Twenty-one-year-old Roshonara Choudhry was the top student on her English course at King’s College London when she suddenly quit in 2010 before stabbing her MP, Stephen Timms, “to get revenge for the people of Iraq”. Choudhry told police she had viewed his pro-war voting record on the website TheyWorkForYou, as well as more than 100 hours of extremist lectures on YouTube. Timms survived the attack, but, as one newspaper reported, the court at her trial was “forced to the conclusion that Islamist hate sermons on the internet really do have the power to persuade a hitherto harmless young woman into being a killer”.
To say someone has been “brainwashed” can be both an accusation and an apology, the psychoanalyst and cultural historian Daniel Pick points out in this absorbing study of “thought control”, a concept roomy enough in his understanding to span the infamous “dodgy dossier” as well as terrorist radicalisation. The subject is timely: he tells us that he was preparing the book for print just when the journalist Marina Ovsyannikova interrupted a Russian news broadcast with a poster telling viewers “you are being lied to”. Yet Pick (the author of books on Garibaldi, Nazi Germany and the fictional hypnotist Svengali) knows that questions of what it means to think for ourselves are evergreen; any consideration of brainwashing, away from the subject’s lurid core – psy-ops, death cults – soon leads us into an epistemic labyrinth where information and indoctrination blur.
Pick opens his tour of this murky terrain during the cold war, with the reporting on US prisoners of war in Korea (where “brainwashing”, from the Mandarin xi nao, literally to wash the brain, first caught the English-speaking imagination); he ends by examining the role of the QAnon conspiracy theory in last year’s Capitol attacks (still eye-poppingly bizarre no matter how much you’ve read about it already). Each of the six chapters begins by considering a central text before spiralling outward: works under scrutiny include Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953), about mechanisms of surveillance in postwar Poland, and Vance Packard’s 1957 bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders, about the ad industry’s use of psychological experiments demonstrating our tendency to follow the herd for good or ill.
Pick draws conclusions from the experiences of a child soldier in Uganda or the California Prune Board’s postwar rebranding of prunes from a laxative into a desirable snack
The frame of reference is omnivorous: Freud and the Frankfurt school, sure, but also Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives and the tennis player Peng Shuai; Pick’s nuanced discussion of how we nudge, convert and coerce includes gaslighting and torture but also classrooms and Facebook. True, sometimes it moves too quickly, and Pick can be guilty of a certain rhetorical inflation to add narrative drive to what is fundamentally a textual survey (“some writers, such as Aldous Huxley... others, including George Orwell”, just means “Huxley and Orwell”). His overriding interest in ideas, rather than contexts, occasionally makes his narrative seem shaped above all by a sharp-eyed hunt through print archives for keywords. But – and it’s a big but – the dividend of his method is a staggering breadth, as Pick draws conclusions from, say, an episode of The Simpsons, the experiences of a child soldier in Uganda or the California Prune Board’s postwar rebranding of prunes from a laxative into a desirable snack.
While Pick avoids the pitfalls of false equivalence, he squints hard at the self-congratulatory designation of “the free world”. Telling the story of the American soldiers who, “turned” after being captured in Korea, stayed in China rather than come home, he quotes one of them, Clarence Adams, who later said: “I might not have known what China was really like before going there, but I certainly knew what life was like for blacks in America.”
Pick tells us that one of the things that inspired the book was his memory of wondering, in the mid-1980s, why the FTSE 100 had begun to appear “an incontrovertible barometer of collective health... fed to us with the same sense of inevitability as the weather reports”. He stresses the need to “keep alive the prospects of protest and major reform, of change to how reality is orchestrated”. But far from selling us a one-way ticket to sunlit uplands, Pick says things can only get worse: irreversible global warming means “policies are needed aimed at practical mitigation, not some... blithe promise of endless, untrammelled ‘growth’”.
Dizzyingly fluent, more compendious than argumentative, pitched somewhere between media studies, political history and psychology, Brainwashed ultimately seems intended as an attempt at a kind of mental prepping for whatever lies ahead in decades to come: not so much “how to be right” as how to be upright, and a reminder that, in the matter of thinking for ourselves, cages come in all sizes and shapes.
• Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control by Daniel Pick is published by Profile/Wellcome Collection (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply