Society of Bioethics and Medicine
Brainwashing as a Political Weapon: The Legacy of MK Ultra
Written by Elizabeth Katanov
Edited by Aisha Abid
Imagine being induced in a coma for 23 days, electroshocked three times a day, and then brainwashed for 15 hours every subsequent day for months. This was the case with Project MK-ULTRA, a secret CIA endeavor executed in Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The fierce rivalry between the Soviet Union and America during the Cold War Era had both sides racing to devise the most efficient weapons. At one point, the CIA became interested in psychological warfare and brainwashing as a political tool. To further learn about the possibility of mind control, the CIA covertly funded a researcher in Montreal, Dr. Ewen Cameron, to conduct studies using what he called “depatterning” and “psychic driving” in mentally ill patients.
Psychiatric patients were put into a “sleep room” for 23 days and forced into a coma induced by various narcotics. The patients were only awoken to feed and use the bathroom. Throughout this period, called “depatterning,” electroshock therapy was administered with twenty times the intensity that was normally used during this era, and much more frequently. While most psychiatric patients received treatment a few times a week, MK Ultra conducted these massive doses of electroshock up to three times a day. The goal of de-patterning was to reach the “third stage,” where the individual loses the ability to orient themselves in time or space. Oftentimes, patients would lose memory forever and would forget elementary details such as their age, current year, and home address. The de-patterning stages also worked on breaking behavior patterns, and chemical agents such as LSD were heavily employed in order to do so. Not only did this impair memory, but overall left patients in a comatose, vegetable state for 23 days. The details of this intense treatment were not disclosed to patients’ families, nor were patients properly informed or consented to this form of psychological intervention.
Once the de-patterning was completed and the “slate was wiped,” the test subjects underwent “psychic driving,” which was the true brainwashing portion of this experiment. The goal of psychic driving was to see if a patient can be bombarded with false information and have it be accepted as memories or undeniable truths. During this phase, patients were forced to listen to statements that altered their perception of self, others, and even memories. One patient who was tested in 1956, Bob Logie, spoke of his vivid experience when a voice told him he was “being born.” He truly felt, in that moment, as though he was recalling the sensation of being birthed, even though this is a memory he obviously never had.
To facilitate this experiment in private, the CIA set up various fronts so that the Cold War Era doctors didn’t know that the government was directly funding their research. One such front was named the “Human Ecology Fund,” which gave over $60,000 to Dr. Cameron over three years, the modern equivalent of approximately $500,000 US dollars.
When the news of the project was uncovered, patients and their families had to be notified of exactly what had happened when they were being ‘treated.’ However, of the hundreds of people that Dr. Cameron had treated, only 14 were actually told of the events. One participant, Ken Kesey, went on to write a novel titled One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and promoted LSD within parties he called “Acid Tests.” LSD became the fuel for the oncoming hippie movement, rock bands such as the Grateful Dead, and overall, 60s rebellious culture. Whereas the CIA hoped to use drugs such as LSD to control behavior populations in people, the ultimate effect was indeed the opposite.
Besides introducing lethal drugs to civilians, hundreds of patients were permanently damaged in this operation and dozens similar occurred at the same time. Despite Dr. Cameron’s participation in the Nuremberg trials, where he was called upon to examine the ethical violations of the Nazi Rudolf Hess, the physician continued to conduct unsafe research without consent from his subjects. The public’s knowledge of this project has brought on not only a slew of conspiracies involving the government misusing its civilians, but also stresses the importance of ethical research design and transparency in project funding.
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Shephard, Michelle, et al. Brainwashed: The Echoes of MK Ultra. https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/brainwashed-mkultra.
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