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Top US Psychologist: Isolation Research Meant To Study Brainwashing

Donald O. Hebb was a pioneer American psychologist. His paper “Drives and the CNS (Conceptual Nervous System)” was one of the most quoted academic papers of his time, garnering 232 academic citations even in a period from 14-22 years after its publication.

Hebb was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1960.

But Hebb was also a major researcher for the U.S. MK-ULTRA mind-control and coercive interrogation program. His primary interest was in the study of how isolation and sensory deprivation affects mind and behavior. An excellent essay on Hebb’s career in this regard is Alfred McCoy’s 2007 article for the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, “Science in Dachau’s Shadow: Hebb, Beecher, and the Development of CIA Psychological Torture and Modern Medical Ethics” (PDF).

But while secondary source material, and especially that of a first-class historian-researcher like McCoy, is important to get the overall context of the history, original documents can also be extremely illuminating. One such document is Hebb’s 1958 American Psychologist article, “The Motivating Effects of Exteroceptive Stimulation.”

The essay is a transcription of a speech Hebb gave as Chairman of a symposium held at the 1957 APA convention. The symposium on“Control of Behavior through Motivation and Reward.” It is fascinating how unguarded this chief MK-ULTRA researcher could be when he was speaking in a forum of peers.

In his speech, Hebb asserted that “brainwashing,” i.e., personality change or deformation, can occur “simply” — and this “simply” is huge — the “perceptual environment is “changed” or manipulated. By the time he gave his speech, the CIA and Pentagon were very far along their path of establishing a torture program. The “survival schools”, where US soldiers were trained to endure and resist torture (later known as “SERE school”), became laboratories for the study of environmental manipulation and the application of “uncontrollable stress,” the latter being the second pillar of US torture policy.

Embedded in Hebb’s talk is an irony so deep, it is the Mariana Trench of irony: the Chinese did not practice “brainwashing.” The term was created by a CIA-linked journalist because the U.S. was conducting psychological warfare to discredit confessions by U.S. airmen to the effect the U.S. had conducted biological warfare against the North Koreans and Chinese during the Korean War. The U.S. was alsocovering up the crimes of the Imperial Japanese biological human experimentation program at the same time because they had actually pardoned and brought war criminals like Ishii Shiro into the U.S. biological warfare program. The deal was made because the Japanese promised to give the U.S. the data garnered from their deadly experiments, which had killed thousands, including U.S. POWs.

As one reads the following, reflect upon the fact that this speech was given now two generations ago. It represents a portion of the history of my field — psychology — and of US history that is little reflected in the modern discourse on the controversies surrounding torture and interrogation. But history does not go away, and sooner or later the epigones of Hebb, Harlow, West and others must face the evaluations and attendant obloquies that will come from their failure to break from their attachment and collaboration with a torturing State.

One final word: for those who have been fighting to change the inhumane policy of use of isolation and solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, take note that in the pages of the foremost journal of the American Psychological Association over fifty years ago there were discussions about how isolation was used to break down prisoners.

From “The Motivating Effects of Exteroceptive Stimulation”:

The infant-environment work shows that the adult is a product both of his heredity and physical environment (as necessary for growth) and of his perceptual experience during the growth period. Once development is complete, does the organism then become less dependent psychologically on sensory stimulation? When a man’s or a woman’s character is formed, his or her motivations and personality pattern established, is character or personality an entity that exists so to speak in its own right, no matter where or in what circumstances (assuming physical health and reasonable bodily welfare)?

In the Korean war the Chinese Communists gave us a shocking answer: in the form of brainwashing. The answer is No. Without physical pain, without drugs, the personality can be badly deformed simply by modifying the perceptual environment. It becomes evident that the adult is still a function of his sensory environment in a very general sense, as the child is.

I am not going to ask you to listen again to all the details of the experiments that have been done and are still being done in this country and Canada (though the Canadian experiments are over) to investigate the problem. The work of Heron, Bexton,
Scott, and Doane (2, 9, 10) began when the Defence Research Board of Canada asked us in 1952 to find out what we could about the basic phenomena, with the hope that some possibilities for protection against brainwashing might turn up. Now brainwashing, as you know, takes different forms and can involve lack of sleep, fatigue, and hunger; and it makes a lot of use of having the subject write out “confessions” (or whatever you want to call them). Only one aspect was picked out for study: isolation from the environment….

As a postscript, here is a link to the statement of Colonel Frank H. Schwable, Chinese-held POW during the Korean War, charging “U.S. Wages Germ Warfare in Korea”. This is the primary example (as Schwable was the highest ranking prisoner to “confess”) of the so-called “brainwashing” confessions. I doubt anyone involved in these controversies has ever read Schwable’s document before. I find it quite convincing. I believe the breakdown of the prisoner was to get him to cooperate and be used for propaganda purposes. That doesn’t mean the propaganda itself wasn’t true in its particulars, or largely true. Read it and see what you think.

Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist living in Northern California and a regular contributor to Truthout and The Public Record, blogs about civil liberties and issues revolving around the US government’s torture program. He can be reached at sfpsych at gmail dot com. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @Jeff_Kaye