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In the late 1950s and early 1960s dozens of psychiatric patients at the Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal, fell under the care of Dr. Ewan Cameron, a man with some radical ideas about how the human mind is wired and how it might be therapeutically rewired by a skilled psychiatrist such as himself. Cameron believed the roots of mental illness lay in faulty thought patterns patients developed over time. He reckoned patients could be “depatterned” through the ceaseless repetition of a key word or phrase – a technique he called psychic driving. Confining the patients to sleep rooms in the Institute, Cameron implanted a carefully chosen driving message (usually a negative message, followed much later by an affirming message) into their heads via speakers or earphones.
Each message – for example, “You have no confidence in yourself. You are weak and inadequate” – was broadcast continuously for 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, for up to 2 months.
Not surprisingly, psychic driving quickly became a torturous ordeal for the subjects. Indeed Cameron’s depatterning work suggested the mind-control experiments being carried out in North Korea, where Communist soldiers were allegedly turning captured POWs into robotically programmed acolytes. (The CIA, eager to know more about brainwashing and to develop countervailing techniques of its own, funded Cameron’s work for three years under a project code-named MKULTRA). To “break down their resistance” to the incoming messages, Cameron tranquilized his subjects with electroshocks, LSD, hypnosis or sleeping pills that kept them in unconscious suspension for up to 22 hours a day as the driving message played on.
If you don’t recall Ewan Cameron’s famous brainwashing experiments, don’t feel too bad – neither do any of his patients. Upon their release, most had no memory of receiving treatment. In some cases, patients who had listened to hundreds of thousands of repetitions of their driving message could not repeat that message back even once. Rip Van Winkle–like, these people were simply missing a chunk of their lives.
But something profound had clearly happened to them. Immediately following the deprogramming trials, they appeared stunned and disorganized. Many could not remember their own names or how to eat – or in fact much of anything that had gone on in their lives. Even today, Cameron’s former patients report such symptoms as violent mood swings and the inability to concentrate enough to read.
In the broader sense, though, Ewan Cameron’s work never really stopped. Under new stewards and another guise, the virtual lobotomies continued apace. The subject pool expanded from a few dozen people to several billion. The driving messages have become more sophisticated: cryptic, alluring, alarming. They are no longer called implants. They are called ads.
Bruce Grierson is a former Adbusters editor-at-large. This an excerpt from a longer article originally published fifteen years ago in Adbusters #20, Soul Shock: The Erosion of Empathy.
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