Our project examines ‘brainwashing’ in the Cold War for the roles, real and imagined, played by psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. We ask how these disciplines pictured tyranny and freedom of mind, were drawn into ‘psy warfare’ and commerce, and were mobilised in social and political critique.

Psychologist Russell Willett is filmed as he is prepared by colleague Dr. Cyril Franks for a brainwashing experiment to be televised on the BBC programme Tonight. 25 April 1957. Getty Images.

The reputations of the ‘psy’ professions – and the status of their ideas – were altered by controversies, myths and testimonies about ‘brainwashing’ in its various guises during the Cold War. Our project uncovers new source materials and promotes original analyses of the involvement (real and perceived) of clinicians in brainwashing and its cognate practices of interrogation, psychological warfare, subliminal advertisement, and therapeutic experimentation. We consider what ethical guidelines and safeguards, past or present, have been formulated to deal with the dangers of mind control so powerfully articulated during the Cold War.

By exploring these historical debates over mind control and their continuing legacies for psy expertise, Hidden Persuaders offers timely historical analysis of continuing present-day controversies. The language of ‘brainwashing’ continues to influence, in diverse and unexpected ways, present understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state; the nature of the therapeutic encounter between patient and psy-professional; and the borderlands between education, persuasion and indoctrination.

This project is made possible by a Senior Investigator Award from the Wellcome Trust.

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