Testing “Brainwashing” Theories: CIA and the MK-Ultra Experiment

Seal of the Central Intelligence Agency

Having invented the theory, the CIA believed its own propaganda and tried to “brainwash” “volunteers” in Canada. It did not work.

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by Massimo Introvigne — In the first article of this series, we saw how CIA propaganda created the word and a theory of “brainwashing” to explain why intelligent people might embrace such an absurd doctrine as Communism was, and to accuse the Soviet and Chinese Communists of sinister practices depriving their victims of their free will.

Paradoxically, the CIA came to believe in its own propaganda, and tried to replicate the Communist “brainwashing” in its own experiments.

The CIA secret “brainwashing” project was codenamed the MK-ULTRA project. Originally, it was only mentioned in a handful of publications critical of the US government, and often dismissed as supporting conspiracy theories. Later, however, the CIA became the defendant in several lawsuits filed by “volunteers” who had suffered permanent damages in the MK-ULTRA experiments and their relatives, the most important of which resulted in a 1988 settlement. Through the lawsuits, several key documents became public.

It was thus confirmed that, to further its “brainwashing experiments,” the CIA had secured the cooperation of several leading American universities and scholars, who were on the cusp of advanced research on behavioral sciences. Not all of them were fully aware of the ultimate aims of the project, and the CIA hid under three foundations that were allegedly private.

The first results were not encouraging. Each research team adopted one or more specific methods such as hallucinogenic drugs, psychotropic medications administered in higher-than-normal doses, sensorial deprivation, repeated electroshock treatments, lobotomy and other forms of psychosurgery, and hypnosis. Some of the “volunteers” were prison inmates, others were psychiatric patients of the researchers, or homeless citizens who had been promised significant amounts of cash.

Donald Ewen Cameron
Donald Ewen Cameron (credits)

The CIA project took a quality leap when Donald Ewen Cameron, a distinguished Scottish psychiatrist who was Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, joined the effort. Cameron will later become president of the American Psychiatric Association, and found the World Psychiatric Association. In a protracted series of experiments on his Canadian patients, he combined many of the techniques that had formerly been tested separately. The CIA also appreciated that Cameron was working in Canada, thus circumventing legal restrictions forbidding such experiments in the United States.

Cameron based his experiments on a two-stage theory. In the first stage, which he called “depatterning,” he set out to eliminate the subject’s existing ideas, habits, and attachments, generating a sort of “selective amnesia.” The outcome of this stage, in the words of a CIA executive, was the “creation of a vegetable,” not an especially useful subject for counter-espionage purposes. But then Cameron moved to the second stage that he called “psychic driving,” in which the subject was “reconditioned” to adopt new, permanent behavioral models and ideas.

In fact, Cameron was even too successful in creating “vegetables.” Some of the techniques he used included electroshock treatments that were from twenty to forty times stronger than the average doses administered in psychiatric hospitals, and he gave them to the patients three times a day for several days. He also administered medication to induce sleep deprivation for periods from fifteen to sixty-five days. He gave his patients cocktails of psychotropic drugs and hallucinogens, in quantities much higher than in their normal recreational use. Not surprisingly, as court cases were to reveal in later years, most of the patients succumbed to mental and other illnesses, and never recovered. Some died.

The passage from depatterning to psychic driving, however, never succeeded. Cameron recorded on tape his own “instructions,” as well as phrases spoken by the patient. The vegetable-like patients produced by the depatterning were compelled to listen to the tapes up to sixteen hours a day. Sometimes, microphones were inserted in football helmets that patients could not remove. Microphones were also hidden under their pillow, so they could continue to listen to the tapes even in their sleep. But nothing worked.

In fact, Cameron’s experiments did prove something. They proved that “brainwashing” a victim into changing her fundamental ideas or orientation was not possible. Having reached the same conclusions, in 1963 the CIA ended the MK-ULTRA project, including the part that Cameron had conducted.

To use its own fortunate metaphor, the CIA learned that it might be possible to “wash” the brain until it loses its “color” and becomes “white,” as the patient is reduced to the sad state of a human wreck. But “recoloring” it with new ideas is not possible.

Source: Bitter Winter