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The Brainwashing Race

A new book shows how modern brain science was a product of Cold War paranoia.

Dr. Norbert Wiener Standing at Blackboard
Norbert Wiener (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Nervous Systems: Brain Science in the Early Cold War, by Andreas Killen, Harper, 336 pages.

A funny story is trying to emerge from Nervous Systems: Brain Science in the Early Cold War. Unfortunately, Professor Andreas Killen never makes it explicit, and a reader could be left wondering whether he has just endured 250 pages of trivia, history that is just one fact after another. This history is worth knowing, though, even if digesting the implications requires some rumination. 

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It may seem odd to wish a book that presents itself plainly as history gave more focus to scientific through-lines rather than biographical narratives. But this is the history of science, and while Killen’s narrative ably recounts contested views of the brain and the mind, the story just beneath the surface is the more important one, and one that should give us pause. This is a story about what we can see in our own mind when we see how it views the mind. Killen hints at an intriguing thesis, never articulated at length, that some of the frameworks invoked to understand errors in thinking themselves give strong evidence of being socially contagious errors in thinking. We can understand some of the Cold War birth of neuroscience as hysteria about hysteria. 

That brain science arose largely from attempts to treat problems in the brain is no surprise. Killen writes about psychoanalysis, neurosurgery, and early cybernetics all feeding into the infancy of the mid-century explosion in brain research. The first two of these were parts of medicine, and practices guided initially by very little data, and impelled by attempts to fix urgent misery, such as seizures or crippling neuroses. Whether these were brave or reckless is not always an easy question. Killen sketches the infancy of neuroscience by focusing on big personalities: Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov, Lawrence Kubie, Wilder Penfield. He is especially interested in W. Grey Walter, an eccentric but charismatic popularizer of brain science who could have been a powerful Influencer had he been born 90 years later. In 1953 he did write a book, and Killen calls The Living Brain a “founding manifesto,” which serves both to signal the revolutionary nature of 20th century brain science and to hint at its ideological features. These big personalities attracted followers, both popularly and among scientists, and the competition to discover (or claim) how the brain worked was inevitably a team sport.

There are more than enough anecdotes about characters to make the narrative surprising. His litany of weird people and ideas can distract from the deeper weirdness that Killen is pointing at, the question of what was driving zeal for scientific models of the brain. Some of his stories are likely well known to many of his readers (Pavlov’s dogs, barbarous lobotomies to treat the mentally ill), and some may be new (Allen Dulles, who authorized the MKUltra program, had a son who suffered hallucinations after a head injury in the Korean War). Most of his anecdotes dramatize his characters’ interest in one pet theory or another, all of which eventually proved at best insufficient and at worst dangerously wrong. Killen dramatizes some of the partisan tension over whether the mind is irreducible or an understandable machine, with psychoanalysis in one corner and cybernetics in the other, and neurosurgery (emblematized by Penfield) sometimes more cautious about claims given the messiness of the surgical profession. It does leave a curious lacuna where Killen could have explored the nature of induced belief and delusions, a problem encountered early in clinical neurology. He addresses this instead through the history of communist bloc conditioning experiments and Western panic about the possibility of brainwashing. 

That brain science metastasized when the West became anxious about the possibility of a communist technological edge is also not surprising: this recapitulates the story of many programs, the space race and the nuclear arms race only the most famous. Here a second dramatic tension arises, and while the story is told from a predominantly Western point of view, this only underlines a powerful irony: American panic about the possibility of communists “conditioning” the human mind led to crash programs in exactly that. Killen quotes Norbert Wiener worrying that “to defend ourselves against this phantom… we must look to new scientific measures, each more terrible than the last. There is no end to this vast apocalyptic spiral.” In the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia, we have further wild anecdotes coloring a rogue’s gallery of intellectual oddballs, with extended appearances by John Lilly and William S. Burroughs. Science fiction intrudes on the scene, with L. Ron Hubbard at various times embraced and rejected by the other dramatis personae and Cordwainer Smith (a.k.a. Paul Linebarger, author of Psychological Warfare) intimately connected to the brain industrial complex. How much their own fiction reflects the anxiety around them and to what extent these strange men wrote some of that anxiety into existence is a question that could carry a book of its own. 

To his credit, Killen does not paint this period as an isolated historical curiosity but follows the drama to the present, pointing out how it inflects ongoing political dynamics. In one footnote, he writes, “The specter of the Manchurian Candidate has also been a meme of every presidential campaign since 2000, most recently in the charge that Trump was a ‘Siberian Candidate.’ In this as in other respects, the United States continues to grapple with the protean legacy of the Korean War.” A gruesome legacy he acknowledges early and throughout is America’s recently active enhanced interrogation program, descended directly from the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK manual, which was created during the brain science race. Panic about rival nations’ technological wizardry is something to which Americans remain susceptible, with Pentagon probes into Havana Syndrome continuing into 2023. Killen inevitably touches on our renewed interest in psychedelics and on the moral problem that is pharmacological elision of memories. He acknowledges, too, that even the crudest scientific synthesis is incomplete as of today: any rapprochement of psychological and biological models of the mind is glacial.

It may not be the work of history per se to pose grand theories of social contagion, or of the implications of society-wide shifts in the way humans view the mind. Or perhaps that book remains to be written. But Killen’s account is, if incomplete in that regard, intriguing for the same reason, as amidst its stories of eccentrics and pioneers it hints at more than it says outright. 

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