can reduce them to a state of almost mindless subhumanity. Never before have so few been in a position to make fools, maniacs, or criminals of so many.’

This is where Sargant is beginning to transition from his study of religious indoctrination to the political, the techniques for which are, of course, identical, if not more savagely used in some areas of the world.

A woman writer, Han Suyin, in A Many Splendored Thing, describes the methods used in Communist China soon after the Civil War had ended: ‘Three months after liberation of the town the drums were still beating. Sometimes from the grounds of the Technical College; or from the Mission School at the East Gate; often from the soldiers’ camp outside the South Wall. When I left they were beating. They beat today still as through the main street the open lorries roll slow, bringing the enemies of the people to swift death, while the crowds hiss and roar and thunder hatred and applause, and the cheer-leaders raise their high-pitched voices in the shriek of slogans, and fire-crackers are let off as for a festival, and the dancers, the dancers dance, dance, dance. I wonder, Sen, whether Master Confucius heard this five-beat harmony and deemed it a fit measure to regulate the emotions of mankind? I wonder whether eight hundred years before that gentle Jew, the Christ, was born, our ancestors held their Spring Festival and their Fertility Rites to this dancing and this beat? It is from deep within our people, this bewitchment of drum and body. I feel it surge up from my belly, where all true feeling lies; strong and compelling as love, as if the marrow of my bones had heard it millions of days before this day.’

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I looked up this William Sargant on the Internet and “found” out he is more infamous than famous in the world of cyberspace. Part of some secret British/American thought control experiments on one site and responsible for giving L. Ron Hubbard some of his Scientology ideas on another. Not sure I believe anything I see online, but it makes you think about how some people react to the kind of information Sargant dealt with. I find it all fascinating, playing admittedly, as it does, to several of my biases.

One of the lessons I think I learned from his book was that if you want to have any kind of chance at having an independent thought, then you’d better clamp down on your emotions and not let them get the better of you. Get whipped up too much and you’re too open to suggestion and conditioning. But I wonder how feasible that is, and more interestingly, I wonder what kind of independent thought, if any, the William Sargants of the world believe there is. Are we all creatures of our conditioning? Every want, need, or desire we have implanted there by outside forces? Or can we break the mold that others have poured for us and reshape ourselves in a way that is free from the influence of others? I know what I’d like to think, but I wonder what Sargant thought. Here’s more on the link between religious and political indoctrination:

One of the methods of consolidating the ground won by such methods of political or religious conversion is still the maintenance of further controlled fear and tension. The Chinese Communists know, perhaps from a study of Catholic missionary methods, that everybody, at one time or another, has what can be branded as ‘evil thoughts;’ and that, if the doctrine can be accepted that thought is as wicked in its way as action, they have the whip-hand over the people. In political democracies it is a general rule that anyone can think what evil he likes, so long as he does not carry the thought into antisocial action. But the Gospel of Matthew v. 28, which makes mental adultery as reprehensible as physical adultery, has justified some Christian sects in applying the same rule to all the Commandments. The anxiety and guilt thus induced in the faithful can keep them in a continuous state of physiological tension, and makes them dependent on their religious advisers for daily guidance. But whereas the penitent troubled by lecherous thoughts for his neighbor’s wife, or murderous thoughts for his neighbor, feels safe enough in the confessional, because the priest is bound by the most sacred bonds not to reveal these confidences to another, a Communist reign of terror is a different matter. Many Chinese plagued with deviationist thoughts will think twenty times before confessing them to the local group leader, despite invitations to do so; and will be in constant fear of talking in their sleep or giving themselves away in public by some slip of the tongue. This ensures that they will take excessive care to do the right thing politically, even if they cannot think it. The Household Police are a most constant reminder of their danger.

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The Russian examiner was, like his British counterpart, also officially forbidden to accept confessions which he did not believe correct. This regulation is of very great importance to a proper understanding of the whole process because, as in other countries as well, confessions can be made which, though largely false, come to be believed by both the examiner and the prisoner. This is because the examiner first suggests to the prisoner that he is guilty of a crime, and tries to convince him, if he is not already convinced, that this is so. Even if the prisoner is innocent, the long tension to which he has been subjected may well have already frightened him into suggestibility, and if he is an unstable type he may then accept the examiner’s view of his guilt. If the examination is pressed, he may even begin, as it were, to play back an old record—confessing to crimes suggested by the police in earlier cross-examinations. The police, forgetting that the incidents were originally their own guesswork, are deceived: the prisoner has now ‘spontaneously’ confessed what they have been suspecting all along. It is not usually realized that fatigue and anxiety induce suggestibility in the examiner as well as the prisoner—the task of eliciting confessions is a very difficult and trying one—and that they can delude each other into a belief in the genuineness of the confessed crime. It is now reported, however, that under the new regime a change of regulations was made in Russia, in 1955, so that a prisoner’s own confession is no longer acceptable as evidence of his guilt.

This is the last powerful idea from Battle for the Mind that I’m going to quote. This one makes me want to write a book. Three people—the overseer, the examiner, and the prisoner—caught in a cycle of arrest, interrogation, confession, and conviction, but one in which the prisoner is innocent, but is conditioned into thinking he is not and the examiner is in turn conditioned into believing the prisoner’s confession, even though it was he who suggested it to the prisoner in the first place. And the overseer? The examiner reports to him and he alone retains the knowledge that both have been conditioned to believe what is not true but does nothing to stop the conviction. I described that in terms familiar to tyrannical dictators or criminal justice, and I suppose the story could certainly play itself out in those genres, but it might be more interesting to apply the same story line to everyday circumstances of love or work. A jealous lover, who believes they are being cheated on, driving their companion insane until they both believe the infidelity was real, and the supposed adulterer who knows the difference. Or the manager who believes the employee is incompetent, convincing the employee that they are, and the director who knows better. But wait, in both those cases the examiner believes the guilt from the beginning. To be true to Sargant, the examiner must begin knowing the prisoner is innocent, and becomes conditioned to believe different as his faulty interrogation unfolds. So maybe a police state would be best? Hmmm. Wish I had more time to think about it.

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