Beginning with the stories of brainwashed American soldiers in the Korean War and ending with positive suggestions on how to avoid brainwashing, the author of this book takes the reader through a fascinating and very informative overview of the subject. Avoiding long-winded philosophical musings on free will and determinism, she instead supports her case on the reality of brainwashing with what is known about the human brain via research in neuroscience. The book is rich in information and gives the reader an understanding of to what degree the human mind can be controlled and manipulated. The author gives several examples of mental manipulation, all of these being quite frightening scenarios. It is the opinion of this reviewer that the election results of last year serve as a good contemporary example of how the press, government, public relations firms, and well-financed private interest groups can exert intense influence on the minds of a large portion of the American public. The outcome of that election serves as a grim reminder of how a passive, uncritical frame of mind can be filled with ideas and impressions that bear no resemblance to reality.
When reading the book, it is interesting to learn that the Chinese Communists did not view their methods as being coercive. They however viewed their "re-education" efforts as being "morally uplifting", and evidently applied them with the conviction that they were releasing their victims of "reactionary" or "imperialist" thoughts. This brings the issue of whether indeed anyone can claim that a certain collection of ideas is "bad", while another collection is "good". The author addresses this issue of "relativism" or "moral incommensurability" in the book, and acknowledges that there is a temptation to believe that it serves to enhance respect for other opinions. She cautions however that prospective brainwashers take full advantage of moral relativism, as it enables them to practice their mind-numbing indulgences without any outside interference. The author therefore rejects moral relativism, leaving judgments as to what kind of ideas are the most sensible to be those that reflect what the majority of people actually desire. She does not however dismiss the relevance of individual differences, acknowledging that two people may have different `value profiles', and that these may conflict from time to time. In addition, values become more abstract or ethereal as one moves from the individual to the group, the author asserts, and in the process of abstraction individual differences become lost. This has the consequence that the ethereal ideas cannot really be judged as good or bad, and thus their propagation may result in severe harm. This harm can be minimized according to the author by using the methods of politics. Her assertion here has a certain irony to it, given that many (including this reviewer) have believed consistently that those in the political profession are the major proponents and practitioners of brainwashing (with last year's election again giving a powerful example). The author though is pragmatic, and notes that not all ethereal ideas are dangerous. Some can benefit society, and so the goal should be to minimize the harmful consequences and allow the beneficial ideas to flourish. Her strategies for doing this she encapsulates into what she calls `FACET', which stands for Freedom, Agency, Complexity, Ends-not-means, and Thinking. She describes at length what is involved in this approach, emphasizing its pragmatism, but also giving some evidence of its efficacy.
Through her discussion of neuroscience, the author dispels any notion of the Cartesian `diamond minds' metaphor that has plagued Western thought for the last four centuries. Indeed, if the claims of contemporary research in cognitive neuroscience are correct, then the human brain is indeed a very dynamic object, sometimes undergoing radical change. As an example of this, the author quotes the `phantom limb' scenario. Altering personal identity however is impossible if the proponents of the diamond mind are correct. The author again though gives evidence to the contrary, this evidence coming from what is known about the brain. In the process of doing this, she gives an interesting introduction to what she calls the `schematic self'. This concept is motivated by the fact that human beings seem to take on a variety of different `identities' depending on the social situation in which they find themselves. These roles or `schemas' include a collection of behaviors, and the thoughts, attitudes, and emotions that accompany them. These schemas can contain beliefs that are incompatible however, especially if they are correlated with different situations that individuals find themselves in. This incompatibility helps to explain the somewhat perplexing or contradictory behavior that is observed in many people. There is a temptation to label an individual as a `hypocrite' when having observed him acting in one situation, he behaves totally different in another, this behavior being seemingly at odds with the behavior in the first situation. Therefore, the author concludes, it should not surprising that brainwashing can work, given this capacity for variation in the `self.' The reader interested solely in scientific explanations will of course demand that the author justify this schema theory with evidence from neuroscience. She does so, but only briefly, and concludes that the schemas are patterns of connections between neurons, and that the stronger the connections, the more automatically the schemas will be triggered under the activation by certain stimuli. Some of these stimuli might be subtle, such as those arising from advertising. These might strengthen the "weak" schema, but the individual does not experience it as a change in self. However, stimuli resulting from the use of force act to change the strong schemas. Brainwashing by force thus may radically change the individual's strongest beliefs, and the author again gives evidence from neuroscience that supports the assertion that this can indeed happen. Lacking in this discussion are actual case studies, but the arguments seem plausible. Further research is of course necessary, but overall the author seems to make a convincing case for the reality of brainwashing. It can be countered given the initiative however