The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   62

Battle for the Mind

A Physiology of Conversion and Brain-Washing

by William Sargant

Baltimore, Maryland and Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1961

That Old Time Religion, or, Pavlov Methodized, or, Shake, Rattle and Roll

Any book which manages to bring under one head shell-shock, snake-handling, Methodism, psychoanalysis, possession, mescaline, New York's finest, the Greek oracles, and the near-drowning of some dogs in Leningrad in 1924 is worth reading. If the connecting threads happen to be sensible, so much the better.

Dr. Sargant's work stemmed from his experiences in treating shell-shock and other ``combat neuroses'' in Allied soldiers during the Second World War. The technique developed was to drug the soldiers into a highly suggestible state --- ether was found to be particularly effective --- in which ``an endeavour would be made to make him re-live the episode that had caused his breakdown.'' Sometimes the memories were suppressed and ``had to be brought to the surface again''; other cases ``fully remembered, but the strong emotions originally attached to [them] had since been suppressed''; sometimes ``quite imaginary situations [were used] to abreact the emotions of fear or anger... though as a rule these were in some way related to the experiences which he had undergone. Much better results could often, indeed, be obtained by stirring up emotions about such imaginary happening than by making the patient re-live actual happenings in detail.'' Sargant draws the obvious inference about psychoanalysis, but one would like to know more about those supposedly suppressed memories. ``Outbursts of fear or anger thus deliberately induced and stimulated to a crescendo by the therapist, would frequently be followed by an emotional collapse. The patient would fall back inert on the couch [where else?] --- as a result of the exhausting emotional discharge, not of the drugs --- but he would soon come round. It then often happened that he reported a dramatic disappearance of many nervous symptoms. If, however, little emotion had been released, and he had only had his intellectual memory of some horrible episode refreshed, little benefit could be expected.'' It was in the course of developing this technique that Sargant encountered, quite by chance, first Pavlov's work on inducing neuroses in dogs, and then John Wesley's Journal, in which he found ``detailed reports... of almost identical states of emotional excitement, often leading to temporary emotional collapse, which he induced by a particular sort of preaching. ... The fear of burning in hell induced by his graphic preaching could be compared to the suggestion we might force on a returned soldier, during treatment, that he was in danger of being burned alive in his tank and must fight his way out. The two techniques seemed startlingly similar.''

The relevant part of Pavlov's work was his experiments in inducing neuroses in his dogs, inspired in large part by his observations on what happened to some of them when they were very nearly drowned during the great floods in Leningrad in 1924. The results, roughly, are this: Dogs respond to stress in characteristic ways, which Pavlov identified with the four temperaments of Hippocrates (how fancifully, I am not competent to say), thus: ``weak inhibitory'' = melancholic, ``strong inhibitory'' or ``calm imperturbable'' = phlegmatic, ``strong excitatory'' = choleric and ``lively'' = sanguine. Strong-inhibitory or phlegmatic dogs remained calm and un-upset by danger; strongly excitatory or choleric dogs acted in a vigorous if random and ineffectual manner; and so on. Past a certain point, all dogs are unable to deal with stress, and break-down; these are said to be stimulated ``transmarginally,'' and their responses are, in general, inhibited. They may go into a complete inhibitory collapse, followed by a suppression of many conditioned behaviors; or into a state compared with hypnosis or hysteria in humans; or pass through a series of three phases (the equivalent, in which response is indifferent to the strength of stimuli; the paradoxical, in which weak stimuli lead to larger responses than strong ones; and the ultra-paradoxical, in which behavior patterns flip from positive to negative, so that dogs might attack attendants of whom they had previously been fond, and favor those they had avoided). Changes effected in these states, in which the dogs were particularly susceptible to conditioning, tended to be quite long-lasting. The similarities to Sargant's patients and Wesley's converts are all too obvious.

Now, such phenomena are not confined to shell-shock, eighteenth-century Methodies, and unfortunate Russian dogs. In Haitian voodoo, they are attributed to possession by the gods and demons, by the loa, and similar beliefs and practices are found in many other new-world religions. These include those North American Protestant cults which feature convulsions, speaking in tongues, and, most spectacularly, snake-handling, though whether they have any genetic connection to voodoo and its kindred I do not know. (Sargant notes that men of no great piety and virtue sometimes frequent the revivals of the Protestant cults, relying on young women coming out of them in highly suggestible states.) These practices are now rather frowned upon by the Catholic Church, except in back-waters like rural Portugal and New Jersey, but they were formerly fairly common. These phenomena, and the techniques for inducing them, are are all, of course, extremely wide-spread and ancient, and a chapter provided by Robert Graves gives a learned and well-written survey of how these matters were ordered among the Greeks and Romans, including drugs and bashing the initiate to the mysteries over the head in a dark cave. (Graves refrains from dragging in the Goddess, bless Her.) The less scrupulous police forces of the world (which is most of them, alas) use such methods to get people to break down and confess, without much regard to whether or not their confession is true. At the time Sargant was writing, the it was news that such methods would make captured American soldiers sign confessions of all sorts of things, and declare their allegiance to Communism, though it shouldn't have surprised anyone who remembered the Moscow Trials of the 1930s.

Notice, please, that whether, after the breakdown, one is inspired by the Holy Ghost to speak in the Unknown Tongue, or confesses to being a Trotskyite wrecker and an agent of British imperialism, depends very strongly on what you believe and how you are trained beforehand. (Most people who speak in tongues have heard others do it before.) So there is a certain cognitive element involved, which seems to have been lacking in the case of Pavlov's dogs; but it seems clear that the physiological trigger is similar. Notice, also, that the long-term efficacy of the change in behavior and belief depends very strongly on being an environment which supports the new behaviors and thoughts. Thus those brain-washed POWs, returned to the Goddess's Own Country, mom and apple pie, fairly quickly recanted their devotion to the cause of the international proletariat. (The fact that such recantations sometimes took place during Communist show-trials was even urged, by people I'm ashamed to call my fellow leftists, as evidence that the trials were really genuine!) Sargant has little to say about such complications, but he wrote during the behaviorist darkness; one suspects the psychologists could do better today.

It is always a good sign when a neurologist feels compelled to repeat that ``Men are not dogs.'' But in this connection, the distance separating us from Rover frankly looks small. Sargant is at pains to keep the peace with the established religions, and even to suggest that his findings benefit them---

A better understanding of the means of creating and consolidating faith will enable religious bodies to expand much more rapidly. The preacher can rest assured that the less mysteriously ``God works His wonders to perform,'' the easier it should be to provide people with an essential knowledge and love of God.
Alas, this won't do at all. Leaving aside the points just made about prior beliefs and social support, the efficacy of such phenomena in inducing faith owes not a little to thinking that they are the work of the Holy Spirit, the Dialectic of History, or some other such loa, and not a physiological response to intense rhythm or intolerable stress; in fact, that they are unique to the True Faith. (This last may not be strictly true of the polytheisms.) I see no way in which these findings can lead to or strengthen religious faith among those who are not subjected to the techniques discussed, and are free to judge rationally. The obvious dodge is to say that the Holy Ghost (or your loa of choice) merely makes use of this curious property of the nervous system. By such expedients even the Catholic Church has been able to assimilate evolution, and we shall no doubt see more of this sort of thing in years to come. That in this condition we are as susceptible to Aphrodite as to the Paraclete may be explained by a frank recourse to polytheism (or perhaps, in that particular case, something about doves) --- a very generous polytheism, in which there are gods for different police departments --- and for dogs. (Recall Xenophanes.) The god of shell-shock, it should be noted, can only be invoked by the leaders of sovereign states...

Sargant repeatedly states that Wesley's efforts were socially beneficial, in that they ``helped to stave off political revolution at a time when Western Europe and North America were in a ferment, or in actual revolt, largely because of the anti-religious, materialistic philosophy with which Tom Paine, among others, was associated.'' Of course, some in those parts of the world, and even Great Britain and the wilds beyond, take a different view of that revolt, that philosophy, and that Tom Paine, and might say a few words about freedom, justice, corrupt and oppressive aristocracies, etc. It may be hoped that Wesley's techniques, perfected, televised, and all the more closely allied to the powers that be, may put an end to such unsightly aberrations.

xxviii + 255 pp., black and white photographs, footnotes, bibliography of references not cited in footnotes, analytical index of names and subjects
Possession, Dissociation, etc. / Psychoanalysis / Religion
Currently in print from Malor Books, Cambridge, Mass., ISBN 1-883536-06-5, US$15. (I've not seen this edition.) First edition, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957; this edition, ``revised by the author,'' Pelican Paperback, 1961; third edition, with a new introduction, not seen by me, NY: Harper Perennial, 1971. No ISBN for any of these. LoC BF633 S3
12 December 1995, then lost on a floppy disk, found, revised and released 30 September 1998; thanks to Jim Killeen for alerting me to the current edition.