The Book in a Nutshell
Joost Meerloo was a psychoanalyst and expert in techniques of mass and individual brainwashing. In his capacity as a researcher, Meerloo had the opportunity to gather data on millions of victims of Nazi terror, as well as interviewing and questioning several escapees from internment and concentration camps and several imprisoned Nazis. In The Rape of the Mind, Meerloo summarises his findings, outlining the underlying psychological mechanisms of brainwashing and mass thought control. First published in 1960, its lessons are now more important than ever.
Book Summary: The Key Ideas
#1: Menticide and Individual Mental Submission. Menticide is an organized system for psychological submission. It involves first weakening the victim’s ego through isolation, before resulting in a loss of conscious control and a rationalization of a new ideology.
#2: The Role of Pavlovian Conditioning. Pavlovian conditioning involves creating a relationship between external stimuli and a corresponding reaction. At both the individual and population level, conditioned learning can be brought about more quickly when people are scared and isolated.
#3: The Roots of Mass Brainwashing. The degree to which many humans conform is defined by our cultural predilections, upbringing and more recently, technology. The latter is creating an environment ripe for mass brainwashing, with human beings outsourcing their responsibility to think for themselves.
#4: The Weaponization of Fear. Fear and terror paralyze our ability to think clearly. Political leaders are well aware of this fact, and totalitarian regimes use a variety of techniques to cultivate a continual state of fear.
#5: The Dangers of Mass Delusion and Mental Contagion. It is possible to instill any mass delusion through suppression of information exchange and control of the press and narrative. The only weapon against delusions becoming mental contagion is freedom in the exchange of ideas.
Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail
The below are more detailed book notes on the key ideas from The Rape of the Mind by Joost Meerloo. These notes do not by any means cover the full breadth of the book and are instead intended as an introduction to the key themes, from which to decide whether to read the full book.
Key Idea #1: Menticide and Individual Mental Submission
In the first section of the book, Meerloo focuses on mental coercion and torture at the individual level, discussing the techniques used to yield false confessions from prisoners of war. Under the continual strain of these techniques, everyone’s limit can be reached. The idea we can endure torture is a delusion.
“The variety of human reactions under infernal circumstances taught us an ugly truth: the spirit of most men can be broken; men can be reduced to the level of animal behaviour. Both torturer and victim finally lose all dignity.”
In both the individual and wider population context, Meerloo coins a term for this process of gradually reducing a human (or many humans) to mental submission: menticide.
Menticide is defined as “an organized system of psychological intervention and judicial perversion through which a powerful dictator can imprint his opportunistic thoughts upon the minds of those he plans to use and destroy.”
The optimal environment for menticide is one of chaos, confusion and isolation. This state paralyses opposition and undermines morale. And the subsequent mental weakness allows for the building of a system of conformity.
“The core of the strategy of menticide is the taking away of all hope, all anticipation, all belief in a future. It destroys the very elements which keep the mind alive. The victim is entirely alone.”
There are four broad stages of brainwashing and menticide:
- Artificial Breakdown and Deconditioning. The stage weakens the prisoner’s ego. Key devices include the suggestion of physical threats (e.g. cold and hunger), humiliation, loneliness, isolation and embarrassment.
- Submission to and Positive Identification with the Enemy. Prisoners often experience “sudden surrender”. This is often an unconscious and emotional process characterized by a loss of conscious control. As Meerloo puts it, “Time, fear, and continual pressure are known to create a menticidal hypnosis.”
- Reconditioning to the New Order. This is a process of systematic indoctrination, analogous with turning hypnosis into action. The victim is “helped” to rationalize his new ideology.
- Liberation from the Totalitarian Spell. The hypnotic spell is broken. Spells of crying, depression and guilt often follow.
Key Idea #2: The Role of Pavlovian Conditioning
In order to understand totalitarian jailers, Meerloo suggests we must give attention to their preference for Pavlovian concepts.
Pavlov’s theory of the conditioned reflex has been applied in many ways in totalitarian regimes. Simplistically, Pavlovian conditioning describes the process whereby the mind creates a relationship between some repeated stimuli and another reaction (famously, the bell and salivation in dogs).
Pavlovian conditioning can happen in subtle or obvious ways in all walks of life. Our personalities and conditioned reflexes are moulded by our family habits, teachers, friends, etc.
“Any influence which tends to rob man of his free mind can reduce him to robotism. Any influence which destroys the individual can destroy the whole society.”
There are a number of important factors to consider when seeking to understand the effects of Pavlovian conditioning.
- Isolation. Importantly, the conditioned reflex can be developed more quickly when the target person or persons are isolated. This extends from individual prisoners of a regime to whole populations being prevented from seeing one another or travelling freely.
- Reward and punishment. Some learn conditioning more quickly when they are rewarded and some more quickly when exposed to painful stimuli. This depends on the type of learner. Pavlov also drew this distinction in the rate at which some conditioned individuals would “unlearn” their conditioning.
- External disrupters. New external stimuli can inhibit conditioned learning. Meerloo observes that in the original Pavlov experiments the arrival of a new experimenter would often disrupt the conditioned patterns of dogs.
- Repetition and boredom. Too much repetition may also inhibit learned conditioning.
- The fear factor. Political conditioning is best achieved when free exchange of ideas is suppressed. Feelings of anxiety, isolation, and particularly fear accelerate the conditioned response.
- Second-order stimuli. It isn’t just the directly connected stimuli that can have a conditioning effect. Speech and language can be effective conditioners, too. The Pavlovian technique involves repeated suggestions and assumptions that diminish the opportunity for communicating alternative ideas and opposition. (More on this in the subsequent section.)
Key Idea #3: The Roots of Mass Brainwashing
The Asch experiments famously demonstrated the degree to which human beings feel an innate pull to conform. These conformist tendencies can be amplified or controlled by the institutionalized cultures around us.
“Every culture institutionalizes certain forms of behaviours that communicate and encourage certain forms of thinking and acting, thus moulding the character of its citizens.”
As citizens, we must be prepared to study how areas of our cultures directly aim to centralise power and weaken mental awareness.
Mechanically repeated suggestion and slow hypnosis through media can have just this effect of weakening mental awareness and agility. We begin to think more and more according to the values communicated to us by mass media.
“Public opinion engineers” take advantage of this phenomenon, designing communications to steer thinking for political and commercial gain. As we absorb these opinions repeatedly, we risk becoming passive participants that reject self-study and independent thinking.
“Unknowingly, we may become opinionated robots. The slow coercion of hypocrisy, of traditions in our culture that have a levelling effect – these things change us. We crave excitement, hair-raising stories, sensation. We search for situations that create superficial fear to cover up inner anxieties. We like to escape into the irrational because we dislike the challenge of self-study and self-thinking.”
Technology feeds this attraction to passivity in our thinking. While it has the power for good, it may also attack our minds, conditioning us not to think for ourselves, but to think what we are told.
“Modern technology teaches man to take for granted the world he is looking at; he takes no time to retreat and reflect. Technology lures him on, dropping him into its wheels and movements. No rest, no meditation, no reflection, no conversation – the senses are continually overloaded with stimuli. The child doesn’t learn to question his world anymore; the screen offers him answers readymade.”
As Meerloo later more succinctly puts it, “Luxury causes mental and physical atrophy.” Modern technology (televisions and radios at the time of the book’s writing) risks breeding mental passivity, which in turn provides ripe ground for totalitarianism.
“The man who has no mind of his own can easily become the pawn of a would-be dictactor.”
Our preference for passivity in our thinking is also rooted in an innate internal battle. Meerloo contends that there is a continual internal battle between man’s desire for maturity and freedom and the childlike yearning for complete protection and irresponsibility.
“Totalitarianism appeals to the confused infant in all of us.”
Cultural predilections can magnify or defend us in this internal battle. Meerloo notes that western civilisations tend to develop more of a sense of self-responsibility and personal moral standards, while some eastern cultures tend to be more collectivist and regimented in nature.
“Our human strength lies in our diversity and independence of thought, in our acceptance of non-conformity, in our willingness to discuss and to evaluate various conflicting points of view. In denying the diversities of life and the complexity and individuality of the human mind, in preaching rigid dogmas and self-righteousness, we begin gradually to adopt the totalitarian attitude we deplore.”
Parenting also plays a remarkably important role in moulding individual attitudes. In particular, the father role is important as this represents the third person and “conditioning prototype” for relationships with others.
Meerloo argues that parental conflict can lead to a child the becomes overburdened by conflict and more willing to outsource personal responsibility in later life. Parental compulsion, meanwhile, can lead to a childhood without a chance to develop one’s own attitudes, heightening the probability of becoming conforming adults.
Key Idea #4: The Weaponization of Fear
Of all the tools to reinforce mass brainwashing, creating a climate of fear is perhaps the most effective. Fear and terror paralyse our ability to think clearly. Fear techniques often separate people from one another, leaving people lonely and terrified. In turn, this isolation reduces resistance to policy measures.
“The fear of an implacable foe makes man more willing to submit even before he has begun to fight.”
Techniques to induce fear range from subtle, such as creating a climate of political control whereby all activities appear to be under surveillance, to the extreme, such as criminalization and purging of dissenters.
Some notable techniques called out by Meerloo include the following:
- Spy mania: This is where paranoia between people builds, creating a “delusion of persecution” between citizens. In other words, the idea that one neighbour may tell on another to authorities.
- Criminalisation: This is the process of conditioning people to rebel against civilized frustrations. It is a slow process of turning people against others, justified by a new doctrine. It provides an organized structure for those in societies with ruthless and violent tendencies to express them.
- Verbocracy: Propagandistic lies and catchphrases are an inexorable feature of totalitarianism. Repeated countless times from countless angles, the effect is to drill the desired thinking until accepted as truth. “Double talk” characterizes much of the narrative, with words like “freedom” redefined to support the lies. Words become emotional triggers and conditioners instead of sources of independent thought.
- Labelomania: Meerloo uses this term to describe the growing tendency to attach too much meaning to labels and titles, and too little to the intrinsic value of that object. This becomes all the more problematic in a totalitarian environment as acknowledged labels outweigh basic freedoms.
- Breathing spells: Totalitarian strategists know that when we drop our defences, we become more susceptible to suggestion. They therefore utilize calculated breaks in the measures they impose. This is known as the “strategy of fractionalized fear”.
- Psychology of shock: Totalitarians use shock and unpredictability to confuse the enemy, doing things that challenge logic and reason. “Logic can be met with logic, while illogic cannot – it confuses those who think straight.”
Taken in combination, such techniques aim to provoke a final state of passivity, free from independent thought. As Meerloo puts it:
“The only safe conduct pass for the citizen of Totalitaria lies in the complete abdication of his mental integrity.”
Meerloo offers one important glimmer of hope, however. Such methods can only go so far before the population wakes up. Citizens eventually can become numb and desensitized to terror:
“When men have been reduced to puppethood […], they will finally become immune to all threats. The magic spell of terror will finally lose its force.”
Key Idea #5: The Dangers of Mass Delusion and Mental Contagion
“The lie I tell ten times gradually becomes a half-truth to me. And as I continue to tell my half-truth to others, it becomes my cherished delusion.”
We can define delusion as a loss of verifiable reality and relapse into the more primitive psychology of development. The phenomenon of totalitarianism is itself delusional because it ignores the innate nature of man:
“It is delusional to think of man as an obedient machine. It is delusional to deny his dynamic nature and to try to arrest all his thinking and acting at the infantile stage of submission to authority. It is delusional to believe that there is any one simple answer to the many problems with which life confronts us, and it is delusional to believe that man is so rigid, so unyielding in his structure that he has no ambivalences, no doubts, no conflicts, no warring drives within him.”
It is possible to instill any delusion through suppression of information exchange and control of the press and narrative:
“If one can isolate the mass, allow no free thinking, no free exchange, no outside corrective, and hypnotize the group daily with noises, with press and radio and television, with fear and pseudo-enthusiasms, any delusion can be instilled. People will begin to accept the most primitive and inappropriate acts.”
The effects of these methods make delusions difficult to correct. Our instinctive, animal type of thinking is deaf to reason. And it is hard for anyone to avoid the effects of contagion in their thinking in totalitarian environments.
There are two typical reactions to a barrage of indoctrination: (1) apathy and indifference and (2) an intensified desire to understand and study.
The first reaction is much more common than the second reaction, and it threatens our democracy. But we can train ourselves to identify and defend against the repetition and Pavlovian conditioning.
Mental contagion is a continual danger, but we can’t prevent it by enforcing an opposite contagion. The only weapon against mental contagion is freedom in the exchange of ideas.
“The only way we can give man the strength to withstand mental infection is through giving him the utmost freedom in the exchange of ideas.”
We must fight to maintain man’s curiosity and independent thinking. And we must also be cautious of those who claim to teach:
“It is among the intelligentsia, and especially among those who like to play with thoughts and concepts without really taking part in the cultural endeavours of their epoch, that we often find the glib compulsion to explain everything and to understand nothing.”
You can buy the book here or you can find more of our book notes here. For further related reading, try On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder and The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek.