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A brief, weird history of brainwashing

๐ŸŒˆ Abstract

The article provides a brief history of the concept of "brainwashing" and its evolution in the context of the Cold War and beyond. It explores how the idea of mind control has been used for political and ideological purposes, as well as the scientific and pseudoscientific research that has fueled this concept.

๐Ÿ™‹ Q&A

[01] A Brief, Weird History of Brainwashing

1. What is the origin of the term "brainwashing" and how was it used differently in China and the West?

  • The term "brainwashing" (xinao) originated in China in the late 19th century, where it was used by Chinese reformists to refer to a notion of "epistemic virtue" or a personal duty to modernize oneself.
  • In the West, the term was used more sensationally to refer to a supposed scientific system for changing people's minds, even making them love things they once hated.

2. How did the concept of "brainwashing" become an important part of Cold War disinformation and pseudoscience?

  • The idea of "brainwashing" was fueled by new studies on brain function, and the US military and intelligence communities spent millions on research into manipulating the human brain, fearing a "psychic war" with the Soviet Union and China.
  • This led to projects like MK-Ultra, where the CIA experimented with mind control techniques like drugging and torturing people, though the science never fully panned out.

3. How did the revelations about MK-Ultra change the public's understanding of "brainwashing"?

  • The shocking revelations about the CIA's MK-Ultra program, which involved drugging and torturing American citizens, led to a shift in the public's perception of "brainwashing" from a legitimate threat from overseas enemies to more of a ruse or excuse for government abuse.

[02] Brainwashing as a Social and Political Phenomenon

1. How has the idea of "brainwashing" persisted in contemporary discussions and conspiracy theories?

  • The concept of "brainwashing" continues to be a powerful metaphor for the effects of systemic racism, appearing in Black horror films and analyses of racist advertising.
  • Right-wing pundits and politicians also attribute discussions of racism to a "woke mind virus," echoing Cold War panics over communist brainwashing.

2. How do concerns about new neurotechnologies relate to historical ideas of mind control?

  • Researchers and ethicists have warned that emerging neurotechnologies like brain-computer interfaces could enable direct manipulation of people's intentions, emotions, and decisions, reviving fears of a "neuro-dystopia."
  • However, some neuroscientists argue that the brain is more plastic than we realize and that such mind control will never be as simple as "throwing a switch."

3. How has the American definition of "brainwashing" (xinao) become dominant in modern Chinese usage?

  • The American conceptualization of "brainwashing" has now become the dominant way the term is used in modern Chinese speech, with the Chinese government using it to describe protesters and others they see as influenced by the West.
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