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Brainwashing: the power of the psychiatrist portrayed in 1960s visual media
  1. P Dakin
  1. Dr P Dakin, Woodlands Medical Practice, London N2 8BG, UK; pdakin{at}


A comparatively neglected representation of the psychiatrist is that of coercive agent using drugs and behavioural psychology to serve a sinister goal. Rather than treat illness or relieve distress, psychiatrists undermine the mental health of an individual through “brainwashing” techniques, transforming the thoughts and actions of their subjects to devastating effect. Portrayals of psychiatrists as unsympathetic agents of the state or malevolent manipulators were popular in British film and television of the 1960s. Such characterisations are compared with historical experiences of “brainwashing” originating from the Korean War, examining their development and the possible reasons why they resonated so powerfully with contemporary audiences.

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Gabbard and Gabbard1 claim that “psychiatry has provided film makers with abundant material”. They consider “the myth of psychiatry” rooted in a “cinematic romance with psychoanalysis” (p 10) that developed into a “wondrously soothing message that personal problems are easily solved” (p 12), and suggest that the cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s reflected “a growing conviction in American culture that psychiatrists were authoritative voices of reason, adjustment and well-being” (p 84).1 This had been demonstrated a decade earlier in the familiar and comfortable stereotype of the genial Central European pipe-smoking analyst of Spellbound. The advantages to film makers of such an on-screen catalyst to whom heroes explain their thoughts for the benefit of the audience—a concept termed “ficelle” by Henry James—are obvious. “The invention of psychotherapy has presented filmmakers with the ideal ficelle, one that need not even speak, yet whose presence allows a character to engage in intense self-scrutiny before the cameras”.1 (p 7) However, “the cultural revolutions of the 1960s’ reaction against psychiatry”1 (p 122) led to the appearance of two other clearly recognised types: (1) a medical scientist treating emotional problems and psychiatric illness with an indiscriminate use of drugs, electroconvulsive therapy and incarceration within an asylum, as portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; and (2) the anti-psychiatrist of Equus, an urban shaman reacting against the physical and pharmaceutical basis of conventional medicine, radical in politics, dress and demeanour, a purveyor of spiritual wisdom attributing problems to family, society and culture. I would add a third characterisation, popularised briefly in the visual media of the 1960s but rarely referred to in the literature: psychiatrists revealed as agents of a totalitarian state, oppressive organisations or intelligence services, scientists without emotion employing a spectrum of techniques to convince the psychologically well to behave against their will and often without their awareness. Although acknowledging this was an era of dramatic change in representation so that “doctors of the mind are repressive, often self-deceiving egomaniacs”1 (p 128) and defining two of the “cinematic stereotypes of the psychiatrist” as “manipulative” and “repressive and malevolent”,1 (p 16) there is no mention of brainwashing or complicit health professionals. Instead, this reflects the “institutional psychiatry” of Szasz that places psychiatrists within an inherently corrupt system using force and fraud,2 an “anti-psychiatry” perspective, rather than depicting the overtly motivated decisions and knowingly repressive actions of individual professionals. This omission is also true of Zimmerman’s book of film portrayals, despite a chapter entitled War: A Battle for the Mind and Spirit,3 and the inclusion of a Korean War veteran suffering from post-combat stress. (p 120) And yet, in the 14 years following the end of the Korean War in 1953, the brainwashing of American prisoners was depicted in six Hollywood feature films, including The Manchurian Candidate.4 I will examine the British experience of this shift in representation by examining The Ipcress File and two television series—The Prisoner and The Avengers—considering possible reasons why this pattern developed in the context of historical and cultural factors.

The Ipcress File, based on Len Deighton’s book and filmed in 1965, stars Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, transferred from the Army to an intelligence unit because of repeated insubordination. Palmer is ordered to find a nuclear physicist, the latest in a series of prominent scientists to be kidnapped. The ransomed victim is found to be amnesic and unable to function. Palmer discovers a folder entitled “Induction of Psychoneurosis by Conditioned Reflex under Stress”, the elusive Ipcress File, describing the brainwashing process used upon the missing scientists. Palmer is captured by enemy agents including the traitorous head of his unit and subjected to the Ipcress process. This involves exposure to cold, hunger, isolation and sleep deprivation, with no indication of time, date or location. At uncertain intervals, Palmer experiences continuous noise and patterned lights, with a superimposed hypnotic voice instructing him to forget the File and his identity. There are strong similarities to the Wolf-Hinkle model of brainwashing that includes constant observation, humiliation, isolation, lack of movement and interrupted sleep, believed to produce breakdown within 4–6 weeks,5 but with sci-fi additions. The supervising psychiatrist matches the auditory and visual stimuli with Palmer’s brainwaves, stating that it works “quicker than beating”, echoing the KGB’s belief that psychological methods were more effective than physical brutality.6 Misinformation is planted inside Palmer’s memory along with trigger words intended to evoke slavish obedience. Palmer escapes and exposes the plot and its perpetrator.

The Avengers, conceived in 1961 as a series involving “the doctor and the spy”,6 (p 12) in which Patrick Macnee’s agent John Steed joined GP Dr Keel, evolved into an action series with a succession of beautiful, scientific and martially skilled colleagues. One hundred and sixty-two episodes were produced in six series between 1961 and 1969; 15 episodes, roughly 9%, involve brainwashing. However, 10 were produced within the 51 episodes of the two Mrs Peel series from late 1965 to early 1969, doubling the rate at which brainwashing was depicted. This was not because ideas or sets had to be recycled. ABC paid £30 000 to produce each episode and urged greater use of outdoor locations to enhance international appeal.6 (p 93) Examples include misuse of the intelligence service’s brainwashing unit in “The Master Minds”; “The Hour that Never Was” creates potential saboteurs through medical hypnosis; a psychoanalyst manipulates dreams in “Too Many Christmas Trees”; brainwashing is induced by psychotropic drugs in “Something Nasty in the Nursery”; and in “The Fear Merchants” a psychiatrist reveals phobias to exploit the greatest fears of drugged victims. Examining a psychological questionnaire she comments, “Infantile hand, repressive personality, panic areas – ideal for our purposes”, her colleague remarking, “What we sell are hidden truths; our territory is the mind; our merchandise is fear”. “Room without a View”, broadcast a year after The Ipcress File, is the most pertinent. Kidnapped physicists yield secret information after experiencing starvation, disorientation and re-education in a Manchurian prison camp, later revealed as the secret floor of a London hotel. The relevance of the camp’s supposed location originates from a CIA report referring to prisoners experiencing “a period of dissociation while passing through a special zone in Manchuria”,5 (footnote, p 10) prompting the title of the seminal film.

The Prisoner, a television series that started in 1966, represented “a dramatic departure for filmed action series, breaking generic boundaries with its pop art mixture of surrealism, psychology, adventure and fantasy”,7 described by Anthony Burgess as “Orwellianism transferred to the world of the advert”.7 (p 18) Patrick McGoohan, Executive Producer and star, filmed a personal project representing “the individual against the establishment, the individual against bureaucracy”7 (p 25) that was later seen as “Cold War fable”.8 McGoohan, who wrote and directed several episodes, based the lead character on John Drake, the spy from Danger Man, a series appearing in 1960, 2 years before the first Bond film. In the first episode the anonymous agent, played by McGoohan, is sedated and abducted after handing in his resignation, then wakes in an apartment identical to his own but situated in “The Village”. In this isolated open prison of unknown location or country, names are never used, with each inhabitant ascribed a number (McGoohan as “Number 6”). A variety of leaders, always designated “Number 2”, exert control through surveillance, informers and psychiatrists. Fugitives, chased by a suffocating white sphere named “Rover”, are taken to the Village Hospital for “treatment” and re-education, and rewarded for their obedience and cooperation. George Markstein, script editor, believed the Prisoner’s crime to be “that he wants to escape from the ultimate Welfare State”7 (p 18) while the authorities, whose allegiance remains unknown, make frequent attempts to manipulate him into explaining why he resigned. In the first episode McGoohan defies Number 2: “I’m not making any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I am not going to be pushed, filed, indexed, stamped, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”9 From the second episode onwards, the opening credits contain the iconic exchange:

  • Prisoner: “What do you want?”

  • Number 2: “Information.”

  • Prisoner: Whose side are you on?”

  • Number 2: “That would be telling.”

  • Prisoner: “You won’t get it.”

  • Number 2: “By hook or by crook …We will.”

  • Prisoner: “Who are you?”

  • Number 2: “The new Number 2.”

  • Prisoner: “Who is Number 1?”

  • Number 2: “You are our Number 6.”

  • Prisoner: “I am not a number. I am a free man.”

The series, described as “a genre hybrid that combines elements of the spy thriller and science fiction genres”,8 is packed with psychological vocabulary and cinematic motifs associated with psychiatric treatment. McGoohan is shown the “conditioning room” in which straitjacketed people are treated with “group therapy to counteract obsessional guilt complexes producing neuroses”.9 (p 51) Conditioned responses to electric shocks are employed to induce confusion: “A characteristic of neurosis is the inability to choose between different courses of action”.9 (p 99) Subliminal messages are broadcast in mandatory television programmes with a hidden agenda of forcing people to adopt attitudes considered “appropriate” by the authorities.9 (p 289) Electrical therapy is used in another episode with the Prisoner told that: “In society one must learn to conform”.10 (p 26) McGoohan referred to the parallel between “captives of war being brainwashed and conditioned, to the point of forgetting who they were”,11 (p 8) and an episode in which the Prisoner doubts his identity after drugs and conditioning. In “A Change of Mind” the Prisoner is accused of disharmony, hostility and being “unmutual”, and is reminded that “confession is a complete defence”.10 (p 181) Ordered to join the Social Group where accusation and admission of guilt are encouraged, he witnesses electroconvulsive therapy and the results of lobotomy. This resonates with a medical model first used by the Chinese Communists against their own people and then prisoners of war in which accusation, confession and social pressure enforced control and change.2 (p 233) Lifton, examining Western prisoners who had experienced official Chinese “thought reform”, outlined the 12-step psychological programme of assault upon identity, establishment of guilt, self-betrayal, breaking point, leniency and opportunity, compulsion to confess, channelling of guilt, re-education, progress, final confession, rebirth, release.12 All of these steps are represented repeatedly in The Prisoner. In the penultimate episode, “Once Upon A Time”, filmed as “a symbolic battle of wills, informed by the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud”,10 (p 370) Number 2 engages the Prisoner in “Degree Absolute”, a process of mutual regression and psychoanalytical role play in a locked underground chamber. The final cataclysmic episode incorporated “Freudian psychological theories and an acute awareness of 1960s society”.10 (p 423) Fourteen of the 17 episodes involve psychiatrists and brainwashing, a decision determined by scripts and direction rather than constraints of finance or location. At the time The Prisoner was reputed to be the most expensive television series ever made, with prolonged shoots and sets built to order.7 (p 22) This emphasis on the psychological features of incarceration demonstrated a shift away from traditional prisoner of war films so that “captivity became an inner trial, not an escape fable”,4 (p 55) reflecting the new political realities in which “Drake and Bond became popular because of the key role of the espionage agent in the Cold War between the opposing power blocs of East and West. If the war couldn’t be overt, it was covert—hence the appeal of the spy.”7 (p 17)

Such portrayals were formed out of the anxieties shared by many in the West during the Cold War impasse of the 1960s. The public could not understand why “so many of the American boys captured in Korea wavered rather widely from the national line”,13 with some prisoners having “confessed to ghastly crimes … and others even refused to come home at the war’s end”.5 (p xvi) The controversy had intensified during 1952 when the Chinese issued statements from captured pilots as propaganda. Edward Hunter, an influential journalist, believed that the “confessions” made by 70% of American POWs in China were proof of techniques that “put a man’s mind into a fog so that he will mistake what is true for what is untrue, what is right for what is wrong, and come to believe what did not happen actually happened, until he ultimately becomes a robot for the communist manipulator”.5 (p 134) Hunter, a covert agent for the CIA,5 (p 133) first used the term “brainwashing” in a Miami News article, taking the term from a word invented by the Chinese Communists, “His Nao”, meaning “cleansing the mind”.14 (p 16) Marks describes how the public “were perplexed and frightened by the “brainwashing” of prisoners taken by the Chinese”, and Caruthers that “many Americans became highly alarmed at Red brainwashing and its seeming efficacy”.15 (p 76)

The idea of “brainwashing”, defined as the “subjection of a person to systematic indoctrination or mental pressure with a view to getting him to change his views or confess to a crime”,16 entered the popular domain. Researchers studied the effects of this disorientating process on returning prisoners whose physical and psychological resistance had been broken in order to cooperate with their interrogators in producing a full confession of supposed “crimes”.5 (p 136) In Korea, physical hardships, weakening of personal ties and beliefs, and rewards were added to this regime.13 (p 10) In addition to the previously mentioned Wolf-Hinkle model, Watson describes eight methods of brainwashing emphasising the consistent features of trivial demands, enforced helplessness, isolation, starvation and sleep deprivation5 (p 140) commonly portrayed in 1960s visual media. Fact informed fiction as intelligence agencies on both sides of the Cold War tried out techniques, the CIA experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs5 (p 148) and hypnosis.5 (p 194) Prisoner testimonies, rumours of experiments and the threat of placing enemy agents deep within an enemy’s borders fuelled fears of planting “sleepers”,5 (p 204) “brainwashed” agents who did not even realise they were potential saboteurs and assassins as portrayed in The Manchurian Candidate. This paranoia was reflected in the science fiction genre with the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Gabbard and Gabbard suggesting that the idea of friends and relatives transforming into enemies “plays on early infantile anxieties as effectively as it does on 1950’s anti-Communist hysteria”.1 (p 82) Referring to later films, they continue: “The belief that Communists could and would project themselves into a loved one and overnight transform him or her into a soulless and hostile creature finds its metaphors in the same science fiction conventions that touch on the childhood anxieties identified by Klein”.1 (p 228) However, fear overtook fact as Lifton had already noted the limitations of the Chinese Communist techniques: “Whatever success thought reform had with most of the Westerners lay in the unconscious influences which they retained from it.”12 (p 237) This was confirmed by Schein who concluded that: “The much-feared communist program of “brainwashing” was really more of an intensive indoctrination program in combination with very sophisticated techniques of undermining the social structure of the prisoner group, thereby eliciting collaboration which in most cases was not based on ideological change”.14 (p 8) This contrasts with the experience of cult members who usually adopt the beliefs of their leaders and peers willingly, and are kept within the group through coercion and psychological forces that are simply more powerful versions found within any group. According to Taylor,2 in cults “there does not seem to be a particular process called “brainwashing” which is distinct from these other psychological processes.” (p 44) Subjects who are unwilling to change usually remain resistant to the “brainwashing” process, having the strength of character to survive attempts at control. Morse Allen, the CIA’s head of Project BLUEBIRD, hypnotised a secretary to “stage” the killing of a colleague but declared it was impossible to condition assassins outside highly controlled conditions.5 (p 148) Although reports claimed Robert Kennedy’s assassin may have been brainwashed under hypnosis,5 (p 148) the CIA confirmed that “investigations of brainwashing may have failed in their ultimate aim—gaining total control of a human being’s thoughts and actions”.2 (p 234) Taylor concludes: “The case studies have provided no evidence for a “magic” process called “brainwashing”, though many have spent time and money looking for such a process. Rather, the studies suggest that brainwashing, in its aspect as process, is best regarded as a collective noun for various, increasingly well-understood techniques of non-consensual mind change.”2 (p 23) Despite the inadequacies of the process, the concept of brainwashing had entered the fertile and fearful public psyche creating a source of ingenious plots for the screenplay writer. The depiction of the brave agent resisting efforts to destroy his loyalty and integrity became iconic. Richelson17 suggested that: “Romantic spy fiction and films may not be accurate portrayals of the secret intelligence world, but are valuable as one among many types of inspirational, romantic film and fiction, in which there is a clear demarcation between good and evil, and heroes persevere despite great obstacles to achieve objectives of great importance”. (p 489)

The characterisations of brainwashing may be unrealistic with scientifically fanciful detail and profound results, but they reveal the essentials of reported experience, especially from the Korean conflict. It remains unclear whether the screen involvement of psychiatrists who are shown supervising drugs, hypnosis and analysis to cause disorientation, breakdown, control and reorientation is anything more than a shocking fantasy. The idea of a physician using medical knowledge and psychological techniques to force an individual to commit acts against their will, prior beliefs and even without their knowledge is, in part, an appalling image born of Cold War paranoia and a fear of the enemy “within”. Taylor2 writes: “At its heart is a malignant idea, the dream of totally controlling a human mind … Brainwashing is the ultimate invasion of privacy: it seeks to control not only how people act but what they think.”(p ix) Perhaps the most subversive feature of the 1960s portrayals was not the experience they imperfectly represented, but the idea that psychiatrists could collude with a process that was not only possible but ultimately successful.



  • Competing interests: None.

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