Wait… What If I’ve Been Brainwashed?

November 19, 2018

For those of you who read my post last week about brainwashing, I have to tell you that post did not turn out the way I originally imagined it would.  I thought it was going to be a silly, tongue-in-cheek kind of post.  I was even working on a silly, tongue-in-cheek illustration to go with it.

But as I did my research and fleshed out my original first draft, the subject matter ended up being more serious than I expected. I realized I had a point I wanted to make, and I decided to go all in with making that point. Unfortunately, by the time I was done, the art no longer fit the tone of the blog post. At least not in my opinion. So I decided not to use it.

Even so, a fun drawing is still a fun drawing, so after thinking it over this weekend I decided to share the illustration anyway. Here it is:

I don’t know, maybe I’m over thinking things.  Maybe I should have gone ahead and used the illustration anyway.

What do you think?  Should I have used this in last week’s Sciency Words post, or would it have detracted too much from the point I was trying to make?  Please let me know in the comments, and I’ll keep your thoughts in mind the next time this happens.

Sciency Words: Brainwashing

November 16, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may be under the impression that there are people out there in the world who have been brainwashed. Advanced psychological techniques have been used against these poor souls.  They’ve lost the capacity for rational, independent thought. Why else would people join cults or vote for certain politicians or do many of the other crazy things people are doing these days?

But I am here to tell you that brainwashing of that kind does not exist.  Sure, there is such a thing as social conditioning, which teaches us what is or is not culturally acceptable in the communities we live in.  There are also propaganda campaigns, which seek to win an argument by misrepresenting the other side.  There’s also coercion via torture.  But no, I’m talking about brainwashing: the subversion of human free will, the transformation of people into puppet-like automata.  That’s not a real thing.

The term brainwashing was coined by American journalist/C.I.A. propagandist Edward Hunter.  In 1950, Hunter wrote an article for the Miami Daily News titled “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party.”  Hunter followed this up with a book titled Brain-washing in Red China, describing the “terrifying methods that have put an entire nation under hypnotic control.”  Hunter apparently translated the term straight from the Mandarin xi-nao, meaning “wash-brain.”

Hunter also sought to explain away the false confessions of American soldiers who’d been captured during the Korean War and were being held in Chinese P.O.W. camps.  According to this article from Smithsonian Magazine, Hunter attributed those confessions to some sort of ancient Chinese art of mind control (I feel like there should be a Chinese gong sound effect here, to really reinforce the stereotypes behind that notion).

The truth was that the American P.O.W.s had been tortured. Nothing more mysterious than that. People will say almost anything when they’re being tortured.  That doesn’t mean they believe what they’re saying.  It just means they want the torture to stop.  But the concept of brainwashing as some mystical Chinese art, or perhaps a secret Soviet technology, caught on in the U.S. After all, why else would large numbers of people choose to support communism over capitalism?

Last week, I told you about a list of fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid.  Brainwashing was on that list, because the term is often so vaguely defined that it can apply to almost any form of persuasion.  To quote from the original article:

Nevertheless, the attitude-change techniques used by so-called “brainwashers” are no different than standard persuasive methods identified by social psychologists, such as encouraging commitment to goals, manufacturing source credibility, forging an illusion of group consensus, and vivid testimonials.

Going back to those Korean War P.O.W.s who were tortured, the fifty terms to avoid article explains that relatively few of them gave the false confessions their captors wanted, and of those few even fewer retained the communist ideologies they’d supposedly held while in captivity.  This suggests that the ancient mystical Chinese art of brainwashing had an astonishingly low success rate.  As for those very few who did remain “brainwashed” upon returning to the U.S., it seems they’d already been part of America’s communist subculture beforehand.

Even articles I looked at that say brainwashing is a real thing (and purportedly teach you how to guard yourself against it) concede that brainwashing techniques only work well on people who are either vulnerable (due to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc) or who are already predisposed to believe whatever their brainwashers want them to believe.  For example, if you already think the end of the world is near, it’s not so difficult for a cult leader to persuade you to join his or her end of the world cult.

So if you think someone’s been brainwashed, I’m sorry.  You’re wrong. You’re going to have to deal with the fact that other people genuinely believe things that you disagree with. They may or may not have good reasons for doing so.  You can argue with them.  You can try to get them to see things from a different perspective.  In extreme cases where physical or psychological abuse is at work, you can try to get them help.  But you cannot merely dismiss your fellow human beings as brainwashed zombies.

Sciency Words: Psychological Terms to Avoid

November 9, 2018

You know what really grinds my gears? When a news story begins with the words “A new scientific study shows…”  Whatever follows is sure to be a gross misrepresentation of science.  I think these sorts of reports do a real disservice to the public, especially when they’re related to people’s health.

I recently stumbled upon this article from Frontiers in Psychology.  It’s titled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases.”

For today’s episode of Sciency Words, I’ve decided to highlight just three of those fifty words and phrases, to give you a taste of what’s on that list.  Two of them I found intellectually interesting.  The third one was personally enlightening.

  • Scientific Proof: This is a big one. It’s actually listed in a section titled oxymorons.  According to the article, “The concepts of ‘proof’ and ‘confirmation’ are incompatible with science, which by its very nature is provisional and self-correcting.”  I’ve said before on this blog and elsewhere that legitimate scientists rarely if ever claim they’ve proven anything.  They speak in terms of statistical significance or high degrees of certainty.  Whenever someone tells me such-and-such has been scientifically proven, I stop listening.
  • Chemical Imbalance: I’ve known that “proof” is a problematic word in science for a long time.  This entry on the list was a much bigger surprise to me.  We’ve all heard about how mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but apparently that’s an inaccurate and misleading description. While brain chemistry may be an important factor in some cases of mental illness, the article explains that “There is no known ‘optimal’ level of neurotransmitters in the brain, so it is unclear what would constitute an ‘imbalance.’”
  • Closure: The word closure originally meant one thing in psychology (the ability to perceive a complete shape when parts of the shape are missing). The term has since been “misappropriated” to refer to a feeling of emotional resolution following a traumatic event.  It’s supposed to be the end-state of the grieving process, but as the article explains “[…] it is rarely if ever clear when trauma victims have achieved the desired emotional end-state.”  As someone who recently experienced a traumatic event myself, I know exactly what the article is talking about.  Grief fades slowly.  It does not come to a clear and decisive end.  Promising people that if they do this or do that, they’ll be able to find this elusive closure is not helpful.  At least it wasn’t helpful for me.

The Frontiers in Psychology article is aimed at students and professionals in the field of psychology and related fields, but I think it’s worth a look for everyone (here’s the link again).  Some entries are highly technical, but most are things we’ve probably all heard about at some point, and many of us have probably been misled about how our minds and our bodies work as a result.

At the very least, I’d say take a few minutes to skim through the list.  That way, you’ll be a little better prepared the next time someone on television (someone who doesn’t know much about science and who doesn’t care to learn) starts telling you about your mental health or about your health in general.

Sciency Words: Type A Behavior Pattern

July 28, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


In my daily life, I’ve been hearing a lot about type A and type B personalities lately. Don’t know why. It just keeps coming up in conversations for some reason, but I’m never sure which one I’m supposed to be. Since these are scientific terms, I figured it was time I did some research.

Turns out that type A and type B were originally cardiology terms. They didn’t come from the field of psychology at all. Back in the 1950’s, some cardiologists noticed that they had two kinds of patients: those who sat calmly in the waiting room and those who fidgeted impatiently.

The fidgeters came to be known as “type A,” and they seemed to be more likely to have coronary disorders than the “type B” non-fidgeters. Soon a study was conducted. The type A behavior pattern (abbreviated T.A.B.P.) was further defined as “[…] an intense, sustained drive for achievement and as being continually involved in competition and deadlines, both at work and in their vocations.”

These were people with a lot of ambition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they also tended to stress themselves out. They got impatient easily, both with themselves and with others, and were sometimes prone to hostile behavior at work, home, or basically anywhere. With that in mind, the results of the study may not seem like a surprise: a clear corrolation between type A behavior and an elevated risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

If you’re type A, don’t panic. There were some big problems with that initial study, most notably that it only sampled middle-aged men and failed to account for other key health factors like diet. Subsequent research on both men and women of all ages produced less conclusive results.

And yet debate continued for some time after that, possibly because of some undue influence by the tobacco industry. It seems tobacco companies surreptitiously funded more research on type A behavior then argued, both publically and in court, that personality types pose a greater health risk than cigarettes.

It seems cardiologists started abandoning this whole idea by the 1990’s. Psychologists still seem to use the terms, but sparingly. At this point, I’m not sure if the whole type A vs. type B thing is meaningful anymore, scientifically speaking; and yet a lot of people do seem to identify as one or the other.

So I don’t know. What do you think? Are type A and type B behavior patterns useful ways to describe people, or should we just let these terms go?

P.S.: If I must pick one or the other, I’m going to start telling people I’m type B, because I don’t fidget in waiting rooms.

Sciency Words: Kosmikophobia

December 2, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


I stumbled upon this word while researching last week’s posts on asteroids (click here or here). Kosmikophobia is the fear of cosmic phenomena.

To be fair, there are cosmic phenomena to be genuinely concerned about, such as potential asteroid impacts, gamma ray bursts, or the kinds of solar storms that could trigger another Carrington Event.

But this is a phobia, meaning its an irrational or over-exaggerated fear. It’s one thing to one thing to worry that an asteroid might one day wipe out human civilization; it’s another to live in existential dread that it might happen at any moment.

Kosmikophoba can also cover totally irrational fears of auroras or eclipses or the phases of the Moon. Or if you’re excessively terrified of comets and planetary alignments because you believe they are bad omens… that could also be considered kosmikophobia.

There are just two things I’m not clear on: first, has anyone actually been diagnosed with kosmikophobia and received treatment for it? And second, why is it spelled with k’s rather than c’s.

Regarding the spelling, I’m guessing the k’s are supposed to be a more authentic transliteration of the original Greek spelling of cosmos. I just can’t find any etymology to back me up on that.

As for the first point, I know not all phobia-words are meant to be taken seriously. For example, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (the fear of long words) seems to have been made up as a joke.

Since I can’t find any case studies about patients suffering from kosmikophobia, I can’t be sure how seriously to take this condition. The only thing I can say for certain is that this is a real word. I found it in a real dictionary. And as a space enthusiast, I’m really glad I don’t have it.

Sciency Words: Agentic State

March 11, 2016

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Hey, do you want to write a Sci-Fi/Fantasy story about mind control powers?

Mr05 Autonomous Writer

Yes, you do.

Mr05 Agentic Writer

Well, here’s a term—a real life psychology term—that you might want to incorporate into your story. Though I must warn you: this term has a disturbing history.

The agentic state is a state of mind. A person in the agentic state essentially surrenders their free will and acts as an “agent” of another person who is perceived to be in a position of authority.

A series of experiments in the 1960’s demonstrated how easily we humans will do as we’re told. I won’t describe these experiments in full (you can click here to find out more, if you want). The basic idea can be summed up with these questions:

  • Would you inflict pain on another human being because someone in a position of authority told you to?
  • Would you continue inflicting pain, even as your victim screams for you to stop, because an authority figure insisted it was necessary?
  • Would you torture a person to death because you believed that this authority figure would take responsibility if anything went wrong?

According to the experimental results, the answer to all three questions—for the majority of us, at least—is yes.

Why were these experiments conducted? Because of some very famous words. Words that come to us from a dark period in modern history. Words that I’m sure you’ve heard before: “I was just following orders.” It seems that those words and the mode of thinking they represent are deeply engrained in us all. Telepathic mind control powers hardly seem necessary.

Fortunately, this is not all there is to say concerning this line of psychological research. To quote Frank Herbert, “One cannot have a single thing without its opposite.” The opposite of the agentic state is called the autonomous state. Without delving too deeply into philosophical questions concerning free will, I think we can define the autonomous state as a state of mind where you are making your own decisions rather than allowing authority figures to make them for you. At the very least, you’re not blindly following orders that violate your own conscience.

I don’t know about you, but I find it somewhat reassuring to think that while we may be capable of entering one of these mental states, we are also capable of entering the other—provided we’re aware of what is happening to us.

Sciency Words: Alienist

February 12, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Not every word that gets added to the scientific lexicon stays in the scientific lexicon. We’ve previously studied the now defunct terms sciential and jiffy. So now let’s talk about alienist.

This word is not, as you may suppose, related to our modern understanding of extraterrestrial aliens, nor is it related to the “people from foreign countries” definition. At least not directly. Instead, alienist is traced back to a French word, aliéné, which is an adjective meaning insane.

Both English’s alien and French’s aliéné ultimately originate with the Latin word aliēnus, and both share a certain flavor of meaning: that of “otherness.”

In a sense, you could think of insanity as a state of the mind being “alienated” from the body. Or in a more pejorative sense, the mentally ill could be seen as being “alienated” from normal society.

So an alienist (or aliéniste in French) was a physician who treated the mentally ill, and alienism was the study of mental illness. It seems these terms remained in use until the mid-20th Century, by which point this entire field of science had rebranded itself as psychology.

Fb06 The Alien Alienist

At the beginning of today’s post, I said (or rather implied) that the word alienist has become defunct. That’s not entirely true. There’s a process called semantic narrowing whereby a word with a general meaning transforms into a word with a more specific meaning. Examples include:

  • Meat: originally meant food in general but now only means a specific kind of food.
  • Vest: originally meant clothing in general but now only describes one specific type of garment.
  • Wife: originally meant any female person but now refers only to female persons who are married.

The word alienist has undergone this process as well. Today, an alienist is a specific kind of psychologist who works in the criminal justice system. An alienist evaluates the mental competency of a defendant in a trial. (I guess you could say criminals are “alienated” from the law.)

Semantic narrowing is just one mechanism of linguistic change. In a distant Sci-Fi future, it might be interesting to see how a word like alienist continues to change and what new shades of meaning it might take on.