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Cognitive Battlefield: Unleash Your Mental Strength

A strange cultural amnesia – no doubt encouraged by states – treats these incidents of psychological torture as isolated incidents, but they are not, and they are repeated more than you know or would like.

7 mins read
[Photo: Katerina May/ Unsplash]

Following excerpts adapted from the authors’ most recent book, Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it, published by Harper Collins Publishers

The world is a battlefield of information. There are many sides, all competing to take control of the disputed territory that is your mind. Amid the many short-term skirmishes, there are forces executing long-range strategic plans to change your mind and behaviour. The first step in protecting yourself is to be aware of the forces conspiring against you, grit your teeth and resolutely prepare for battle. You are a soldier now.

Enhanced interrogation techniques

When you are being interrogated you think about what is going to happen next. But the interrogator is thinking ahead of you. I know interrogators, I know the way they think. They are evil bastards. They are all about the end game, and the chess moves to get there. They know the moves. I became detached from the interrogation. It became a competition. I focused on how to get ahead of them.

When James was a soldier, he took a five-day course on how to survive interrogation – the most brutal form of brainwashing. It sounds extreme, but the same techniques are used on a smaller scale by the advertisers, politicians and salesmen we encounter every day. If you can understand how to survive interrogation, then you can understand how to resist the most persuasive attempts to influence your thinking. You will be able to free your mind.

James was trained to experience and thereby withstand the techniques an enemy might use to break him down and extract vital information. The crucial first stage – since this was a training operation, and not the real thing – was consent. He agreed to the rigorous and unpleasant experience ahead because he wanted to be better equipped if he was ever captured. He chose to be interrogated.

The next part was his deliberate debilitation. The recruits were sent out on a faux mission and chased across the hills by the ‘enemy’. They were given no opportunity to sleep and nothing to eat. How did James cope with being tired and hungry?

‘Brute stubbornness. I didn’t want to be beaten. I’m not athletic, I’m just mentally competitive. If someone says you are going to be tired and hungry and beat me down in interrogation, I decide I won’t be.’

This was just the warm-up act. After three days, the trainers captured the soldiers and brought them in for the ‘big guns’. Day and night they were deprived of sleep and had to wear hoods so that they could not see. They were made to adopt stress positions for hours on end. They had to ask permission to go to the toilet, and remained hooded even while relieving themselves. When James dropped his trousers he had no idea where he was or if anyone could see, he could just feel the wind whistling around his legs. It was perturbing, but he managed, while others had ‘stage fright’ and couldn’t go. One time, James found himself naked, with a trainer spitting in his face and verbally humiliating him.

In a diluted form, James was undergoing a process known as ‘interrogation in depth’, which consists of ‘the five techniques’: wall standing, hooding, white noise, sleep deprivation, and a reduced and basic diet. These techniques are sadly familiar to prisoners across continents and ages. They have been deployed by the officers and guards in the forced labour camps of the Soviet Union, as recounted in The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and by British military intelligence officers in the period after the Second World War as part of their counter-insurgency tactics. As we will see throughout this book, confusion, distraction and exhaustion are techniques used even by the fairly harmless manipulators in our lives.

The CIA used ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on terror suspects in the aftermath of 9/11. The five techniques have been brought to vivid, sickening life by the first detainee to suffer them, Abu Zubaydah. He was captured in 2002 and held in secret prisons (‘black sites’) for years, where he was tortured by the CIA. He is still detained in Guantanamo Bay. In testimony to the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross), he said, ‘I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.’ Unlike James, there was no consent; this was no training drill.

To begin with, he was subjected to several techniques that were designed to create a sense of helplessness and therefore compliance with the ensuing interrogation. He was kept naked for the first six to eight weeks. Initially, he was kept shackled to a bed and only released to use the toilet. He was not given solid food, only a liquid nutritional drink. These tactics would have combined to infantilise, disorientate and destabilise him before the interrogation began in earnest. A US Senate report found that Zubaydah’s interrogations included 83 instances of waterboarding, as well as sleep deprivation and 11 days’ confinement in a coffin-like box. He also lost his left eye while in custody.

Zubaydah described the CIA’s version of wall standing and stress positions to his lawyers:

They unchained my hands from the bars and chained them with short chains to the chains that were around my legs, which kept me in a bowing position at all times … They brutally dragged me to the cement wall … He started brutally banging my head and my back against the wall. I felt my back was breaking due to the intensity of the banging. He started slapping my face again and again, meanwhile he was yelling. He then pointed to a large black wooden box that looked like a wooden casket. He said: ‘From now on this is going to be your home …’ He violently closed the door. I heard the sound of the lock. I found myself in total darkness.

The full details of Zubaydah’s torture have not been released in the interests of state security and he is not permitted to speak publicly or to the media, so we don’t know how he may have tried to remain mentally resilient and survive these experiences. He did not reveal the information he was tortured for, because he did not have it. But governments continue to employ these brutal techniques in the belief that they will work.

Interrogation, sensory deprivation and brainwashing have been the study of British, American and Canadian governments, and were made famous through the exposé of the notorious MK-Ultra programme and in the book In Search of the Manchurian Candidate by John Marks, which exposed CIA-funded mind-control programmes.

British psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron was funded by the CIA in his work in Canada to correct mental disorders by erasing memories and programming the psyche – i.e., brainwashing. His patients did not know they were participating in highly experimental programmes, such as being put in drug-induced comas for weeks at a time and listening to repetitive tapes with both positive and negative messaging on loop even while sleeping. Some suffered terrible consequences such as amnesia and urinary incontinence. As recently as the 1980s, his former patients sued the CIA for damages. It’s fascinating to note that the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was subject to 200 hours of psychological abuse as part of a Harvard study that some have suggested was part of MK-Ultra research.

A strange cultural amnesia – no doubt encouraged by states – treats these incidents of psychological torture as isolated incidents, but they are not, and they are repeated more than you know or would like.

The information battlefield

Mercifully, life is not an interrogation. You are not being brainwashed in a laboratory or mental asylum. You probably go about your life in a normal fashion and you are not interned in a camp wearing an orange boiler suit. You will almost certainly never be captured by the enemy. So, how does this relate to you?

Although you are not being brainwashed in a lab nor dodging a rain of bullets, you do navigate a storm of advertising, nudges, biased news articles and propaganda. You are not standing in a stress position against a wall, but you are bent under a blitzkrieg of information. Life is a battle for the mind – your mind. Donald Ewen Cameron was inspired by fellow British psychiatrist William Sargant, who wrote a book on it, Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brain-Washing – How Evangelists, Psychiatrists, Politicians, and Medicine Men Can Change Your Beliefs and Behaviour. As you can detect from the title, Sargant identified several categories of people trying to command minds. There are battalions of experts who research, strategise and implement plans to capture your attention, wash your brain and nudge you in different directions. They work in PR and ad agencies, in governments, the media, big data and Big Tech firms. They are trying to sell you products and services, to change how you vote and to change your conduct as a citizen.

A cybersecurity expert recounted a story that highlights just how much we are bombarded with persuasion tactics. He received a dodgy letter in the post claiming to be from the bank. The letter was asking for sensitive information to protect against fraud, and the letter was full of nudges to get it – ‘URGENT’, ‘act today’, ‘join many others like you’, and so on. The expert took the letter into the bank to let them know a scam was afoot.

‘Oh no,’ they told him, ‘that was from us.’

The use of manipulation tactics is so widespread that it’s hard to tell who’s who. The good guys are using nudges to stop you from falling for the bad guys’ nudges. Besides, it’s not just advertising or political propaganda where you need to be on the lookout for these kinds of techniques. At the other end of the scale, we experience manipulation even from those who love and know us best. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss found 12 tactics used to influence and manipulate a romantic partner to do something. Different personalities are more susceptible to different tactics, but this handful might be familiar to most people: charm and compliments; reasoning to explain why you want your partner to do it; the silent treatment; pleasure induction, to show them how much fun it is; tell them that everyone is doing it in a form of ‘social comparison’; hardball, threaten or use violence; or simply lie.

There is no accurate running total of the number of information bullets you dodge every day. But in 2006, Jay Walker-Smith, president of the marketing firm Yankelovich, claimed that the average American was exposed to five thousand advertising messages per day, ten times as many as in the 1970s. According to Red Crow Marketing Inc., the current figure is somewhere in the range of four to ten thousand. Although these figures have been hotly contested and it’s hard to quantify something like this, researchers tend to agree on one thing: it’s a lot.

Television, radio, billboards, shop windows, cinemas, direct mail, newspapers, magazines, social media, bus stops, video games, text messages, social media … There have never been so many opportunities to deliver persuasive messages.

Click here to order your copy of this book

© Laura Dodsworth and Patrick Fagan 2023

Laura Dodsworth

Laura Dodsworth is an author, journalist, photographer and filmmaker and has been described as a 'latter-day punchy Cassandra' and a 'Slayer of Taboos'. Her previous books Bare Reality: 100 women, their breasts, their stories, Manhood: The Bare Reality and Womanhood: The Bare Reality have attracted worldwide media coverage and excellent reviews. Laura and the creation of Womanhood were the subject of a documentary for Channel 4, 100 Vaginas, which received 5 star reviews and has been broadcast around the world.

Patrick Fagan

Patrick Fagan is an Associate Lecturer in Psychology of Marketing and Advertising and Consumer Behaviour at Goldsmiths University; and he works as a Senior Behavioural Insights Associate at world-leading behavioural science consultancy Mountainview Learning.

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