There are few terms more loaded with myth and misunderstanding than “brainwashing.” For many it conjures up images from “The Manchurian Candidate.” [For those who’ve never seen either of the two movies of this name (1962 and 2004, starring Frank Sinatra and Denzel Washington, respectively) or read the Richard Condon novel on which they were based, they involve American POW’s who return home brainwashed—one to commit a political assassination and the others to talk the assassin up so that he’ll be able to gain a position to conduct the murder.] Some think brainwashing is complete bunk and others assume it’s reality just like in the movies. Few know the nuanced truth that’s somewhere in between—brainwashing is real but much less reliable than the movies depict. (Projects like America’s MKUltra proved unsuccessful at producing reliable mind control results.)
Taylor’s book is like a number of others that try to get to the truth about brainwashing. Where her book is unique is in its focus on neuroscience rather than psychology. That fact may make it worth reading even if you’ve read other scholarly works on the subject. The middle section does get technical as it attempts to bring a general readership up to speed on topics like neurotransmitters and neurons.
While one might expect a book on this topic to deal overwhelmingly with entities like the CIA and KGB, readers may be surprised to see how much the book focuses on advertising agencies, religions, and the educational system. While the term “brainwashing” has many nefarious connotations, it’s not unrelated to terms like persuasion and indoctrination. The book does provide many less blasé cases–and even discusses the fact in fictitious works like Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
The 15 chapters of the book are organized into three parts. The first part lays the groundwork for understanding what the author does—and doesn’t—mean by brainwashing. This section covers many of the same topics as one would expect from a psychologist writing on brainwashing. The middle part of the book (chapters 7 through 11) delves into neuroscience and how it applies to brainwashing. (The book assumes no particular knowledge of brain science, and so this section begins with a crash course on your brain.) The final part explores some of the ramifications of brainwashing as well as asking the question of the degree to which brainwashing can be resisted (and by whom.)
I found this book interesting on many levels. Even if you’re not so interested in the intricacies of the science of the mind, you may learn something about how susceptible you would be to brainwashing (if you can be sufficiently honest with yourself) and how you might become less susceptible (if that’s your goal.)
I’d recommend this book for readers interested in not only brainwashing, but related topics such as free will, persuasion, and emotion.