Battle for the Mind by William Sargant Much human behavior is the result of the conditioned behavior patterns implanted in the brain, especially during childhood. These may persist almost unmodified, but more often become gradually adapted to changes of environment. But the older the person, the less easily can he improvise new conditioned responses to such changes; the tendency then is to make the environment fit his, or her, increasingly predictable responses. Much of our human life consists also in the unconscious following of conditioned behavior patterns originally acquired by hard study. The subtitle, The Mechanics of Indoctrination, Brainwashing and Thought Control, appealed to some streak of curiosity within me, and so I bought it, put it on my pile, and promptly skipped over it for years in favor of other titles.
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Battle for the Mind by William Sargant Much human behavior is the result of the conditioned behavior patterns implanted in the brain, especially during childhood. These may persist almost unmodified, but more often become gradually adapted to changes of environment. But the older the person, the less easily can he improvise new conditioned responses to such changes; the tendency then is to make the environment fit his, or her, increasingly predictable responses.
Much of our human life consists also in the unconscious following of conditioned behavior patterns originally acquired by hard study. The subtitle, The Mechanics of Indoctrination, Brainwashing and Thought Control, appealed to some streak of curiosity within me, and so I bought it, put it on my pile, and promptly skipped over it for years in favor of other titles.
I really and truly enjoyed it. Written in , it takes a scholarly look at the brain physiology behind belief systems and what makes the brain imprint on certain thought patterns and not others, and how those thought patterns can be and are changed by scientists, politicians, and priests alike. The quote above seems right out of Huxley and, indeed, Huxley is quoted later in the book in such a way that makes me want to read more of him.
This concept was one that troubled me most as a parent. Early on I had thought it important to let my children grow and develop in their own way, to avoid, as it were, all the gender-specific conditioning that society requires.
I still feel some affinity for that ideal, but now I have come to realize how quixotic that quest can be. We are all creatures of conditioning. But back to Sargant. His statistical and clinical facts should be brought home especially to those who like to believe that the avoidance of breakdown in battle, or under brain-washing, is simply a matter of exercising sufficient will-power and courage. On the contrary, the continued exercise of will-power and courage may, in certain circumstances, exhaust the brain and hasten a final collapse.
When dogs co-operate in experiments testing their tolerance to stress, they are all the easier to break down: the loyal efforts they make prove their undoing.
It took me a while to get my brain around the concept embodied in this quote. Whether it is the unceasing fear of death from enemy shelling or the equally unceasing fear of eternal damnation for sins committed in this world, the after-effect is the same. And it is nearly impossible to avoid changing your perceptions under these circumstances, since it all boils down to fatigue, and every brain, no matter how strong, eventually gets fatigued. Resist, and you tire your brain out even more quickly.
It is not surprising that the ordinary person, in general, is much more easily indoctrinated than the abnormal. Even intensive psychoanalysis may achieve very little in such severe psychiatric disturbances as schizophrenia and depressive melancholia, and can be almost equally ineffective in certain settled states of chronic anxiety and obsession. A person is considered "ordinary" or "normal" by the community simply because he accepts most of its social standards and behavior patterns which means, in fact, that he is susceptible to suggestion and has been persuaded to go with the majority on most ordinary or extraordinary occasions.
But this concept has its dangerous side as well. As Sargant stresses later: Ordinary people, let me repeat, are the way they are simply because they are sensitive to and influenced by what is going on around them; it is the lunatic who can be so impervious to suggestion.
In this context, a lunatic is, by definition, someone who lives life the way I thought I wanted my children to, independently and on their own terms. A little conditioning, it seems, may not be entirely a bad thing. Sargant spends a lot of time in the book discussing religious indoctrination in the same terms he uses for the political and psychological.
In doing so, he provides me and my philosophy a lot to sink our teeth in, but he also goes out of his way a few times to stress that he is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Mathematics, he stressed, is for mathematicians, and he went out of his way to state that just because the mathematics were more elegant with the sun in the center, that was no reason for anyone to think it really was or that he was trying to convince others that it was.
But, in order to safeguard infants and young children against damnation, the rite of baptism, originally reserved for adults and a powerful ceremony indeed, is now carried out a few weeks or months after birth. It seems certain that such stimuli should be made emotionally disturbing to produce the desired effect—even severe enough sometimes to induce mystical experiences. Couple of things to mention here. Melancholics, whom even orgiastic revivals leave cold and unimpressed, are now quickly benefited by simple convulsions, mechanically induced by passing an electric current through the brain.
So in other words, the first quote tells us that religious concepts can be implanted in youthful brains during times of high emotional distress, and the second quote tells us that for those who begin to take the threat of eternal damnation a little too seriously, a little electroshock therapy can be applied to get the affected brain back on the right track. All this yet he still maintains that a religious indoctrination is of benefit to both the individual and society.
What was it I said about Copernicurean bluster? Then there are the quotes that give even more ammunition against organized religion. The Catholic Church regarded the Black Death as a punishment for the general wickedness of Christendom and used the threat of its return as a means of bringing the people to a state of submission and true repentance. Wait a minute. What are we repenting for again?
Hereby the saints will be made more sensible how great their salvation is. The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven. And Sargant also quotes a Reverend Noah Porter as saying: But if experience and observation have taught me anything, it is, that there is a way of discussing these subjects most logically in the pulpit, which does little good… listeners must be made to feel they are their own destroyers, that fallen, dependent and lost as they are, salvation is more freely and sincerely offered to them, and that if they perish, the blame must for ever rest upon themselves.
Do whatever you want, but burn forever in hell unless you do what I want. Remember, salvation is freely offered.
All you need give up is your objectivity. Many otherwise sensible people cling to strange and cruel views merely because these have been firmly implanted in their brains at an early age, and they can no more be disabused of them by argument than could the generation that still insisted on the flatness of the earth, though it had been circumnavigated on several occasions.
You sure are writing a lot about the Battle for the Mind book. In his chapter on Brain-Washing in Religion and Politics, he quotes a number of authors on the subject. Somerset Maugham in his book Don Fernando says this about their founder St. Contrition saddens, shame and fear harrow him. Not only is he terrified by the frightful pictures on which his mind has dwelt, he has been weakened by lack of food and exhausted by want of sleep. He has been brought to such despair that he does not know where to fly for relief.
Then a new ideal is set before him, the ideal of Christ; and to this, his will broken, he is led to sacrifice himself with a joyful heart…The Spiritual Exercises are the most wonderful method that has ever been devised to gain control over that vagabond, unstable and willful thing, the soul of man.
It would be interesting to take a group of the most eminent philosophers from the best universities, shut them up in a hot room with Moroccan dervishes or Haitian Voodooists and measure, with a stop-watch, the strength of their psychological resistance to the effect of rhythmic sound. Would the Logical Positivists be able to hold out longer than the Subjective Idealists? Would the Marxists prove tougher than that Thomists or the Vedantists? What a fascinating, what a fruitful field for experiment!
Meanwhile, all we can safely predict is that, if exposed long enough to the toms-toms and the singing, every one of our philosophers would end by capering and howling with the savages. There is the loud-speaker, amplifying and indefinitely reduplicating the heady music of class hatred and militant nationalism.
Never before have so few been in a position to make fools, maniacs, or criminals of so many. When I left they were beating. They beat today still as through the main street the open lorries roll slow, bringing the enemies of the people to swift death, while the crowds hiss and roar and thunder hatred and applause, and the cheer-leaders raise their high-pitched voices in the shriek of slogans, and fire-crackers are let off as for a festival, and the dancers, the dancers dance, dance, dance.
I wonder, Sen, whether Master Confucius heard this five-beat harmony and deemed it a fit measure to regulate the emotions of mankind? I wonder whether eight hundred years before that gentle Jew, the Christ, was born, our ancestors held their Spring Festival and their Fertility Rites to this dancing and this beat? It is from deep within our people, this bewitchment of drum and body. I feel it surge up from my belly, where all true feeling lies; strong and compelling as love, as if the marrow of my bones had heard it millions of days before this day.
Ron Hubbard some of his Scientology ideas on another. Not sure I believe anything I see online, but it makes you think about how some people react to the kind of information Sargant dealt with. I find it all fascinating, playing admittedly, as it does, to several of my biases. But I wonder how feasible that is, and more interestingly, I wonder what kind of independent thought, if any, the William Sargants of the world believe there is.
Are we all creatures of our conditioning? Every want, need, or desire we have implanted there by outside forces? Or can we break the mold that others have poured for us and reshape ourselves in a way that is free from the influence of others? In political democracies it is a general rule that anyone can think what evil he likes, so long as he does not carry the thought into antisocial action.
But the Gospel of Matthew v. The anxiety and guilt thus induced in the faithful can keep them in a continuous state of physiological tension, and makes them dependent on their religious advisers for daily guidance.
Many Chinese plagued with deviationist thoughts will think twenty times before confessing them to the local group leader, despite invitations to do so; and will be in constant fear of talking in their sleep or giving themselves away in public by some slip of the tongue. This ensures that they will take excessive care to do the right thing politically, even if they cannot think it.
The Household Police are a most constant reminder of their danger. This regulation is of very great importance to a proper understanding of the whole process because, as in other countries as well, confessions can be made which, though largely false, come to be believed by both the examiner and the prisoner.
This is because the examiner first suggests to the prisoner that he is guilty of a crime, and tries to convince him, if he is not already convinced, that this is so. If the examination is pressed, he may even begin, as it were, to play back an old record—confessing to crimes suggested by the police in earlier cross-examinations. It is not usually realized that fatigue and anxiety induce suggestibility in the examiner as well as the prisoner—the task of eliciting confessions is a very difficult and trying one—and that they can delude each other into a belief in the genuineness of the confessed crime.
This one makes me want to write a book. And the overseer? The examiner reports to him and he alone retains the knowledge that both have been conditioned to believe what is not true but does nothing to stop the conviction. I described that in terms familiar to tyrannical dictators or criminal justice, and I suppose the story could certainly play itself out in those genres, but it might be more interesting to apply the same story line to everyday circumstances of love or work.
A jealous lover, who believes they are being cheated on, driving their companion insane until they both believe the infidelity was real, and the supposed adulterer who knows the difference. Or the manager who believes the employee is incompetent, convincing the employee that they are, and the director who knows better. But wait, in both those cases the examiner believes the guilt from the beginning. To be true to Sargant, the examiner must begin knowing the prisoner is innocent, and becomes conditioned to believe different as his faulty interrogation unfolds.
So maybe a police state would be best? Wish I had more time to think about it.
His father was a City broker, his mother, Alice Walters, was the daughter of a Methodist minister from a family of wealthy Welsh brewers. Five of his uncles were preachers. His father lost most of his money in the depression in the late s and the scholarship allowed Sargant to continue his medical education. But in —four years after qualifying as a doctor—a nervous breakdown and spell in a mental hospital put paid to his plans. Whilst there he did some experiments on over-breathing and developed a theory that the difference between normal and neurotic people is that the latter have lost their suggestibility. Although the results were not altogether successful, Sargant resolved to introduce the operation into Britain.
Battle for the Mind