Dept of History, Classics and Archaeology | Our research | Research Projects | Hidden Persuaders: Brainwashing, Culture, Clinical Knowledge and the Cold War Human Sciences
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Hidden Persuaders: Brainwashing, Culture, Clinical Knowledge and the Cold War Human Sciences

Visions of brainwashed minds permeated Cold War culture, politics and science. Hidden Persuaders maps this history and ask how it influenced and was shaped by the ‘psy’ professions.

This project (Wellcome Trust, £934,000, 2014 to 2019) 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.

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.

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