What was Project MKUltra? Inside the CIA's mind-control program

Sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be true, like the one about how the CIA tried to use LSD to find a mind-control drug.

The CIA is a goldmine for conspiracy theorists and may hold the dubious honor of being the source of most of the conspiracy theories that end up being true. While some of the conspiracy theories that revolve around the CIA are wild speculation, a few of them are very real and well documented. Among them is a project with little scientific merit and significant ethical concerns called Project MKUltra.


In the 1950s and '60s, the CIA experimented with LSD on American citizens.

Project MKUltra was the code name for a series of investigations into mind-bending substances, techniques, and medical procedures. The goal was to develop truth serums, mind-control drugs, and determine what chemicals and methods had potential use for torture, disorientation, and espionage. The experiments started in 1953 and were slowly reduced in scope over the next 20 years before being halted in 1973.


This really happened, as shown in this record of the United States Senate. No tin foil hats required.

What did the CIA do?

A variety of experiments were undertaken to understand the effects of powerful drugs on unsuspecting subjects. These were often done in conjunction with hospitals and universities who claimed later they were not told what the goal of the experimentation was. At least 86 “universities or institutions” were involved in the acquisition of test subjects and administration of the experiments.

In one set of experiments, aptly named operation midnight climax, prostitutes on the CIA payroll would lure clients back to a safehouse where they would drug them with LSD. The effect the drug had on the unsuspecting victim would be observed behind one-way glass by intelligence agents and recorded.

CIA agents also had a habit of drugging one another both at work and at weekend retreats to the point where random LSD trips became a workplace hazard to see what the effect of the drug was on unsuspecting subjects. However, this resulted in at least one death when a subject developed severe psychotic behaviors after being drugged. While that death is often considered a suicide or an accident, the possibility that it was a murder is often brought up.

Other experiments were also undertaken with sensory deprivation, hypnosis, psychological abuse, MDMA, salvia, psilocybin, and the mixing of barbiturates with amphetamines to sedate a subject before giving them a massive hit of speed in hopes of making them spill their secrets.

Who was experimented on?

Subjects included student volunteers, patients at mental hospitals, prisoners who both did and didn’t volunteer, drug addicts who were paid in more drugs, and the occasional random person in addition to CIA agents who got unlucky.

The author Ken Kesey volunteered for the experiments while he was a student at Stanford. He later worked the experiences into his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was so attracted to the use of psychedelics that he went on to host “Acid Tests” at his home, bringing LSD to the counterculture.


Ken Kesey: counterculture icon and subject of repeated experiments in LSD usage. (Getty Images)

It has also been speculated that Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, was experimented on as part of MKUltra when he participated in a series of experiments at Harvard in which he was verbally abused and had his personal beliefs belittled by an attorney. It must be repeated that this is mostly conjecture, though several sources point out the likelihood of it.

Did any of it work?

Some of it worked, but most of it didn't. 

While some of the drugs were found to make the test subjects more suggestible or pliable, none of them were the truth serums or reliable torture aids that the CIA wanted. Complicating matters, the research was highly unscientific at times, and a great deal of the data was of limited use.

In many ways, it might have been counterproductive. The counterculture was given access to LSD through the experiments and they proceeded to run in the opposite direction with it. John Lennon went so far as to mock the CIA in an interview, noting “We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD. That's what people forget. They invented LSD to control people and what they did was give us freedom.”

The head of the project, Sidney Gottlieb, would also go on to say that his entire effort was “useless”, suggesting that the project failed to satisfy anybody. However, some elements of the program have gone on to be used in recent torture regimens with a focus on psychological torment.

How do we know about this?

In 1973, then-CIA-director Richard Helms ordered all documents relating to MKUltra destroyed. However, 20,000 pages of documents were misfiled and survived the purge. In 1977, Congress organized the Church Committee and examined the records. As a result of the findings, Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan issued orders banning all future human experimentation without consent by government agencies, and some remittances were paid to those harmed by the tests.

How illegal was this?

The project violated the Nuremberg codes, agreed to by the United States after the trials of Nazi war criminals, by administering drugs without informed consent. At least two people, Frank Olson and Harold Blauer, died as a result of being drugged without their knowledge. The true extent of psychological damage and death toll is impossible to know, as the records were mostly burned and the unscientific nature of many tests would make it impossible to determine what later events (for example, suicide) were attributable to the tests.

So, there you have it. The CIA did use mind-altering drugs on unsuspecting civilian populations and those too weak to fight back and then tried to cover it up. While most conspiracy theories are far-fetched and debunkable with two minutes of thought, some of them are entirely true.

MKUltra was a conspiracy between the government and many institutions to drug people without their knowledge and use anything learned from it for espionage purposes. Modern research into psychedelic drugs is increasingly benign, but we must remember that a great deal of what we know about them was discovered for the sake of making them weapons. A sobering reminder of what science can do without guidance. 

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

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  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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