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Washing the mind away

One of my favourite actors, Michael Caine, achieved one of his early breakthroughs in the film, The Ipcress File, based on the Len Deighton Cold War thriller of the same name. (I love the fact that Deighton, a fine historian of the air campaigns in the Second World War, used to write a cookery column for the Observer. Very hip). Anyhow, without spoiling the plot of either the book or the film, it hinges around the use of “brainwashing” techniques to make people do one’s bidding or erase the memory of certain information.

How much of this could ever be based on fact or indeed, did either side in the Cold War use such techniques? There is a long entry in the now-indispensable Wikipedia site on this topic, pointing to the origin of the word “brainwash” in the early stages of the Cold War during the Korean campaign. The entries raise some doubts about how widely used such techniques were, or whether the term simply refers to a particularly fierce form of propoganda. I have come across the term in various films of the period, such as the first version of the Manchurian Candidate (forget the remake, which is a pale imitation of the original). But to what extent were such techniques really all that effective in moulding minds? Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”, which I have just finished reading and enjoyed immensely, queries the idea of an infinitely malleable mind, arguing that there are limits to how the brain can be influenced by certain techniques.

If this is true then it is encouraging that there are limits to how far the mind can be moulded in any way that those in authority, whether benign or malign, wish.

Anyway, I can strongly recommend readers rent out the Caine movies based on the Deighton books. Highly entertaining.

29 comments to Washing the mind away

  • esbonio

    I also loved reading the Len Deighton books and watched the Iprcress File when it was on TV the other week. I love the hard edged but still patriotic 60s atmosphere.

    As for brainwashing I cannot comment on its efficacy but I do believe it was used a lot by the other side in Korea which is why it kicked off a lot of research into it by the US and the UK to prepare our services for it. Slightly off topic but I remeber seeing a dated Dirk Bogarde film years ago which I seem to recall was about an Oxbridge don engaged in psychological research and in particular sensory deprivation using water tanks and darkened rooms. So what with Deighton’s Ipcress and other films the concept certainly captured the popular imagination.

  • Well, British readers may be pleased to know that a new print of ‘The Ipcress Files’ is going around the country’s arthouse cinemas this week, and maybe into next. I don’t know about other cities, but it’s on at Cornerhouse in Manchester.

  • An eerie book called ‘Influence’ has an excellent chapter explaining how the real Korean/Chinese brainwashing worked. No weird sound tapes or water tanks were needed.

    It was highly effective, and based on very simple techniques of persuasion ratcheted up gradually so that the subject does not notice what is happening. Much the same approaches are used in some religious cults.

    A big part of it is not leaving the person alone to review their thoughts, but have them constantly socialising with reasonable-seeming people all gently steering them in one direction over a long period of time.

    Another element is getting the person to write his statements down (Such as “not everything my country does is good” – step by step the subject comes out with ever stronger versions of these views). Experiments show we are highly susceptible to consistency. Once you have written a view down, you find it hard to go back on it.

    Read ‘Influence‘ by Robert Cialdini.


  • esbonio

    And without being glib, I’ve just recalled another bit of popular culture that may not be entirely out of place, namely The Prisoner.

  • Julian Taylor

    As much as I enjoyed The Ipress File trilogy I have more respect for Deighton’s Game, Set and Match and the Hook, Line & Sinker series – especially for the excellent TV adaptation that was done of it.

  • Jim Capo

    Brainwashing is so 20th Century. Why not just pop a pill?

  • Jacob

    A big part of it is not leaving the person alone to review their thoughts, but have them constantly socialising with reasonable-seeming people all gently steering them in one direction over a long period of time.

    Isn’t that what the Main Stream Media is doing all the time ?

  • Verity

    I don’t care for Michael Caine. I think he’s one of those people who got lionised and got a reputation because he was “in” that he didn’t deserve. He did make one good movie, that I saw on a video, with Steve Martin. Caine was a suave conman on the Riviera and he spotted Steve Martin trying to play the same game, and he trains him up. Quite funny in a low key kind of way.

  • Charles

    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    Donald Pleasance, Telefon

  • That word, brainwash, always reminds me of George Romney, American politician, who went to VietNam during the war and complained he had been brainwashed by the Army. Much fun was had about this, in the vein of, “He’s just had his brain washed and he can’t do a thing with it!”

  • Johnathan

    Verity, you do talk a lot of rot sometimes. Caine has made a stream of fine films (The Deighton ones, Alfie, Educating Rita, Cider House Rules, The Man Who Would be King) and some real turkeys too, of course. I don’t think he got the roles just because he was “in” – a point that could apply to most actors anyway.

    He also famously told TV chatshow host Terry Wogan that he left Britain in the 1970s to get away from socialism, much to the evident discomfort of his host. Caine hates the luvvie culture of most actors and is one of the good guys, in my book.

  • To say nothing of “Sleuth,” of course.

  • esbonio

    Although there is a lot of the sterotyping in 60s films (la plus ca change), I do find them fascinating and insightful on many levels. For example historical films often tell you more about 60s film makers attitudes to foreign policy and war as well as 60s fashion and mores than they do the about the events they are meant to portray.

    At the same time there are excellent kernels of truth including the no nonsense grittiness of the post war period. For example in The Ipcress File there is a scene where they raid an empty warehouse and the authorities (I do not know if they are meant to be Special Branch or MI5) rock up in sheepskin coats tooled up in a no nonsense fashion. You get a similar sense watching The Sweeney (not that I have since the 70s). You can imagine in what a pc way such exercises might be portrayed today as art imitates life orf the reverse.

    I thought Caine was perfectly cast in Ipcress. I also thought he was excellently cast in Zulu.

  • gravid

    Brain washing, manipulating the thoughts of others. Commonplace, advertising works doesn’t it?
    The maxim that you can’t can’t get someone to do something under hypnosis that they wouldn’t normally do is a myth.

  • Verity

    Jonathan – Just because I don’t share your taste in actors does not mean I am “talking rot”. Michael Caine had an air of smirking self-congratulation about him that I found irritating. But he gets a bonus point for saying he left Britain to get away from Socialism. I’ll give him that. And he was quite funny in that movie with Steve Martin.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Am I the only one here who didn’t like “The Ipcress File”? I thought it was silly, clichéd, and terribly dated. I also didn’t like the movie adaptation of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”.

    “Torn Curtain”, despite being equally dated, is much more interesting.

  • esbonio


    I did not like the “spy who came in from the dold” as much (that much?) as the Ipcress File. But I did like the latter. Maybe you are alone in not liking it, but never mind. Also how could it be dated if it was relatively of its time.

  • James Hamilton

    Speaking as a pro hypnotherapist.. Gravid, a stage hypnotist might, in the heat of the moment and in that particular and unusual situation, persuade someone who was already to some extent up for it, to make a fool of themselves. But that’s about as far as it goes, still far short of mind control. And we are a long way from mind control (in the sense of controlling a person to do our bidding when and where), to the extent that we still don’t know what form such a thing could ever take, let alone whether it would be possible.
    Most of the commonly-held views on hypnosis come not from people in my profession or from research, but from nineteenth century novels – du Maurier’s “Trilby” being by far the worst offender. He would have Trilby kept in a perpetual trance, made to behave contrary to her moral norms, and unconscious in the hypnotic state, all of which is complete nonsense.

  • John K

    I love the film of the Ipcress File, but couldn’t get on with the book. I enjoyed the way it captured the bureaucratic dullness of employment in the secret state.

    As to brainwashing or mind control, did not the CIA have a programme in the 50’s and 60’s codenamed MK/Ultra exploring this? They seem to have taken it very seriously, given the experiences of returned Korean War POW’s. The traitor George Blake was one such POW who seems to have been turned whilst he was a prisoner of the Red Chinese.

  • Johnathan

    Verity, you stated that Caine was lionised in a way that he did not deserve, which I thought was a fairly silly opinion. I don’t see him as being “lionised”; in fact quite a lot of film critics dislike him intensely. That is why I thought your opinion was so off the mark.

  • Verity

    Jonathan – He seems to have become a smirking ‘in’ figure in the same way that Posh Beckham did. She did something hundreds/thousands of other people could do, but somehow, she got the attention of the journalists. It just strikes me that Michael Caine must have been a figure who the journalists thought “encapsulated” a particular era and he got propelled to stardom without any large talent. I’m not saying he has no talent. Of course not. I just don’t think he was outstanding or worthy of his status.

    He made the best of it, of course. Wouldn’t we all?

  • Verity

    BTW, Johnathan – so far you have written that I was talking rot for disagreeing with you, and you have added in your latest post above that my opposing thoughts are “a silly opinion”.

    Why so intolerant of an opposing view?

  • Thanks for the suggestion! I’ll be sure to check them out.

  • Julian Taylor

    Nobody has mentioned Zulu or The Italian Job – thought I’d just get those 2 in. The best Caine story I’ve read recently was the one about when he and Terence Stamp shared a flat together in the 60’s, namely

    Michael Caine and Terence Stamp shared a flat in the 60s, leading to innuendoes that they were ‘not quite heterosexual’, particularly from one group of male acquaintances. Caine and Stamp finally got annoyed by all the jokes, so Caine disappeared for a couple of weeks. When he returned Stamp asked him where he had been. “You know those blokes that said we were queers?” “replied Caine. “Well, I’ve been shagging all their girlfriends”.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Julian, that is absolutely priceless.

    “I told you to blow the bloody doors off!”.

  • James Hamilton

    John K, yes, the CIA did. The results didn’t go beyond the earlier discussion on this thread of Korea.
    The problem researchers faced then and face now is that the human brain is such a complex and contradictory thing, and the philosophical problems in studying it so intractable, that it’s not so much that we’re getting the right answers from research – rather, we don’t yet know enough about the brain to understand what the right questions could be. We’re as close to understanding the mind as the Stuarts were to high pressure steam, and mind control lies some distance beyond that, if it turns out to be a sensible concept at all.

  • George Hoffman

    Another spy thriller from that period is Funeral in Berlin, from a script by a young writer named Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter weaved a web of deception and deceit in which the characters used language to camouflage rather than to clarify who they really were.

  • Anthony

    Johnathan says of Michael Cain that he “famously told TV chatshow host Terry Wogan that he left Britain in the 1970s to get away from socialism, much to the evident discomfort of his host.”

    Caine also appeared on the Charlie Rose Show here in the U.S., oh, somewhere early in 2003, for his role in the 2002 remake of “The Quiet American”. He had been reading up on the Vietnam War for background, and he told Charlie that the Americans were wonderful because they had not, during the whole time, destroyed a single city.

    Charlie squirmed.

  • Verity

    George Hoffman – The past tense of weave is wove.