Book Review: “Battle for the Mind”

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I first heard of Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brain-Washing in a sermon that was addressing the godly and ungodly choices one can make in life, as well as the things that influence us.  The preacher let us know that this controversial work had made quite a stir since its first appearance in 1957, but that it since had been “discredited.”  Far from discouraging me to forget the title, this only made me more determined to find out what this book was all about and why people were upset to the point that they wanted to discredit it.

One clue was the subhead on the cover, which reads “How Evangelists, Psychiatrists, Politicians, and Medicine Men can change your beliefs and behavior.”  The idea that evangelists and psychiatrists–people with respectable and sometimes laudable credentials–should be lumped in with politicians and medicine men–whose credibility and intentions may be seriously in doubt–certainly could ruffle some feathers.  And it just didn’t make any sense on the face of it.

The author, William Sargant, himself a highly controversial figure, is described by one web site as being “perhaps the foremost face of British mind control experimentation.”  His basic premise in the work under discussion is that brain-washing–in this case, the radical shift from even core beliefs to different beliefs suggested by someone else–is accomplished by bringing the subject to a state of complete nervous, and often physical, exhaustion–or what today we would refer to as “trauma.”  Modern referents would be terms like battle fatigue, shell-shock, or PTSD, but Sargant makes clear that such breakdowns may also occur due to administration of drugs, electro-convulsive therapy, fear of punishment (proximate, as in torture, or future, as in the prospect of eternity in Hell for sinners), and even continued exposure to rhythmic sounds such as are present in voodoo ceremonies or while dancing to rock and roll.

Sargant’s explanation of this begins with records of experiments on dogs by Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist famous for his work on classical conditioning with salivating dogs.  When Pavlov’s dogs were accidentally traumatized by nearly being drowned in his flooded laboratory, he noticed significant changes in their behavior.  They seemed to have forgotten their recent conditioning and were even observed to have reversed their training in some cases.  They also seemed to show a dislike for human keepers whom they had previously liked.  In short, they lost their previous thought patterns.

Sargant then goes on to postulate that this inducement of trauma, whether deliberate or accidental, is the key method used by the various groups mentioned to influence behavior and change thought patterns.  The weakness in his argument lies in the fact that he applies it too far afield, perhaps revealing his own personal prejudices rather than proven facts.  His examples run the gamut, and in many cases the connection is obvious–as in the tortures used to elicit confessions during the Spanish Inquisition and in the jails and police stations of Communist states who were hell-bent on wiping out all ideological opposition.  In some cases cited, individuals were subjected to so much pain, monotony, and physical deprivation that they would have confessed to anything.  Ironically, however, Sargant points out that it was not uncommon for these individuals to later insist on their guilt as wrongdoers (despite there being no evidence) and on their allegiance to the new state, the new religious teachings, or the new way of thought.  They had truly been brainwashed.

But is this what happens in a psychiatrist’s or psychologist’s office?  Certainly, an effort is made to convince patients that certain behaviors are constructive and others destructive, yet we see none of the continued deprivation, torture, and threats to life and family experienced in the cases mentioned above.  Even a more extreme measure like ECT, which has been shown to be highly effective in reversing some symptoms of certain mental illnesses, is generally aimed at resetting the brain function to a calmer level and not at implanting new thoughts.

Then there are the evangelists.  There are definitely “hell and brimstone” preachers who will bring up the threat of eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners, but elevating the fear of eternal punishment to the level of the fear of losing one’s present life is, for most of us, a non-sequitur.  To be sure, the idea of being thrown into a lake of fire for eternity is a powerful argument for faith, but for non-believers, Hell is not an issue.

My readers may wonder how the practice of hypnosis–erroneously thought by some to be a form of brain-washing–fits into this picture.  The answer, according to Sargant, is that it doesn’t. He does cite instances in World War I in which hypnosis was used to help battle-scarred individuals to mentally (and safely) relive their traumas in order to deal with them in therapy. This is hardly the same, however, as deliberately invoking a disabling mental crisis.

On the other hand, it is not difficult to imagine that the relentless drumming and exhausting dancing for hours that is part of some voodoo rites does indeed leave the individual in a dog-tired stupor–a state in which minds may indeed be influenced and declarations of voodoo practitioners believed.  Whether or not the same effect is produced by dancing to rock and roll seems questionable at best.

All this being said, there is definitely value to realizing that thoughts and even core beliefs may be changed by traumatic experiences or treatments.  It is important to note that Sargant is not advocating such experiences; he is merely explaining what he believes to be the mechanism and method for changing thoughts and, perhaps, behaviors.

This is a fascinating book, but the reader should be aware that descriptions of some methods of brain-washing are disturbing to read.  Whether you credit or discredit all or parts of this book, it certainly offers some interesting explanations for changes that we sometimes find inexplicable.

If you read, or have read, this book.  Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions here.