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Home » literature » non-fiction » Brainwashing: the science of thought control (book review)

Brainwashing: the science of thought control (book review)

This is one of the books I snuck onto my revised Classics Club list. I heard Kathleen Taylor (of the University of Oxford, with her own blog at Neurotaylor) speak at Edinburgh Book Festival this August, and I found her fierce logic and dry humour very appealing. She knows her stuff, and she’s not going to dumb it down (too much) for the general audience. I found her more compelling than the man who shared the stage with her (Dr James Davies of the University of Roehampton), even though he was preaching to the choir regarding modern psychiatry’s failed model (see also my review of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma).


This book has some less than attractive typesetting (although one gets used to it, so it’s not a constant distraction), and although it introduces some useful social psychology (and other) models in the first few chapters, for me, it was a little slow to get started. The second section I found much more interesting because it gets into the science. I was particularly taken with Chapter 9 on emotions, which raised an interesting question: whether emotions precede or succeed our ’emotional’ physical responses and behaviours. The corollary of this is the question of whether we can ever be ‘overcome’ by emotion. 

Taylor talks about this as the “emotion excuse”. She notes how recalling emotions can strengthen them, entrenching the idea (in our own minds) that we were justifiably ‘overcome’, irrespective of its veracity. She also sets out in brief the thinking of social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, on ‘losing’ self-control, wherein our minds really acquiesce and are active in the decision to do away with self-control (and the subsequent actions or behaviours). I find this very interesting, as I often feel as though I’m acquiescing to a decision already made (e.g. to watch another episode of a TV programme rather than do some work). In fact, sometimes when I’m dithering about something or uncertain, I deliberately rely on this, telling myself, “Come on. You’ve already decided.”

What Taylor calls ‘cogwebs’ – cognitive webs of linked neurons that relate to a thought or idea – makes for easier thinking about thoughts and the learning process (the far extreme of which is indoctrination, the brainwashing that interests Taylor). It can be hard to understand sometimes how one thought is linked to another, even in one’s own mind, as when trying to trace back a conversation that has wandered, and conceptually a web really works. I also found fascinating the idea that many areas of the brain, particularly those requiring conscious or effortful thought, are working to render themselves obsolete by improving efficiency wherever possible. 

I would highly recommend this book for people interested in neuroscience more generally, not just in the concept of brainwashing!

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