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The History of Brainwashing Is a Red Flag for Techno-therapy
Pocket-sized therapies, like counseling apps, are praised as a timely solution to the budgetary pressures and long waiting lists of overstretched mental health services. But do they work?
For Donald Ewen Cameron—a Scottish-born psychiatrist, the president of numerous medical societies, and the director of the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal between 1943 and 1965—technology was a passion bordering on an obsession. While his tattered tweed suits and mismatched socks lent him the air of an absent-minded university don, Cameron was fixated on the future, from his collection of high-powered cars, to his constant use of Dictaphones, to the science-fiction novels that littered his bedside table. As this ‘technophilia’ deepened and began to shape his psychiatric thinking in the 1950s, Cameron was set on a collision course with Cold War conspiracy.
Beyond its capacity to simplify everyday life, Cameron believed that technology could be the handmaiden of a psychiatric revolution. Denouncing conventional therapy—with all its talking, listening, and trust-building—as slow and ineffective, Cameron instead subjected his patients to a radical new treatment that promised to accelerate the process of psychological healing. Termed ‘psychic driving’, this treatment utilized a brand-new technological savior: the reel-to-reel tape machine.
Psychic driving was a two-stage process. Firstly, distressing memories and pathological behaviors were ‘annihilated’ from the patient’s mind through an unrelenting regime of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). While most of his peers conservatively limited ECT to 12 shocks per month to avoid damaging short-term memories, Cameron increased this to 12 shocks per day to capitalize on this usually unwanted side-effect. Then, patients were placed in front of tape machines emitting endlessly looping messages designed to push them towards particular psychiatric epiphanies. ‘Peggy, you have discovered that your mother never wanted you,’ one such tape proclaimed. ‘Can you see now why you have given affection in such lavish degree to your children and why you became so desperately anxious when your daughter decided to enter a convent?’
Messages were repeated for days, weeks, and even months on end, in order to overwhelm the patient’s conscious defenses. When patients became distressed by the relentless repetitions, they were restrained using a variety of crude and bizarre methods, from securing their headphones with tape to immobilizing them with hallucinogenic substances. The results were devastating: rather than overcoming their conditions, patients often emerged with severe memory loss, unable even to recognize their own families.
Cameron’s research attracted a number of patrons, none more surprising than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Following the return of seemingly ‘brainwashed’ prisoners from the Korean War in 1953, the CIA had begun funding universities and hospitals engaged in research concerning behavioural modification. The project, codenamed MK-ULTRA, was designed to produce interrogation techniques for Cold War espionage. As such, Cameron’s proclaimed ability to deconstruct and remake minds at will seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, and nearly $60,000 was funnelled into psychic driving between 1957 and 1960. However, as the treatment’s destructive effects became apparent, the CIA realised psychic driving would have little operational use, and ties were swiftly broken. The CIA’s involvement in Cameron’s work would lay hidden until an explosion of class-action lawsuits in the 1980s.
Cameron’s faith in psychic driving, sustained by the fantasy of a futuristic, mechanised psychiatry, outweighed the mounting evidence of its total failure. Rather than emerging out of a comprehensive psychological theory, Cameron’s tape-machine treatments were largely inspired by novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and adverts for ‘sleep-teaching’ records that dubiously claimed to impart fluency in foreign languages overnight. Doggedly pursuing an ‘automated’ psychiatry that moved beyond the discussions of the chaise longue and towards an assembly line of mass-produced wellbeing, Cameron seemed oblivious to the harm being caused.
Through its ‘stranger-than-fiction’ quality, psychic driving pushes us towards a more critical history of psychiatry in the 20th century. Far from psychiatry being a neutral, and purely objective endeavour, set apart from the messy reality of politics and culture, psychic driving reveals how knowledge about the human mind is profoundly shaped by the concerns and priorities of the societies that produce it. This is far from a new perspective, with similar arguments persuasively made more than half a century ago in The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) by the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz and in Madness and Civilization (1964) by Michel Foucault. The history of psychic driving extends these critiques, revealing how the political pressures and moral panics of the Cold War shaped perceptions of mental illness and its treatment.
Psychic driving might also tell us something about the future, not just the past, of psychological therapy. Few present-day psychiatrists find themselves preoccupied with issues of communism and brainwashing, but Cameron’s core belief in the inevitable merging of technology and psychiatry has proven remarkably resilient. This is perhaps seen most dramatically in the recent explosion of smartphone applications concerned with mental health, with some 10,000 apps on the market offering everything from mood trackers to mindfulness programs, ambient noise generators to automated hypnosis. Enthusiastic advocates have been quick to praise these pocket-sized therapies as a timely solution to the budgetary pressures and long waiting lists of overstretched mental health services.
However, psychic driving introduces a note of caution to these celebrations. While exotic conspiracies of international espionage are unlikely to be uncovered, Cameron’s work reminds us that we ought to question whose interests, beyond benevolent ‘healing’, are at play. Beneath the optimistic rhetoric of this new wave of ‘techno-therapy’ there is plenty to worry about: applications frequently lack expert medical oversight, few are supported by reliable studies gauging their effectiveness or even basic safety, and many have been found to leak or actively sell users’ sensitive health data to third parties. Clearly such issues must be interrogated further, and the history of psychic driving can bolster the necessary skepticism—and dissent—to do so.
Sam Hatchwell and David Saunders’ Psychic Driving Installation at the Museum of the Normal
More information on the project can be found here
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTgyMzg1NX0.ZY8qmhtoZfbRMAqrNnmbgyk7GLabglx_9lBq3PKcy7g/img.png?width=980" id="99882" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="68e8758894b0359c6ef61b2c158832b2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="970e9c15f3c3d846dde05e2b2c6ebf12" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b38a957408940673ccc744f0f6828d18" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f735418322b34382dcd882299c9ccc48" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDMzMDc3N30.p9BEtkf3-PV3EtDSQMUGUeopsimiCHUagx97P4f8IBw/img.jpg?width=980" id="e8ab8" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0063ce99bdd22fbebe1279244b87935c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Coccyx. Image source: decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="45469ca5ee5f43433a782f7d4ac0a440" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Are there innate differences between female and male brains?
People have searched for sex differences in human brains since at least the 19th century, when scientist Samuel George Morton poured seeds and lead shot into human skulls to measure their volumes.
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