‘Battle for the Mind –

A Psychology of Conversion and Brain-Washing’

By William Sargant

(London William Heinemann)

Based on a review by John Birtchnell, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Psychiatry says in an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry (1994) (italicises text denotes quotes from the review)

William Sargant was born in 1907. He went to Cambridge, became an eminent psychiatrist and eventually an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He first came to prominence in 1944 with his first publication on psychiatry and in 1954 wrote ‘Battle for the Mind’ In it he wove together, into a coherent whole, a series of apparently disconnected themes . …He was preoccupied with the application of observations made on animals to the understanding of human behaviour. What interested Sargant was the effects of stress upon an animal’s conditionability.

One of the themes was the work of Pavlov on the behavioural sciences, drawing parallels between the behaviour of dogs and humans to external pressures, and makes the important point that they respond to these according to their temperaments.

During the war he treated many military and civilian casualties and it was here that he first began to make connections between the responses of humans to the atrocious conditions of modern warfare and the reactions of Pavlov’s dogs, that even the most stable of soldiers would become severely neurotic when continuously exposed to battle conditions over a prolonged period, and this he attributed to the overwhelming effect of the fear of death.

He meticulously documented the patterns and parallels he observed and he describes a condition called ‘transmarginal inhibition’ when the nervous system is strained beyond the limits of normal response. These he split into three distinct and progressive phases which he called ‘the equivalent’ the ‘paradoxical’ and ‘the protective’. All three he observed in battle and blitz victims, and he discussed ways in which these symptoms could be alleviated.

Sargant began to worry that the conclusions he was approaching would have the effect of ruining his professional reputation. (as is any scientific or rational attempt to expose the techniques of religious indoctrination)

Pavlov had observed that when dogs responded in the way described they entered a kind of hypnotic state and became abnormally suggestible to environmental influences. During the last phase the dogs conditioned responses could easily switch from positive to negative or vice versa to comply with external pressures exerted upon them – or respond by relating to, or subjecting themselves to the power being exerted over them.

What obsessed Sargent was how one individual controls and influences another. His first objective was to investigate methods of religious conversion, and this has obvious connections with his own early experiences.

He came from a highly religious family of preachers. His father was an ardent Methodist insisting on his son attending church three times each Sunday. His subsequent experiences, possibly evoking his early experience of religion, led him to read extensively on the witch trials of the 16th & 17th centuries, the religious revivals, of the Wesleys in Britain and in the southern states of America in the 18th & 19th centuries. He worked for a year at Duke University, North Carolina in 1947. During which he observed, studied and photographed the cult behaviours such as faintings, hypnotic states and sudden conversions of snake handling meetings.

Sargant provides extensive accounts of Wesleys writings and practices, describing how he would create high emotional tension in his potential converts by threatening them with hell-fire and damnation. Sargant maintained that this fear of hell affected the nervous system of Wesley’s congregations in the same way as fear of death affected his war torn patients. And he argued that anger as well as fear could induce disturbances of brain function that would make a person highly suggestible and reverse previously conditioned behaviour patterns, so that highly positive or negative responses could equally lead to ‘conversion’.

Wesley himself was convinced that the process of conversion had to occur in a state of highly emotional arousal and had to be both sudden and dramatic this too was paralleled by the cathartic cures of war casualties. But he also observed that it was necessary to provide an escape from the induced mental stress in this case by the promis of eternal salvation.) This is a process that can be seen in Billy Graham style revivalist meetings and the mass rallies of political demagogues of the 20th century as well as more recently in mass demonstrations in Muslim countries)

In a further attempt to show ‘religious conversion’ as a psychological phenomenon he pointed to the particular sensitivity of the human brain to rhythmic percussion, drumming and dancing, bright lights, and other often repetitive sensory stimulation and noted the potential of such stimulation for inducing epileptic fits in susceptible individuals. Alcohol and other drugs can further heighten these effects and hasten the breakdown of ideas if that is the purpose.

Compliance and suggestibility are increased by altering the volume and pace and encouraging singing, arm waving and hand clapping. It is easy to see how in this trance-like state the notion of divine possession and being possessed by Jesus etc. can occur.

Sargant goes on to consider political indoctrination and observes that it is often difficult to distinguish one for the other and he quotes Aldous Huxley as saying,

"Assemble a mob of men and women previously conditioned by a daily reading of newspapers; treat them to amplified band music, bright lights, and the oratory of a demagogue who (as demagogues always are) is simultaneously the exploiter and the victim of herd intoxication, and in next to no time you can reduce them to a state of almost mindless subhumanity."

He recalls how Jomo Kenyatta, the originator of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, who never appealed to the intellect of his followers; instead he used an emotional, religious technique for political purposes.

He points to the ease with which Hitler was able to persuade so many intelligent people in Gernamy to regard him a little short of a God. The organised rallies induced a kind of mass hypnotism. The methods of the Chinese Communists under Mao Tse Tung came closest to those of the religious revivalists. Mass trials and punishments carried out in the big cities were carried out in an atmosphere of high tension.

Another aspect is the phenomenon of eliciting false confessions by torture. Unbearable physical or mental stress produced detailed confessions by accused heretics or political dissidents, and the public executions burnings floggings and hangings were also exerted powerful stresses. (Another practice that can still be seen today in some parts of the world)

Sargant goes on to explain the effect that psychological pressure from interrogation techniques has on the brains and behaviours of both victim and interrogator. Which leads him into the discussion of how these processes can also affect the relationship between patient and therapist in psychoanalytic psychotherapy - and how patients may respond to therapy that causes ‘repeated emotional upheavals’ by constructing false confessions, by adapting their version of ‘reality’ to that suggested by the therapist, or in finding other ways reconciling impossible conflicts regardless of the truth.

John Birtchnell, Seniour Lecturere, Institute of Psychiatry says in an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry (1994) from which this article is distilled writes,

Sargant’s book is as relevant today as it was the year it was written. Human behaviour has not changed one jot, and the principles laid down by Sargant apply as much today as they did then.

Sue Mayer

For a fuller review:

The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi


That Old Time Religion, or, Pavlov Methodized, or, Shake, Rattle and Roll

Any book which manages to bring under one head shell-shock, snake-handling, Methodism, psychoanalysis, possession, mescaline, New York's finest, the Greek oracles, and the near-drowning of some dogs in Leningrad in 1924 is worth reading. If the connecting threads happen to be sensible, so much the better.