Are You Brainwashed?

by | Jun 17, 2016

Have you ever been brainwashed?

How do you know for sure?

These questions have been burning away in my brain for some time now. And, as I recently watched Alex Gibney’s whistleblowing documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the questions burned sharper, demanding exploration. Gibney’s documentary is a detailed expose of the dark arts of brainwashing as practiced within the Church of Scientology.

Although well produced, the film’s narrative falls too obviously and simplistically into a bog-standard groove: Brainwashing is something enacted by evil people on vulnerable minds. As with so many other representations of mind-control, like the chem-trail conspiracy theories or the Manchurian Candidate, this film fails to explore the nature of belief or the mind. With no insight into these fundamentals, Gibney can only leave the unquestioning viewer with a simplistic mix of pity for the indoctrinated and of hatred for the perpetrators. Yet as a psychotherapist, I have spent thousands of hours refining my sensitivity to my own influence on other brains and of external influence on my own. And as a meditator, I have gazed inwardly, longingly, into the nature of belief and the nature of mind. From this perspective, I have come to realise that we are all in some way imprisoned by our beliefs.

“If you wish to get out of prison, the first thing you must do is realize that you are in prison. If you think you are free, you can’t escape.” – Gurdjieff

What is fascinating for all of us on the path of wisdom is that some striking parallels emerge during the film, particularly between the Church of Scientology and many other spiritual or religious traditions. The ‘Going Clear’ of the title refers to one of the highest possible levels of human achievement with Scientology founder Lafayette Ronald Hubbard’s hierarchy called The Bridge. When a Scientologist reaches ‘clear’, this means (according to Hubbard) that “he no longer has his own reactive mind and therefore suffers none of the ill effects that the reactive mind can cause.” Doesn’t this description of ‘clear’ sounds uncannily similar to the idea of enlightenment as touted by many a spiritual guru, old and new? Does this mean that all Buddhists and yogis are brainwashed? And are all brainwashed to some degree?

Well, before all the free-thinking, liberated wisdom seekers get outraged at such a blasphemous comparison, lets take a look at what we actually mean when we use the term ‘brainwashed’. The first recorded use of the term ‘brainwash’ was in 1950 when a high number of American POWs in the Korean war chose to stay in Asia after the ceasefire rather than return back to their homeland. The American media could not believe that ‘anyone in their right mind’ would willingly stay in a communist totalitarian country. They were given a palatable explanation by Edward Hunter, journalist, outspoken anti-communist and CIA Agent. He discovered and then translated the Chinese word xi nao, which literally means ‘wash brain’. Ironically, the Chinese term in fact grew from meditation practices aimed at ‘cleansing the mind’. Reports soon came out of evil mind control techniques that the Chinese had been using to turn GI Joes into Communist automatons.

The first real twist in this etymological tale came when, after reexamining the evidence in 1956, the US Army acknowledged in an official report that there was not one single, conclusive example of American POW brainwashing in the Korean War. This same report noted that the most insidious ‘brainwashing’ techniques they had been able to find were as follows:

When an American soldier was captured by the Chinese, he was given a vigorous handshake and a pat on the back. The enemy ‘introduced’ himself as a friend of the ‘workers’ of America . . . in many instances the Chinese did not search the American captives, but frequently offered them American cigarettes. This display of friendship caught most Americans totally off-guard and they never recovered from the initial impression made by the Chinese. . . . After the initial contact with the enemy, some Americans seemed to believe that the enemy was sincere and harmless. They relaxed and permitted themselves to be lulled into a well-disguised trap of cooperating with the cunning enemy.

Cunning indeed. The truth of brainwashing, like beauty, often lies in the eye of the holder, as the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton describes in his seminal work on the subject, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China: It is most important to realize that what we see as a set of coercive manoeuvres, the Chinese Communists view as a morally uplifting, harmonizing, and scientifically therapeutic experience.

The second twist in this tale came as historians found new evidence suggesting these ‘brainwashing’ charges were in fact invented by the US government to discredit several American soldiers who had admitted using germ warfare (bombs filled with millions of virus-carrying flies). UN Commander Gen. Mark W. Clark who, upon hearing his soldier’s confessions of germ warfare in 1953, declared: “Whether these statements ever passed the lips of these unfortunate men is doubtful. If they did, however, too familiar are the mind-annihilating methods of these Communists in extorting whatever words they want …. The men themselves are not to blame, and they have my deepest sympathy for having been used in this abominable way.”

Lets for a moment digest the irony in this story. The word ‘brainwashing’ itself originated as propaganda. The Western separation of Good (America/democracy) and Evil (China/communism) was being threatened to the core by these revelations, and so brainwashing served as a perfect vehicle to put Good and Evil firmly back into their correct boxes. Evil convinces people to do things they would not ‘in their right mind’ want to do. Good gets their brains thinking correctly again. This duality persists to this very day in conflict.

Denise Winn notes in her book The Manipulated Mind“Demystifying brainwashing, the ultimate change process, can perhaps serve to highlight much about the workings of the ordinary human mind… It may make us question the foundations instead of the façade.” Now consider for a moment your own foundational beliefs about the world. You have loads of them, more than you could imagine. For brainwashing to be possible, your beliefs must be manipulable. Right now, you may think that your own beliefs about your self and the world are fully your own. So perhaps you, like me, might laugh at or feel pity for the poor people who would ever buy into a brainwashing cult like Scientology.


But even if we are the true critical thinkers, our belief that critical thinking is the key to mental freedom did not emerge out of thin air. Even as a foetus in the womb, our beliefs about what to expect in the world were being shaped by the biochemicals being pumped through the placenta. This is called ‘foetal programming‘. We could just as easily call it ‘foetal brainwashing’. A good example is when a pregnant mother is highly stressed and the stress hormone cortisol crosses the placental wall and enters into the foetus. We know from the latest research that babies subject to high levels of cortisol in the womb are more likely to go on to develop mood and anxiety disorders.

In today’s global connected village, we can shop around endlessly for our beliefs. Does having access to this kaleidoscope of beliefs mean we are less likely to be brainwashed, because we are choosing what we want? This depends on whether you believe that the choices you personally make are guided by something you can call your ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self. Lets take the simple example of what you decided to have for breakfast this morning. Crunchy Nut or Nutella on toast? Eggs poached or fried? Whatever you decided to eat, your decision was certainly influenced by a number of beliefs that you have absorbed from your environment, including of course, advertising.

It is estimated that the cost of reaching the Clear state in Scientology is $128,000. I am about to spend a lot more than that on a small 2-bed flat in London. I recognise that I am brainwashed. Please do not think for a moment that I am defending Scientology here and the undoubtedly abusive practices that go on within that church. I am however concerned by the sleight of hand that points easy fingers at Scientology and in the process blindsides us to the brainwash-friendly nature of our own minds.


“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” –  Rumi 

Now we could at this point get into the age-old debate about whether there is such a thing as free will. But to do so would be to jump inside a greasy sledge, lined with banana skins, atop a very slippery slope. It is enough to understand that the choices we consider to be free or authentic are shaped by many forces. Our brains are awash with beliefs we have absorbed from our families, our schools, our societies.

When we hold up to scrutiny the truly disgraceful practices of some senior members of the Church of Scientology, we tend to do so from a position of distance and disgust. But in refusing to acknowledge our own brainwashing, we blind ourselves to our common humanity. Instead of getting lost in righteous indignation about the brainwashing villains of evil cults, perhaps we could start with a little self-knowledge, through the smoke and mirrors of our authentic self, to know that we are all, fundamentally, one and the same.