We provide a hub for scholarship that explores how ideas and practices associated with ‘brainwashing’ have intersected with Cold War controversies about the psy sciences of psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

Battles of the mind: The long Cold War

The term ‘brainwash’ was coined in 1950 amidst Western concern that Communist states were indoctrinating their captives during the Korean War. In this strand of the project, we explore the origins and novelties of ideas of brainwashing, and we map their connection to clinicians’ analyses and therapeutic treatment of prisoners of war. We look closely at the scientific expertise that was mobilised – by various governments and non-government organisations around the world – to produce new psycho-technologies for influencing the attitudes and behaviours of political subjects.

Shadows of colonialism

This strand of our research assesses the extent to which imperial powers used psychological concepts and expertise in counter-insurgency, propaganda and re-education programmes after 1945. Existing histories reveal a great deal about the brutality of prisoner treatment, but less about the specialised, psychologically-attuned strategies taken to win ‘hearts and minds’ through forms of emotional coercion and surveillance. Our project reviews the nature of advice and information proffered by psychological specialists in the context of, for example, American psychological warfare in the Philippines, French action psychologique in Algeria, and British counter-insurgency operations in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya.

Advertising, film and hidden persuasion

Cold War cinema and television depicted brainwashing’s myriad dangers while also being cast in their own right as forms of covert pacification and normalization. Meanwhile, social scientists offered compelling accounts of the psychology and politics of advertising, and the predicament of the consumer and the voter when bombarded with signs and messages. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) famously warned of the redirection of clinical and therapeutic ideas to fashion desires and anxieties through seductive imagery and well-chosen words. Our research investigates post-war critiques of these dark arts and cultural representations of the mind in an age of ‘hidden persuasion’.

‘Psy’ expertise: Debates, reflections, reckonings

During the Cold War the reputation of psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis underwent complex transformations. Our project asks how debates about tyranny and totalitarianism shaped theories of the psyche, and vice versa; it considers how and why revelations and allegations of brainwashing returned to haunt all of the psy professions. Here we also examine the key writers and movements that emerged to challenge the psy sciences and investigate how brainwashing fears were taken up in ‘anti-psychiatry’ movements.

Shaping the Child’s Mind

The enormous human loss and displacement brought about by the Second World War caused many children to grow up without mothers and fathers within institutions, substitute families, or cultures radically different from their own. This provided the ‘psy’ professions with the rare opportunity to observe the development of infants in vivo. How do notions of thought control, autonomy and freedom change when we consider not only the psychology of adults, but of children and adolescents – and with what effects for pedagogy, parenting, mental health or therapy? We examine how questions of nurture rather than nature became vitally important after 1945, as societies began to construct a moral vision for a new generation of Cold War babies. We also explore the legacies of these debates for visions of the self, and for child psychiatry and psychotherapy today.

Here and now

Cold War-era concerns about, and fascination with, mind control continue to resonate. We ask how images, techniques and fears of brainwashing have shaped present-day practices and attitudes. How do postwar debates about brainwashing inform contemporary commerce, culture, politics and the psy sciences? We explore the psychiatric treatment and cultural representation of prisoners of war, the role of clinicians in so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’, and ideas of indoctrination, suggestion, subliminal persuasion, and political ‘re-education’ that still draw upon – or take their distance from – these Cold War concerns.

Books and Theses

Digital Series

  • The Hidden Persuaders (2019) – a 6-part digital series on brainwashing, mind control and the ‘psy’ professions – The Wellcome Collection


Journal Special Issues

Contributions to Books


Radio, Podcasts & Lectures

Blog Posts