Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: The Science of Thought Control

The events of the past thirty years have created a kind of monstrous laboratory for the study of the enslavement of the human ego. The Moscow Trials confronted us with the spectacle of a man who had been brought into morbid alliance with his own persecutors, a man who confessed to crimes he had never committed, professed beliefs that negated his own history, and held “truths” that contradicted the evidence of his own senses. In an ecstasy of self-abomination many of these accused men demanded the extreme penalty from their judges. Later, we learned through Hitler’s concentration camps that systematic terror and degradation can strip personality to its naked foundations, that hunger and extreme peril can enslave a man to his persecutors, and that when the work of enslavement is completed the rags of personality can be made over so that a man finally comes to resemble his own jailers.

It was the Chinese Communists who gave us the term “brainwashing” and demonstrated through the conversion of Western civilians and prisoners of war that their methods of thought reform were not to be conceived of as a kind of black magic practiced by totalitarian regimes upon passive and enslaved citizens. The reports of our own repatriated prisoners of war collapsed a whole body of popular theories. We were without any explanation for the fact that a man born to freedom and reared in a democratic creed should surrender a part of his mind to his enemy. Official and public reaction was, in itself, without precedent in history. There were no denunciations of the converts and the collaborators as traitors, or any public demonstrations against them. They were visited by psychiatric teams appointed by their government, and brought back as mentally afflicted men.

Once again, we have learned that freedom of thought is not alone a human right conferred upon a man by his government and guaranteed by its laws. The ultimate guarantees of freedom are invested in the human ego. As the pragmatic psychology of tyranny has known for centuries, there are conditions under which the ego will surrender its autonomy. The methods for enslaving the ego and even the methods of “thought reform” are not entirely new. But we are the first generation in history to acquire a scientific psychology of tyranny and mental enslavement. We can now begin to understand the process of mental enslavement, and the morbid attachment of a man for his persecutors. With this knowledge we shall not banish devils from the human scene; but for those who find cold comfort in scientific revelation, these investigations of contemporary psychology afford a considerable advance over the modern demonology that has invaded so much of our thinking about mental enslavement.



* * *

Among the most brilliant and illuminating contributions to our understanding of the psychology of mental enslavement are Bruno Bettelheim’s studies of individual and mass behavior in the concentration camp society. Before being imprisoned in 1938—39 at Dachau and Buchenwald, Bettelheim had undergone a personal analysis and had already become interested in psychoanalytic research and applied psychoanalysis. Under the early impact of imprisonment in Dachau, Bettelheim began to experience changes in his own personality, and to protect himself against the danger of disintegration which he saw among his fellow inmates, he undertook to employ his psychological knowledge in a strict analysis of his own behavior and that of his fellow prisoners and the guards and SS men in the concentration camp community. By such means he was able to preserve his personality from destruction and achieve a kind of autonomy in an environment that had, as its calculated aim, the complete subjugation of the individual and the annihilation of the individual will.

Some years after his release and his immigration to the United States, Bettelheim gathered together his observations in a study called “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.”1 This study with some modifications forms the center of a new work, The Informed Heart,2 in which he addresses himself to the problem of autonomy and submission in contemporary society.

According to Bettelheim, the war against the human spirit within the camps was not a matter of a grand-scale unleashing of sadism, but a policy deliberately aimed at creating the docile and enslaved personality. Moreover, this destruction was carefully carried out in a series of stages.3 The first stage Bettelheim refers to as “traumatization,” a massive assault upon the personality and the body which, in psychological terms, paralyzes the ego and lays the groundwork for drastic personality changes. A kind of ritual initiation took place during the transport to camp, when the prisoners were exposed to almost constant physical and mental torture. Suffering may unite men through identification with each other, but the Gestapo made sure that this could not happen. No prisoner was allowed to care for his own or another’s wounds. Prisoners were forced to hit one another, to accuse themselves and others of vile actions, to curse their religion, to denounce their wives as adulteresses and prostitutes. Any failure to obey the orders to hit and to vilify, or any help given a tortured prisoner, was swiftly punished by death.



This “Initiation”—whose purpose, of course, was to break the prisoner’s resistance to changing his external forms of behavior, as a preliminary stage in breaking his resistance to internal personality changes—usually lasted for about twelve hours, often longer. The real world was transformed into a nightmare, and the only possible way in which the ego could deal with this was to make the new reality “not real,” to experience it as if it were happening to someone else. This “denial of reality,” Bettelheim points out, was a first step in developing new psychological mechanisms for survival in the camp, a necessary adaptation to overwhelming experiences, but one that already signified a major personality change.

Upon entering the camp, the prisoner became a number, and not only in a metaphorical sense. Thereafter the camp officials addressed him by his number; and the prisoner was compelled to refer to himself by number and not by name. Thus the very symbol of personal identity, one’s name, began to lose its connections with the personality, and with the body, and the stranger taking over from within acquired the absolute anonymity of the serial number.

The extent to which this had the effect of reducing the prisoner to the helplessness of childhood may be seen in one example among many that Bettelheim gives. Permission had to be sought from the guards to use the latrines: “Jewish prisoner number 34567 most obediently prays to be permitted to—.” To complete the degradation many guards withheld permission, or asked baiting questions to further humiliate the prisoner. If permission was granted, the prisoner was required to report back later (using the same formula). Here, it was as if the man were reduced to the state of earliest childhood, and the training for cleanliness repeated once again.

The constant threats of lashings from the guards served further to undermine a man’s image of himself as a man; they were like the threats of punishment in childhood. Even the work assigned to prisoners was often nonsensical and childish: for example, a prisoner (especially if he was new) might be required to carry heavy rocks from one place to another and then pick them up and carry them back.

The impotent rage of the prisoner was another factor in his reduction to a condition of pure submissiveness. For there was nothing to do with this rage except turn it back upon the self or project it onto a suitable object. Fear of one’s own internalized rage, fear of its destructive power, produced a feeling not unlike that of childhood, of being helpless before an internal danger, the danger of one’s own impulses. Bettelheim shows how this internalized rage played an important role in the submission to the SS. The power of the objectively real danger represented by the SS man was augmented in the destructive fantasies of the prisoner, so that the SS man grew omnipotent in the eyes of the prisoner and the prisoner became more submissive out of the magnitude of the danger. A fair proportion of the internalized aggression built up in all prisoners was also discharged in endless, petty quarrels among themselves, like the quarreling of children. How could it be otherwise? Yet such petty warfare among the prisoners worked once again against any group cohesion or support for disintegrating personalities, and consequently only served the purposes of the Gestapo psychological program.

The prisoner soon learned that there was no possibility of asserting his individual will or influencing his environment through his own actions. As in a nightmare, there was unremitting horror—bleak timelessness and no hope of deliverance. No man was ever permitted to believe that he might some day be released. And as a monstrous symbol of death and the eternity of this hell, no clocks nor watches were permitted the prisoners. There remained one last freedom: the choice to live or die.

The problem, as Bettelheim puts it, was how to survive as a man, not a walking corpse, “as a debased and degraded but still human being.” To react emotionally to the torture or abuse or death of a comrade was suicidal. Yet, to preserve his humanity in the concentration camp a man had somehow to find a way of keeping alive his inner feelings even though he could not act upon them.

Those persons who blocked out neither heart nor reason—neither feelings nor perception, but kept informed of their inner attitudes even when they could hardly ever afford to act on them, those prisoners survived and came to understand the conditions they lived under. They also came to realize what they had not perceived before; that they still retained the last, if not the greatest, of the human freedoms: to choose their own attitude under any given circumstances.

Those who were unable to do this ended by becoming empty of human feeling, and shameless in their degradation. Finally, many of them came to resemble their jailers. Old prisoners, it could be observed, modeled themselves on the SS, taking over their methods of handling traitors within the group and outdoing the SS in cruelty and torture. They scavenged for old pieces of SS uniforms, or tried to sew and mend their prison garb to resemble the uniforms. They took pride in producing at roll-call the snappy SS salute, standing rigidly at attention. And there was a terrible irony in the taking over by the prisoners of a favorite SS game, the object of which was to determine who could stand being hit the longest without uttering a complaint.

The remaking of a man in the image of his enemy is a highly complex psychological process. Bettelheim makes it clear that we are to understand this pathological identification as a primitive type of defense, an attempt to protect the ego against a great and overwhelming danger. “Like the child who identifies with the parent, this identification helped prisoners to know intuitively what the SS expected of them.” Such knowledge, and the behavior based on it, may often have saved a prisoner’s life. But the price he paid was the altering of his own personality into the very type of person the SS was trying to produce.




If we set aside our revulsion at the idea of a man who makes himself over into the image of his persecutor, there is much to be learned from such behavior. Let me, in the following remarks (which are strictly my own, and not in any way Bettelheim’s), attempt a brief sketch of the psychology of the process.

The fear of ego extinction, loss of the self, is one of the primordial fears of mankind. Whether the threat of dissolution comes from within (as in psychosis) or from without (as in the concentration camp), the ego characteristically falls back upon its earliest and most primitive defenses—the very ones, in fact, that were first employed in childhood development to guard the emerging ego against extinction. Among the most important of these is the mechanism of “identification.” Before a self emerges in infancy there is an undifferentiated oneness with the mother, a state of relative freedom from tension as long as needs are satisfied. With the emergence of a self, however, comes tension, for separateness from the mother brings about in the child an acute awareness of the need for a person outside the self who is the giver of satisfactions, and a corresponding awareness of the danger of losing this person. In adapting to this new state of separateness the infant makes use of a mental mechanism that recreates in psychic terms the earlier oneness with the mother; he makes her part of himself, as he will do ever afterward with every loved person in his lifetime.

We have seen that certain measures employed by the Gestapo to break down prisoner resistance had the effect of reproducing the condition of biological helplessness in infancy. The prisoner was completely dependent upon his jailers for the satisfaction of the most elemental body needs. Hunger and danger enslaved him to his jailers who had absolute power over life. The ego, robbed of its capacity for defense against danger, was obliged to find survival techniques in an environment of unremitting peril, and one that was carefully contrived to sustain it in childlike dependency.

The ego, when it fears its own extinction, revives its oldest mechanisms in order to bind itself more closely to a world that is slipping away. It seeks to unite with a human object; and in repetition of its beginnings, the ego may find in body and survival needs the connection between it and the human objects that wield power over life. The ego protects itself against danger by identifying with the powerful persons and assuming their attributes. In this way, I suspect, the prisoner in the concentration camp found himself in grotesque alliance with his own persecutors. He borrowed the attributes of his jailers in order to prevent his own ego from dying. It appears, then, that the process by which a man can be made over in the image of his enemy is a perversion of the very process that gives birth to the human ego.

From analogy with the process of ego development we can see that, when this kind of identification between the prisoner and his jailer takes place, it is possible for the jailer to exert a strong educational influence upon his prisoner. If, in pursuit of its purposes, the state should see fit to indoctrinate or to bring about a conversion to its ideology, the very circumstances in which a prisoner through survival needs becomes attached to his jailer and has formed a primitive identification with him will provide the exact conditions for blotter-like receptivity, “taking in” and “swallowing whole,” that is required in the school of demagoguery.

We have a clue, then, as to how when the human ego is forced into regressive modes of functioning, mental processes revert to archaic patterns; it is this ego regression that provides the favorable condition for a conversion experience. And this leads us to another part of the story.




When the reports of the Moscow Trials of the 1930’s first appeared, Western psychologists were as baffled as the layman. It was not difficult to guess how the false confessions were obtained. But there was nothing to explain how so many of the defendants had come to believe in the false confessions they were making. In the show trials, it would have been possible for any defendant to repudiate his false confession before the world press, since the death penalty was inevitable in any case. Yet one after another of the alleged conspirators accused himself of treachery, of sabotage, spying, counter-revolutionary actions, and assassination plots—and in language of fervent self-abasement. Nor could this be explained by the expectation of mercy, for in the final statement to the court the prisoner often ended with an impassioned plea for the most severe verdict, the deserved penalty of death.

Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon constructed a plausible picture of how the Moscow confessions were obtained. His Rubashov was broken down through an ideological inquisition to which, as a party official who had impeded political objectives through his own individual actions, he was vulnerable. But—as John Rogge has pointed out—this explanation does not help us in trying to understand the confessions of non-Communists to Communist inquisitors. How can we explain an Oatis, for example? Not only did Oatis confess to espionage and later testify against twelve alleged accomplices, but after his release he refused to repudiate his confession. When he was questioned about why he had made the confession in the first place, he firmly denied that he had been tortured. He could only say enigmatically that “psychology” had been used. Among others during the postwar period who confessed to Communist inquisitors were Vogeler, Cardinal Mindszenty, Archbishop Grosz, and scores of Catholic and Protestant clergymen in the satellite countries.

The inquisitional methods of the Chinese Communists were borrowed from the Soviet Union, but the Chinese gave larger scope to the inquisition by uniting it with a program of thought reform. The Chinese Communist prison became the center of a grueling and intensive re-education program in which confession served to “cleanse” the prisoner of ideological sins, and group study was then combined with certain extraordinary types of group pressures to build a new identity in the prisoner. The effectiveness of the program was seen in the degree to which even Western non-Communists came under its influence.

Robert Lifton, whose book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism4 appeared last year, was one of the psychiatric investigators assigned in 1953 to examine repatriated prisoners of the Korean war. From the stories of the repatriates he was able to piece together a great deal of information about Chinese Communist confession and re-education techniques, but he soon saw that many of the profound questions raised by this inquiry could best be explored through a study of men and women who had been “reformed” within China itself. Returning to Hong Kong in 1954, he began to search out both Western civilians and Chinese who had experienced “thought reform,” and for seventeen months he conducted psychiatric studies of a number of these people. In the summary that follows I have used material from both his 1953 essay in Psychiatry and his recent book.

The arrest typically took place at midnight. A squad arrived at the house, conducted a search, and led the prisoner, blindfolded, to a house of detention. This was followed by a stage that Lifton calls the “Emotional Assault.” There were day and night interrogations under bright lights. The prisoner was told: “You are here because you have committed crimes against the people. Confess and your case will be quickly solved and you will soon be released.” The prisoner was given no rest for consecutive days and nights. When he appeared near collapse he was taken to his cell, but wakened in an hour to be brought back for further interrogation. Continued denial of guilt put handcuffs and chains back on the prisoner.



Up until this point the Chinese inquisitional method closely resembles that of the Russians. But now we encounter an element that is uniquely Chinese, and part of the thought-reform program. It is called “Struggle,” and at this stage in the procedure takes the form of a group inquisition conducted by the prisoner’s cell mates. The prisoner is always placed in a group of other prisoners who are more advanced in their reform process, and whose task now is to help him make his confession. The foreign victim sits in the middle of the floor while his cell mates shout invectives at him and denounce him as an arch criminal. (The prisoner is interrogated at night and “struggled” by his cell mates during the day; thus he is virtually without a moment of freedom from accusations of guilt.)

All this is accompanied by the reduction of the prisoner to complete helplessness and dependency upon his cell mates. One of Lifton’s informants, a Dr. J., describes how, with his hands chained behind his back, he had to eat like a dog using only his mouth and his teeth. When he needed to urinate his cell mates opened his trousers. After defecation a cell mate cleaned him. He was left unwashed for weeks, tormented by lice. The day and night torments and interrogations, sleeplessness, hunger, diarrhea, filth, rapidly bring the personality toward a crisis. Every part of the process (which is strikingly similar to Bettelheim’s description of the concentration camp methods) is designed to effect a destruction of the self-image and a weakening of the boundaries between the ego and reality. But at the point of crisis in the ego, when surrender is imminent, an abrupt change of tactics is introduced by the interrogators. They switch to softness and leniency, expressions of concern for the prisoner’s health, and apologies for their harsh treatment of him. They hold out promises that things will be more comfortable for the prisoner if he cooperates. At this point the prisoner experiences a tremendous gratitude toward his jailers, a feeling akin to love. He is now ready to make his confession.

The confession to crimes that were never committed begins with an acknowledgment by the prisoner that he is guilty “from the people’s standpoint” of ideological crimes—his capitalist thinking, his service in behalf of capitalist groups are crimes against the people of China. Once the prisoner can even provisionally accept the “people’s standpoint” he is able to see himself as an enemy of the revolution. And as he becomes more deeply involved in his confession and the scrupulous self-searching that is demanded by it, as he is “struggled” by his cell mates and his “judge” (instructor), who help him make his confession, he begins to accept, increasingly, the definition of crime “from the people’s standpoint” and to regard himself as a criminal.

But the gap still has to be bridged between confession to ideological crimes and confession to criminal acts which the prisoner must invent, naming fellow conspirators, giving details of the “plot,” and so on. This bridge is built by means of a fantasy which always has its basis in actual events. (There really was a man named X. The prisoner and X did see each other frequently.) The confession as composed and as written and rewritten over a period of months and even years is the prisoner’s own invention and he improves on it as he goes along. Lifton says: “As the confession develops, the prisoner finds it looming before him as the basic reality of his immediate world. What he admits and what he writes become standard truths.” Lifton observed that the degree of blurring of reality varied greatly among prisoners. Some prisoners came to believe in their inventions, but many were aware of the falsehood and distortion. During the writing of the confession, the prisoner is guided by his judge. The prisoner’s failure to come up with satisfactory confessional material can result in renewed “struggle” in the cell.

There follows the period of re-education. The prisoner becomes part of a study group which is in session for ten to sixteen hours a day. One person reads selected material and each of the group is expected to give opinions and criticize the views of the others. Each must learn to express himself from the “correct”—i.e. “people’s”—viewpoint. Particular emphasis is put on “thought problems,” on “wrong thoughts” or “bad thoughts,” in an unending confessional—the self-denunciation, casting out of evil.

During this time there is also an individual approach to the prisoner and his re-education (which may go on for several years). His judge, or instructor, supervises the prisoner’s education and his progress. The judge keeps a case file, receives reports, conducts interviews himself with the prisoner. The prisoner, Lifton observed, forms a complex and ambivalent relationship to his analyst. Eventually the prisoner is put to work on the final draft of his confession and gets ready for his trial. All prisoners, of course, plead guilty. The prisoner is sentenced, sometimes to as much as ten years; but in the case of Westerners there is a show of leniency, and in many instances the Westerner is expelled at this point.



In Lifton’s analysis the elements of the process are “death and rebirth.” “The ‘reactionary spy’ who entered the prison must perish; in his place must arise a ‘new man’ resurrected in the communist image.” In fact the words “to die and be reborn” are often used by officials, Lifton points out, and the prisoner himself may use them in describing his experience.

In the context of “death and rebirth” Lifton shows how the process aims at annihilation of the prisoner’s former identity and the building of a new identity. (The destruction of the old identity is accomplished, as we have seen, by techniques strikingly similar to those in the concentration camps described by Bettelheim.) The ego is brought rapidly to the last crisis before surrender. At this point, many prisoners reported, came severe depressions and suicidal thoughts. Many others experienced delusions and hallucinations. The alternatives appeared to be psychosis or death. In this extremity, relief is offered to the prisoner from the outside. The sudden leniency and affectionate concern for the prisoner’s welfare come as a flood of relief. The dying ego is rescued, and there is the promise of rebirth through confession and reform.

The confession represents an expulsion of the old identity, metaphorically a vomiting forth of the bad, the repudiated, the poisonous attributes of the old self. In some of Lifton’s reports we see a kind of orgy of self-abomination, a confessional outpouring that gathers momentum and seems to take possession of the personality; it goes on as if through a will of its own. (Analogies with some types of religious experience come to mind.) And as the confessional orgy gathers momentum, the penitent finds himself with an increasing sense of submission to his jailers. The confession is an ecstasy of surrender.

The compulsion to confess has its origins in underlying forces that are not yet well understood. Yet once this process is set in motion it releases deep and secret reservoirs of feelings, the “free-floating” guilt that exists in every personality and is always available to attach itself to images and ideas, symbols that it selects for one or another reason. The prisoner, by adopting the “people’s standpoint,” Lifton shows, is able to channel these non-specific feelings of guilt into a paranoid, pseudo-logical system. The prisoner learns to regard his past actions as evil and destructive and can charge the most prosaic events of the past with the strong emotion that has broken through to the surface of consciousness.



In reading Lifton I was struck by the fact that the making of the confession, the invention of a fictional criminal past, bears certain resemblances to the making of a dream or a delusion. I do not attribute this idea to Lifton, I am simply following a train of thought of my own. A dream or a delusion always has its point of origin in a piece of reality. In the regressed state induced by sleep or certain mental disturbances, strong unconscious impulses and ideas are liberated and unite with certain emotionally charged events of present reality to produce the imagery of the dream of the delusion. The dream representation is, then, a condensation of actuality and the repressed past.

Something analogous happens in the making of the confession. In the long months of writing and rewriting the confession the prisoner searches for real events and persons in his past and elaborates his fiction of criminal activities from the tiny core of reality. Like the delusion, or the dream, or the “big lie,” this small piece of truth at the center gives the illusion of veracity. And, again in analogy to delusional formation, the powerful charge of emotion from unconscious sources, the overwhelming feeling of guilt, is invested in the fictional self-representation of “criminal,” “spy,” “saboteur,” in the confessional narrative. Perhaps in the same way that a powerful dream is experienced and even remembered uncertainly as “real,” the fictional confession is made real by the strength of the real emotion. The genuineness of the feeling of guilt authenticates the fictional representation of guilt.

Lifton makes it absolutely clear that programs of thought reform are not “irresistible.” There were men and women who successfully resisted and retained integrity of personality. Among those who experienced thought reform there was a wide range in the degree of conversion. And in follow-up studies, it is seen that even the successful converts altered belief in varying degrees after being released from prison and establishing contact with another environment. The inference is that successful thought reform can be maintained and integrated only when the environment continues to reinforce the ideology.

Who is most susceptible to thought reform? Among the Chinese intellectuals, Lifton found, not unexpectedly, that the young people, the late adolescents, constituted the group ready-made for ideological rebirth. This is because adolescence in itself constitutes an “identity crisis” (Erik Erikson’s term); it is the time for psychological rebirth. Among other susceptible types, both Chinese and Western, Lifton found that a “totalism” in the basic structure of personality (i.e., an “all or nothing” principle, a value system committed to absolutes of good and evil and unable to tolerate, either within the personality or without, the existence of impurities or imperfections) united with the totalism of the Communist ideology in the process of conversion.

Who is least susceptible to thought reform? A prisoner who maintained his critical faculties during the thought reform procedure, who had a theory about what was going on and an awareness of being manipulated, was provided, as Lifton puts it, with “one of the rewards of knowledge: a sense of control.” As in any other situation of extreme danger, knowledge about the forces that threaten will give back to the ego the feeling of being in control. Lifton further observed that the successful resister avoided emotional involvement with his teachers and fellow prisoners, and maintained as far as possible his independence from the communication system of thought reform. “Humane stoicism,” Lifton noted, also served many resisters well. But the fourth and most important resistance technique Lifton calls “identity reinforcement.” By this he means that the prisoner maintained contact with his own identity, with his own history, his personal values, his interests, his vocation. As one of the priests said, “To resist . . . you must affirm your personality whenever there is an opportunity. . . .”

One last point: Lifton saw no evidence that “an authoritarian personality” was more susceptible to thought reform than a “liberal.” Among the converts he found both. What appeared to be crucial in the conversion experience was the degree to which personal identity could be undermined through the guilt-producing tactics of thought reform.




The brainwashing and concentration camp studies have together illuminated many obscure problems in the area of ego autonomy. Conversely, some of the researches in ego autonomy have provided startling insights into certain aspects of the brainwashing experience and the behavior generally of human beings under extreme conditions.

At McGill University, Woodburn Heron, W. H. Bexton, and a team of psychologists studied the effects of isolation on human subjects. Student volunteers were paid to lie twenty-four hours a day on a bed in a soundproof room. They wore goggles that admitted light but prevented patterned vision. They were asked to stay in isolation as long as they could (it was a rare subject who was able to remain longer than two or three days) and at intervals, during and after isolation, they were tested.

It was found that within this comparatively short isolation period, mental functioning altered measurably. There was a marked decline in reasoning and complex problem-solving ability. (All subsequent sensory-deprivation studies confirm these findings.) All but a few of the subjects experienced hallucinations,5 and all reported confusion, inability to concentrate, and diffuse anxiety sometimes bordering on panic.

Of special interest is the “propaganda study” which was part of the experiment; it offers a fascinating insight into one of the psychological conditions that may produce “false belief” during the brainwashing procedure. The “propaganda” was a 90-minute recorded talk which argued for believing in various types of psychic phenomena (telepathy, clairvoyance, ghosts, poltergeists). After the subject had been in isolation for approximately 18 hours, he was told that he could listen to a series of records if he wished. Attitude tests were administered to the subjects before and after their exposure to this propaganda, and a control group was employed for comparison. As measured against the control group, the subjects in isolation showed a significant change in attitude regarding psychical phenomena following exposure to the propaganda material.

Two important points can be made here. Sensory deprivation produces regressive modes of thinking and perception, with a corresponding loss of autonomy in the ego. In a stimulus void (such as the isolation room) a hunger for sensory stimulation and for information develops. Against this background, the repetitive information droned out on the phonograph record produced such an impact upon the mind that many subjects experienced it as “truth.”

The reports of prisoners who have undergone brainwashing bear striking similarities to the reports and observations of the subjects in sensory-deprivation studies. In brainwashing, regressive modes of thought appear; the ability to reason and to judge becomes progressively weaker; hallucinations are reported; and a panic that is greater than the fear of objective danger overcomes the prisoner: the fear of dissolution of the self and of personal identity, which probably corresponds to the panic states reported among the sensory-deprivation subjects.

As the psychologist David Rapaport suggests, the brainwashing techniques deliberately make use of physical isolation to break down the prisoner; but the prisoner has been isolated in a larger sense, from the external world and from all the sources of information that normally feed his personal ideology. The only information he gets in the immense psychic isolation of the prison is that which his jailers offer him: the relentless grinding out of accusations, exhortations, and lessons in the new ideology.



The problem of ego autonomy and surrender has also been approached through studies of hypnosis: Merton Gill and Margaret Brenman’s Hypnosis and Related States6 furnish important data and theoretical formulations for the analysis of brainwashing. In hypnosis, the ego is induced temporarily to surrender certain of its vital functions, to give these functions and their control to another ego, that of the hypnotist. In order to bring this about, the hypnotist must employ methods that center all attention upon himself. He must interfere with and block certain ego functions that are vital for reality testing, the “I” sense and the sense of voluntariness, in order to take them over himself and achieve the necessary influence over the subject.

The hypnotist’s patter and his instructions to concentrate on a single object are aimed at restricting the sensory intake, at excluding so far as possible the sensory data that normally preserve contact between the ego and the environment. As in the sensory-deprivation experiments I have described, the exclusion of normal stimuli has the effect of promoting regression. But at the same time the absence of any other stimulation permits the utterances of the hypnotist to achieve a great impact (analogous to the propaganda records in the isolation chamber) . Gill and Brenman compare the brain-washer’s unending barrage of talk about guilt and the new ideology to the hypnotist’s patter; it commands the subject’s attention and deprives him of free energy with which he might feed his sense of identity and his personal ideologies. The brainwasher—like the hypnotist (and unlike the phonograph record)—can make use of a human relationship and dependency to exalt his utterances and charge them with meaning beyond that of words themselves.

Under normal circumstances, if illness or incapacity immobilizes a person even temporarily, there may be anxiety, a sense of childlike helplessness, and an altered self-image. Those who take over the functions of the incapacitated body are endowed with highly magnified powers by the helpless person. When the hypnotist prevents his subject from engaging in motor activity he is taking an important step in acquiring control of his subject. The brainwasher, too, deprives his subject of freedom, even putting chains on him. The prisoner is not permitted to carry out bodily functions with any freedom; toilet, sex, and sleep behavior are rigidly controlled. Of course, the psychological influence and power of the brainwasher are greatly magnified (as compared with the hypnotist’s) by the real power he holds over his subject, and by the fact that his subject, like the hypnotist’s, is being coerced into surrendering autonomy.

Yet both the hypnotist and the brainwasher, when successful, bring about surrender of the ego because they are able to capture an archaic tendency in the core of the ego itself, a longing to abdicate, to lose itself, to merge with the outer world once again in primal oneness. It is as if there remained in the human personality a regressive longing for the union and complete fusion that preceded the first differentiation of me-ness and other-ness, the terrible solitude and tensions of separateness.

Both Bettelheim and Lifton make the strong point that there were men and women in the concentration camps and the prison camps of Communist China who did not surrender their minds to the enemy. And, in what I presume to be independent analyses of the data, both authors come to similar conclusions on this point: a man who is deprived of his name, of his intimate human ties, his vocation and all the external nutriments for his personal ideology, can only preserve his identity by feeding it from within. He tells himself who he is by keeping alive his past, his personal values, the memories of loved persons, his intellectual armament. To achieve this in a hostile environment, one’s personal identity must have a relatively high degree of independence from the environment. It was not moral belief alone that sustained the ego in extremity, but the degree to which conscience was internalized in personality and the relative independence of conscience from the environment. In the extreme situations in which the ego and its moral organization is cut off from its external nutriments and may even find itself in an environment that opposes its values, the internalized conscience may take over the function of the absent environment, so that it supports itself, in effect, and provides its own nutriments.

So the vulnerable center is “I.” But it would be just as true to say that the invulnerable center is “I.” There is no black magic in the possession of alien powers that can enslave the human mind. The methods employed to create total submission and conversion are neither mysterious nor irresistible, in the last analysis. The limits of the human body are known, circumscribed and predictable, and this ancient knowledge can be employed to bring about confession and subjugation of the human will. But surrender of the mind and conversion to an enemy’s ideology must engage the ego in a choice, not a rational choice (since it may be dictated by a genuine peril to the ego’s survival) and yet a moral one, if we are to give any meaning to moral behavior. The ultimate danger to personal autonomy, then, comes from within; the ultimate guarantees of freedom are invested in the ego itself.




1 Journal of Abnormal Psychology, October 1943.

2 Free Press, 309 pp., $5.00.

3 We must remember that Bettelheim is describing the concentration camps of 1939 and 1940 which at that time were largely for the internment of political prisoners. The extermination camps did not come into existence until a later date.

4 Norton, 510 pp., $6.95.

5 These should not, however, be confused with the hallucinations of psychosis. The subjects—except in three cases—did not suppose that the images which presented themselves were real.

6 International Universities Press, 1959.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.