Sunday, February 03, 2008


By the end of this 2008 election cycle, Americans could feel like they've gone through some kind of hallucinatory experience. Having recently read Dr. William Sargant's book, Battle for the Mind, I've turned my thoughts to his concerns about prolonged periods of focused anxiety, that can lead even whole populations toward an emotional breaking point, compromising people's normal faculties of judgment, leaving them vulnerable, and open to the masterstroke of what is called, in psychological terms, a "conversion experience".

Dr. Sargant was an English psychiatrist who was treating shell shocked soldiers and severely traumatized air raid personnel during the heavy Blitz of London in World War II. One of the most intense periods for casualties from combat exhaustion was during June 1944, at the time of the D-Day landings in Normandy.
Some of these showed all the usual symptoms of anxiety and depression observed in the peacetime psychiatric practice. Others were in a state of simple but profound exhaustion, generally accompanied by a very marked loss of weight. Still others made gross and unco-ordinated, yet regular, jerking and writhing movements, which were accompanied by a temporary loss of speech or a stammer, or perhaps an explosive form of talking. One group of patients had reached various degrees of collapse and stupor. It was in these acute cases that Pavlov's Conditioned Reflexes and Psychiatry, which we were studying for the first time, proved most enlightening: parallels between their behavior and that of Pavlov's dogs when subjected to experimental stresses leaped to the eye. (William Sargant, Battle for the Mind, p. 48)
Pavlov's experiments on dogs demonstrated that fundamental changes would begin to occur in the animal's brain function, as a series of increasing demands placed on a dog by the lab assistants began to break down the animal's ability to cope, and pushed it over the threshold of nervous collapse. The point of breakdown could be reached sooner and more predictably, when any kind of physical debilitation was added to the dog's ordeal: starvation and weight loss, also exhaustion, the excitation of loud noises, discomfort and duress, and sleep deprivation.

This mounting stress and anxiety, which anticipates a nervous collapse, is described by Pavlov as "inhibitory"--meaning that it is interfering with normal brain function. It is also described as a protective function of the test animal's brain. And once this stage of collapse is reached, the dog is wide open to re-conditioning, because a heightened suggestibility exists in this condition.

Sargant and his colleagues found a way of helping their shell shocked patient by using ether and other drugs to loosen inhibition, and guiding him through therapy sessions, where it was suggested to the soldier that he was presently experiencing a battlefield trauma much like the one he had actually experienced. One patient was told that he was trapped in a burning tank and had to make his way out. This procedure that drew insights from Pavlov's work, required the doctor to agitate the patient to the point of emotional collapse. But the catharsis seemed a great relief to each patient. The therapy succeeded by making the patient re-experience the strong emotions that were associated with the trauma. This was how Dr. Sargant explained it. This cleansing of the wound--so to speak--was the exact requirement to lift away obsessive thoughts and depression. Physical symptoms of combat exhaustion, like partial paralysis and speech disruption, were also relieved.

What Pavlov described as "a rupture in higher nervous activity", can be brought about in stages, leading to a point where habitual responses are no longer possible for the brain. Where human beings are concerned, brainwashing can be made permanent by systematic follow-up and reinforcement. Repetitious messages and rituals can wear down the mind; but Dr. Sargant warns us that the most radical break from habitual response is a potent process, whose aim is the sudden, fundamental conversion of belief. Whether in the milder form that can be witnessed under a revival tent, or in the most ruthless example under Stalin, whose proof was seen in "show trials",--where defendants were converted to the belief that they really were "enemies of the state",--the key to the conversion is still what Pavlov described.

In Battle for the Mind, Sargant recognized that the religious conversions by 18th Century "fire and brimstone" preachers like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards relied, as well, on the excitation and ultimate inhibition of brain function, and the ratcheting-up of anxiety to a point of exhaustion. While on a break from his wartime duties, he had picked up a copy of Wesley's Journal of 1739-40.

Wesley placed real stress on his congregation during the sermons. The preacher would build it up to a fearsome climax, warning the agitated, and sometimes angered sinners before him, of impending damnation and eternal hellfire. He would prompt them to make the immediate decision for repentance and salvation. It was put as an inescapable choice between one thing or the other: either salvation or damnation. The argument was structured as a decision requiring action "right now". Many hearing these words were physically worn down victims of the Industrial Revolution, severely stressed men with their wives. Those who faced this oratory were warned that they dare not leave their seats or go outside the church, without making the necessary decision.

Dr. Sargant was intrigued when he read reports about "holy rollers" in the United States, concerning religious rituals of "sudden conversion", when people would fall to the floor, or sometimes drift off into semi-hypnotic states before collapsing or shaking. After the war, he decided to travel to the American South to see for himself.
Wesley appreciated the danger of stirring up crowds, reducing them to penitence, and then leaving others to do the work of re-conditioning. While touring the Irish Catholic countryside in 1750, he was asked to preach at Mullingar, but refused because:

I had little hope of doing good in a place where I could preach but once, and where none but me could be suffered to preach at all.

In 1763, similarly, he wrote from Haverfordwest:

I was more convinced than ever that preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer [the devil].

When investigating a North Carolina religious snake-handling cult in 1947, it was easy for me to see what Wesley had meant. The descent of the Holy Ghost on these meetings, which were reserved for whites, was supposedly proved by the occurrence of wild excitement, bodily jerkings, and the final exhaustion and collapse in the more suggestible participants. Such hysterical states were induced by means of rhythmic singing and hand clapping, and the handling of genuinely poisonous snakes [which] brought several visitors unexpectedly to the point of sudden collapse and conversion. But a young male visitor--the "murderer" [devil] incarnate--was attending these meetings with the deliberate object of seducing girls who had just been "saved". The fact is that when protective inhibition causes a breakdown and leaves the mind highly suggestible to new behavior patterns, the conversion is non-specific. If the preacher arrives in time to preach chastity and sobriety, well and good; but the "murderer" had learned that on the night that followed a sudden emotional disruption, a sanctified girl might be as easily persuaded to erotic abandon as to the acceptance of the Gospel message."..."Two very opposite types of belief could, in fact, be implanted at the close of the revivalist meeting: by the preacher or by the "murderer". (Ibid pp 221-2)
Dr. Sargant writes that humor has some power to fend off this kind of assault against our faculty of judgment; but that our strong and primal emotions--fear, guilt, and especially anger--are dangerous to us as we face these techniques of political or religious conversion.

After the Towers came down in New York, didn't we become subject to the idea of terror? American brains were converted to the belief that Iraq and its leader were behind the attack, a belief founded on nothing that was real. As time passed you could ask most anyone in the U.S. what the impact would be on our liberties, in the event of another major attack on our soil. You would be told that democracy and the Bill of Rights would be downgraded; and one of our own generals said as much, publicly. And fundamental rights were downgraded, even in the absence of such an attack. In 2001, in the first weeks after the Towers in New York were pulverized, there began a widespread falling off of brain function.

It occurs to me that the unsolved case of the anthrax letters, biological agents sent to some Members of Congress, started as much panic in Washington as the 9/11 attack did. Congress then passed the Patriot Act, on faith alone, without reading it. And what unfathomable power has been connected to our al-Qaeda enemy, since that time? From all accounts it adds up to this: some money provided by individuals in Saudi Arabia, logistical assistance from some adjunct of Pakistan's security apparatus, and most fearsome of all, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. And roughly a dozen men with box-cutters.

There may be little to distinguish the New Leader from the old one, at the point where everything turns on abstraction, where history and true conditions are kept from the public, where primal emotions are inflamed, where logic is poisoned, and law and decency are perverted. There is a reflection of this in George Orwell's 1984, in which those techniques are adapted to the masses in a mass-marketed way, toward the manipulation of public opinion--not merely by falsification and propaganda--but by engineering on a psychological level, that constantly increases the stress it has put on its citizens.

It occurs to me that the whole process of choosing American presidents has, in effect, become a kind of emotional and psychological simplification. It comes down not so much to a public capacity to decide which of two evils is the less evil, but to an engineered result, that has steered the harried voters to a president they cannot help but select. If we are lucky we may be able to preserve the thinking part of our brains, and our heads will not be turned, while the seducer walks casually among us.

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