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.

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."