About a week ago while browsing through shows to watch on HBO I stumbled across a mini series titled “The Pacific.” The show follows a group of World War II soldiers as they fight on numerous islands throughout the Pacific ocean. One aspect of the show that I became curious about was the Japanese and German militaries ability to brainwash their soldiers and civilians. I did not think that brainwashing was actually possible, however watching the show caused me to second guess this thought. Intrigued, I decided to look into the science behind brainwashing to figure out how it works and to what extent it can impact a persons actions.
According to an article from Science, most psychologists agree that brain washing is possible. They claim that it can impact a majority of human minds if done correctly. The article explains that the process behind brainwashing is mainly psychological, caused when a subject becomes completely dependent on their superior. Brainwashing can be done by withholding food, water and sleep from a person until they break down. Relying on someone else to survive can alter a persons brain, causing complete devotion toward capturers and their beliefs. The article explains the process behind brainwashing and gives anecdotal evidence of its success in situation of war. This evidence is intriguing but it was not strong enough to conclude that brainwashing is scientifically possible. Could their change of beliefs be caused by the torture of captivity? Or do they actually lose control of their own thoughts? Curious to get to the bottom of this I continued to research.
Since the concept of brainwashing is immoral, there are no recent studies that I could find focusing on brainwashing. An article published in Psychologists World cites a study done by Robert Lifton and Edgar Schein in the 1950’s. The team evaluated American POWs who were “brainwashed” by their captures during the Korean War. They reached the conclusion that the anti-american statements made by the soldiers were not a result of actual brainwashing. Instead they claimed that their change in beliefs were a defense mechanism from within the brain. In order to survive the ruthless torture, they subconsciously began agreeing with the Korean beliefs. The prisoners were not actually “brainwashed.” Although they appeared to be different people, it was simply a mechanism of survival. Their core beliefs began to reemerge once they were in a safe environment.
This study is old and was only done on a select few people from the same war with similar backgrounds. It isn’t the most credible source to form an opinion from, but it does provide solid evidence that complete brainwashing is not actually possible. While psychologists might claim that it is possible, there are no confirmed victims of complete brainwashing. I believe that most cases of “brianwashing” are a defense mechanism from the brain to protect from torture. After researching the topic, I don’t believe that total brainwashing is possible.