I called the U.S. Surgeon General's office last week and asked if there was an official health warning about the dangers of brainwashing. The receptionist was cheerful and polite. She said to call Gayle Converse at the Public Affairs department. So I called Ms. Converse, introduced myself, and asked if there had ever been a warning issued on the dangers of "coercive persuasion" and "thought reform," especially since they are used in the residential treatment of troubled teens.
Ms. Converse has 30 years of media and public-relations experience and is the Senior Communications Specialist for the Surgeon General's Office. But when I asked this question, she was silent. So I continued, "I'm asking because there is no scientific evidence that these practices are safe or effective and the Government Accountability Office says there are systematic abuses and even deaths within many of today's programs." She was still silent, so I mentioned Straight Inc., where I received "treatment" for substance abuse as a teen. I told her that Straight utilized the well-documented brainwashing practices of the communist reform prisons of the 1940s and 1950s. When I mentioned Nancy Reagan doing TV commercials and telethons for Straight, the line went dead. I called right back, but she didn't answer.
The 1999 U.S. Surgeon General Report on Mental Health states: "Given the limitations of current research, it is premature to endorse the effectiveness of residential treatment for adolescents." Twelve years later, there has hasn't been any valid research proving the safety or effectiveness of this high-profit industry. It seems that scientific research is a threat to this industry and would quantify what program survivors already know -- where there is "tough love," there is torture. The safety and effectiveness is unproven, but the abuses and deaths are well-documented. I guess it's something the Office of the Surgeon General doesn't want to talk about.
The next day I called again. My question (for Gayle's answering machine) was, "Why is there no Surgeon General's Warning?" There hasn't been any response to three separate requests for information about this.
According to federal investigations by the Government Accountability Office, thousands of teens have been abused and some have been killed in for-profit facilities, so why has the Surgeon General's Office and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services remained silent about these abusive businesses? Edward Hunter might have explained it like this: "To be successful, brainwashing depended fundamentally on the subjects' ignorance of it." (Brainwashing, 1956) This silence about the process and its potential for harm enables the use of brainwashing within today's behavior modification industry for troubled teens.
When the CIA first began researching coercive persuasion, brainwashing and behavior modification in the 1950s, it was during a time of hysteria over the evils of communism. Brainwashing was sensationalized as a terrifying "Red" practice. Newspapers published dramatic stories of "re-education" within communist reform prisons. Victims were forbidden to have any contact with the outside world for months and years at a time. They were physically and emotionally deprived and manipulated into believing and identifying with communist doctrine. This assault on personal identity was called "menticide" and "psychic murder," but victims of the process often shocked the public with expressions of gratitude for the changes that their reformers had "helped" them make. There are hundreds of pages of federal documents outlining the psychology of brainwashing.
The MK Ultra files, entitled "Coercive Persuasion" MORI ID #184447-184451, are CIA reports from 1956 and 1957 that mention the covert implementation and two-year study of communist brainwashing techniques within the United States. These projects involved expert psychologists who created "coercive persuasion" programs through civilian agencies within the general public. The secretive nature of these projects is emphasized in the report, as is the need to intentionally misinform the public about the true nature of these programs. According to the report, these federally sponsored psychologists were to study the brainwashing practices of the Communists, but were also interested in some of the potentially "therapeutic" uses for these practices.
As Edgar Schein said, "It is important...not to fall into the trap of thinking that because we use methods similar to the Communist our methods are bad and should therefore be abandoned on moral grounds. It could just as well be argued that the Communists are using some of our own best methods of influence, and therefore coercive persuasion really has some good features to it." (Coercive Persuasion, 1961)
Here's a simple definition of brainwashing: it's when an authority imposes a new identity and belief system on a captive subject through prolonged torture and reconditioning. In this process, a captive subject will usually begin to identify with the captor and unconsciously adopt this new identity through adapting to a manipulative environment. This adaptation is powered by the subject's own human tendency to seek the basic needs for survival.
When captives are forced to choose between psychological annihilation and survival, most will choose the basic needs for survival -- even if it causes a deep breach of personal integrity. "They are coerced into allowing themselves to be persuaded" (Schein, 1961). In the United States, these practices are widely used in the troubled teen industry. But instead of a new political doctrine, these techniques are used to establish and condition new emotional and behavioral impulses within adolescents.
People have automatic reflexes and can be conditioned just like Pavlov's dogs. But in humans, these reflexes are trained through emotional manipulations as well as physical. For humans, the "aversive stimuli" are not simply unpleasant, they're loaded with meaning and quickly become entangled with the very identity of the subject. This tampering with identity can lead to serious, negative side effects that may not surface until many years after treatment.
Many behavior modification programs address negative teen behaviors as though these behaviors were an evil demon, whose possession could only be purged through absolute compliance with program demands.
The essence of these programs is simple: expressions of the "old self" are continually punished until this old self no longer "works." A "new self" is manipulated into existence and is slowly conditioned until a framework of new beliefs and reflexes are instilled at the unconscious level and become automatic. But automatic does not mean genuine. And for an adolescent, adopting a new persona out of coercion can lead to serious lifelong psychological damage.
It's common for adult survivors of teen behavior modification programs to go 20 years before being able to address the memories of "treatment." Only scientific research can prove how safe and effective this "treatment" is. But the conspicuous lack of research seems to prove how dangerous and unprofitable this knowledge could be.
"When the techniques of communist brainwashing become common knowledge, the system will be either shattered completely or made so difficult and costly to the Reds that the game will be hardly worth the candle." (Hunter, 1956)
The U.S. Office of the Surgeon General has not yet issued an official health warning against the dangers of brainwashing, but they have made quite a statement by remaining silent.