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A book which says surprisingly little about what you think it will
on 22 April 2011
When you come across a book with the title "Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control", you expect to open its pages and come across a mixture of conspiracy theory and egotistical mentalism. In fact, this is a book which is probably as far from its perceived title as can possibly be, and arguably for good reason, as the author explains.
The thrust of the author's argument is that the stereotypical notion of brainwashing as thought of by most people who use the term is fundamentally flawed. Specifically, we go looking for zombies and "Yes Master" style Hollywood stories, when in fact such notions belong firmly to the world of fiction rather than fact. This is not surprising when you think about it rationally for a few minutes. Instead, the author explores the much deeper areas behind the notion of brainwashing, and in doing so expands into areas that the reader probably hasn't considered before.
The book is split into three themes of sorts. First, a casual look at the historical uses of brainwashing is covered. The author is keen to point out that the word and concept of what we think of as brainwashing is a relatively new concept, yet the purpose behind (to convert a person from one belief system to another) is far from new at all. Torture has been used throughout the ages to attempt to force people to accept new truths, and as you read on you see how relatively haphazard the results have been.
Secondly, the author delves into the relatively advanced world of neuroscience. Taking an extremely objective and biological consideration of the brain as a reductionist computer, we look at how the brain itself is wired and works. This may seem an overtly complex tangent initially, but is key to the author's argument that simplistic notions of mind-control are pipe dreams. The brain is a fiercely complex organ, and our approaches to control are large-scale and a far distance from the fine grained ideas of individual thought modification.
Lastly, the notional of brainwashing is considered from a philosophical standpoint in relation to society at large. The subject is looked at from both positive and negative perspectives, and the author takes on a fairly abstract approach, covering the very notions of community and education. This goes to show that brainwashing is not an independent process that happens, but is woven into the very fabric of our lives.
This is a relatively advanced book, and if you are used to light casual reading this is not the book for you. Similarly, if you are looking for a tips and techniques to influence people tone, then you will be sadly disappointed. But, if you are willing to take a step back, and look at the wider pictures of how humans interact and what happens when opinions differ and are pushed forcefully, you will find this an enlightening read.
One warning, as another reviewer has pointed out, although the author does her best to be fair and objective, there is a fairly strong anti-religion and collectivism feel to the book. That didn't bother me, and I probably agree with most of her viewpoints, but it may put others off.