Despite his influence on Cold War pop-cultural, and countercultural, discussions about the brain, Grey Walter was curiously reticent on the subject of ‘brainwashing’. A closer look at these discussions shows, however, that Walter’s work played a key role in debates about mind control.
By Andreas Killen
One of the central figures in the 1950s-era sciences of the brain was W. Grey Walter. Director of the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol, England, Walter’s pioneering EEG studies and his role in the cybernetics movement contributed significantly to the transformation of those sciences in the early Cold War era. His book The Living Brain (1953) introduced many of the breakthroughs occurring in these fields to the reading public and became a scientific bestseller, closely studied by figures such as Aldous Huxley and William Burroughs.
Not one to shy away from controversy or speculation, Walter was a scientific adventurer who invented cybernetic automata and wrote approvingly about, among other things, the contribution that psychosurgery had made towards the paradigm shift in brain science. Nevertheless, Walter presented his research as both scientifically rigorous and humane. In the foreword to the first edition of The Living Brain, he took care to reassure readers worried about its “risky” subject matter, the “impudicity of brain surveying brain.” His, he claimed, was a “pious” book, reverent towards Man: it contained “no immodest exposure, no baring of the soul…” (Walter 1953). The intellectual heart of the book was made up of Walter’s descriptions of the experiments that he and his colleagues performed at the Burden Institute, in which they analysed the effects of flashing lights on the human brain’s electrical activity, using EEG and an electronic stroboscope.
When the first edition of The Living Brain was published in 1953, ‘brainwashing’ was just beginning to become a household word. Ten years later, in the preface to the 1963 edition of his book, Walter again felt it necessary to address his readers’ scruples, this time evidently in response to public furor over brainwashing: “So far brain physiology has never lent itself to evil deeds as physics has done – we do not have to drive people insane or experience insanity to win understanding of brain action…. But with increasing understanding comes increasing power, and there are some who already see in our tentative essays the means for effective thought-control…. To all such we say, as to politicians, preachers, and psychiatrists: let only those whose hands are clean busy themselves with brain-washing.” (Walter 1963 xxi)
Despite this rather enigmatic disavowal, Walter’s name deserves a place in the history of mind control discourse. The content of his experiments, and his interpretation of them in The Living Brain, became instrumental in debates about the relationship between brain physiology and the mind. The same year as the reissue of Walter’s book, Scottish psychiatrist JAC Brown published his own contribution to this discourse, Techniques of Persuasion. From Propaganda to Brainwashing. Brown’s book sought to debunk many of the most histrionic claims about the dangers of mind control. He singled out for particular scrutiny Aldous Huxley’s warnings, in The Devils of Loudon (1952), about the existence of “new and previously undreamed of devices for exciting mobs.” Among the techniques that Huxley cited in that book, and then again in Brave New World Revisited (1958), was the strategic use of rhythmically flashing lights to condition subjects, in ways akin to the experiments described by Walter. Echoing the claims of psychiatrist William Sargant, Huxley argued that the use of such techniques was a sure sign that “Today the art of mind control is in the process of becoming a science.” (Huxley 1958, 38)
To such statements Brown adopted a position of extreme skepticism. There was, he wrote, simply no reliable evidence that a subject’s personality could be completely transformed in a predetermined direction. The fallacy at the heart of the views about brainwashing articulated by Huxley and Sargant was a kind of category error; in their materialist reductivism, they simply collapsed the distinction between brain and mind, in a way that was both epistemologically suspect and that eliminated any role for volition or any possibility of resistance. For Huxley and Sargant, it seemed, the fact that the brain registered a physical response to stroboscopic images, and the human mind also experienced an emotional reaction—as seen in Walter’s EEG research, and Huxley’s own self-experimentation with strobes—was proof enough that mental programming would happen with the flick of a light.
Was it just this sort of reductivism that caught the attention of Edward Hunter, the American credited with introducing the term brainwashing into Cold War discourse? In his early investigation of brainwashing, Hunter relied on his friend the psychiatrist Leon Freedom for a scientific explication of why Communist brainwashing methods could be effective. Freedom suggested to Hunter that Soviet brainwashing was based on the neuropsychological theories of Ivan Pavlov, that is, on Pavlovian conditioning. In a letter Hunter wrote to Leon Freedom in 1955, Hunter cited the following “curious statement” in Grey Walter’s The Living Brain: “No mental theory or practice is likely to survive which does not take into account the principles of cerebral functions revealed by physiology any more than the practice of medicine can ignore other physical functions. Already the new type of psychiatrist, in touch with centers of physiological research, has adopted a new outlook. The impact has not yet reached the great conservative body of that profession and perhaps will never do so, especially in the US where psychiatry spread in a sweet flood of affluence and crystallized hard.” (Hunter Papers)
Where did Walter himself stand on the question raised by Brown concerning the relationship between mind and brain? The evidence in his book was rather mixed. In places he seemed to regard “mind” as pure convention, a kind of homunculus without any real existence amongst the “electrical tides” that continually washed the brain. Elsewhere, however, he seemed prepared to grant a role to volition. In the conclusion of his book, Brown devoted several pages to discussing the EEG studies carried out by Walter that provided Huxley and Sargant with a key element of their argument. Their reliance on a model in which, for instance, rhythmic flashing lights could be used to reorganize normal patterns of brain activity and thus gain control of subjects at a deep neural level did indeed seem to be confirmed by Walter’s studies of the so-called flicker effect created by stroboscopic flashes. This effect, he had shown, could induce epileptic fits, hallucinations, trance states, and a range of emotional reactions in experimental subjects.
And yet, as Brown noted, citing a key passage from The Living Brain, Walter’s studies also seemed to point towards more complex insights: “The will of the subject can be brought into play; he can, for instance, consciously and with effect resist or give way to the emotions and hallucinations engendered by the flicker, a matter of no little interest as well as enlightenment on the question of self-discipline.” (Brown 305) Self-discipline – or, as Walter usually preferred to call it, feedback – thus opened the door to alternative forms of conditioning and to the experience of radically altered states. (Pickering, Holmes)
It was precisely this possibility that would be seized upon by some readers of Walter, among them William Burroughs. Fascinated by Walter’s stroboscopic studies, Burroughs adopted them as a model for a process of breaking open conventional patterns of thought, language, and behavior. If – to paraphrase Walter – no one’s hands could any longer be considered “clean,” then Burroughs and his acolytes made this fact the starting point of a cultural project dedicated to exploring the possibilities of de-conditioning and of counter-brainwashing. In this way the Cold War brain sciences, of which Walter was a foremost representative, opened up not simply new possibilities of control, but also, paradoxically, of slipping all controls.
Cornelius Borck, Hirnströme. Eine Kulturgeschichte der EEG (Göttingen 2005)
JAC Brown, Techniques of Persuasion. From Propaganda to Brainwashing (London 1963)
Rhodri Hayward, “The Tortoise and the Love Machine: Grey Walter and the Politics of Electroencephalography,” Science in Context 14, 4 (2001): 615-41
Marcia Holmes, “The Cybernetic Spectator: The IPCRESS File, 1960’s Cinematic Spectacle, and the Sciences of Mind,” History of the Human Sciences (forthcoming).
Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon (New York 1952)
___. Brave New World Revisited (1958)
Edward Hunter Papers, Correspondence 1954-1960, Edward Hunter to Leon Freedom (12/12/55)
Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago 2010)
Grey Walter, The Living Brain (New York 1953, 1963)
 Andreas Killen is professor at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. His research explores the histories of film, culture, and the human sciences in modern Europe and the United States, and has recently touched on Cold War-era responses to ‘brainwashing’. His most recent book, Homo Cinematicus: Science, Motion Pictures and the Making of Modern Germany, will be published in June 2017.