The British Way in Brainwashing: Marcia Holmes in conversation with Rhodri Hayward

In the July issue of History of the Human Sciences, Marcia Holmes, a post-doctoral researcher with the Hidden Persuaders project at Birkbeck, University of London, used the 1965 film adaption of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File to demonstrate the close relationship between Cold War fantasies of mind control and the postwar understanding of the media. In her analysis, our familiar understanding of brainwashing as an irresistible form of domination is disrupted and she instead demonstrates how the spy drama which pits a hero against the mechanical forces of scientific control provided a new template through which audiences could re-conceive their relationship to modern media.  Against the idea of the passive and pliant observer, Holmes promotes the idea of the ‘cybernetic spectator’, who plays an active role in controlling the flow of information in order to reorganise their own personality and consciousness.  In this analysis, brainwashing moves beyond being a simple disciplinary mechanism to become a potential technology of the self.  Viewed from this perspective, brainwashing is less a legacy of Cold War struggles than a part of psychedelic revolution in which consciousness became a subject for personal exploration and transformation.  Part of the joy of Holmes account is that it connects the history of cold war human sciences to the flowering of the counterculture in the 1960s: a relationship that is only just beginning to receive the attention it deserves. Marcia Holmes is here in conversation with Rhodri Hayward, Reader in History at Queen Mary, University of London, and one of the Editors of HHS. The full paper is available open access here: 

Rhodri Hayward (RH): Thanks for speaking to us, Marcia. What first drew you to Deighton’s novel and the Ipcress File film?

Marcia Holmes (MH): I admit that I had never seen The Ipcress File (dir. Sidney Furie, 1965), or read Len Deighton’s 1962 novel, until I began researching films that depict brainwashing. Perhaps this is because I’m an American and only recently transplanted to the UK. The film is well-loved by British film critics and has a strong following in Britain, but I find that many of my American colleagues have not heard of The Ipcress File. This is a shame, because it is a very enjoyable film! And for historians of science, I think The Ipcress File offers much to discuss on the intersection between Cold War politics, science, and popular culture.

This original trailer for The Ipcress File (Furie, 1965) includes some images from the film’s brainwashing sequence. A re-mastered version of the film was released on DVD by Network in 2006 (Video source: YouTube.

When I first watched The Ipcress File, I was intrigued by how familiar I found the film’s treatment of brainwashing – its use of flashing lights and beating sounds to create a highly cinematic rendition of mind manipulation – and yet how different this imagery was to earlier, 1950s accounts of brainwashing. In the 1950s, reports (and even fictional stories) of brainwashing endeavoured to describe the real methods of indoctrination and interrogation used by communist cadres. Essentially, these methods involved ‘softening up’ a prisoner through starvation, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement within a featureless cell. Once the prisoner was debilitated physically and psychologically, he would be subjected to a tedious process of indoctrination or interrogation that he would be unable to resist. In the 1950s there was also speculation about whether communists used drugs or hypnosis to weaken a prisoner’s resistance; but the tenor of this speculation was to determine what methods were actually being used, not to spin fictions for the sake of entertainment.

Meanwhile, The Ipcress File knowingly offers us fantastical science fiction in how it imagines the final stage of brainwashing: not as indoctrination or interrogation per se, but as carefully calibrated visual and auditory stimulation that can reprogramme a victim’s memories, even the brain itself. The centerpiece of the film’s brainwashing process is not the featureless prison cell, but rather the ‘programming box’, a person-sized cube that completely surrounds a victim with sounds and images. This fanciful reimagining of brainwashing seems to follow in the footsteps of The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film that many historians consider iconic in how it depicts Cold War cultural anxieties. However, I think The Manchurian Candidate differs significantly from The Ipcress File in that Frankenheimer’s film never actually shows techniques or processes of brainwashing, only its after-the-fact effects on a victim’s consciousness.


Dr. Yen Lo (played by Khigh Dheigh) the communist brainwasher of The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer, 1962). In a famous scene, Dr. Yen Lo describes the scientific basis of brainwashing and demonstrates brainwashing’s effects on captured American soldiers. Arguably, the film’s vagueness about specific techniques of brainwashing makes it easier for audiences to suspend their disbelief about whether brainwashing can truly reprogram minds (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

For me, The Ipcress File film raises the question of how and when the imagery of flashing lights and rhythmic sounds became a trope of brainwashing. I read Len Deighton’s novel to see if the idea for the programming box had come from Deighton. I was surprised to find that Deighton’s description of brainwashing was much more in keeping with 1950s accounts. In particular, he was inspired by William Sargant’s theory of brainwashing as a form of combat neurosis. Indeed, the ‘IPCRESS’ acronym that Deighton invents refers to the softening up process as Sargant might describe it: Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS. As I investigated further, I found that it was The Ipcress File filmmakers who sought out new ways of depicting brainwashing, and that they were guided by what would be spectacular for 1960s cinema goers as well as by emerging scientific theories about the programmability of minds and brains.

RH: You locate the film within a long history of cinema’s fascination with suggestion and hypnosis – what is different about this film?

MH: In a way, The Ipcress File’s depiction of brainwashing as the manipulation of the senses, consciousness, and attention harks back to earlier films about hypnosis, such as Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920). Film scholars like Raymond Bellour have theorized how these earlier films not only depicted hypnosis but also explored cinema’s own hypnotic effects on audiences. Their directors endeavoured to capture and control viewers’ attention, and heighten the sense of peril, through innovative use of close-up shots, spotlighting, and surreal scenery.

But The Ipcress File differs from these early films in how it explicitly references the power of cinema on the mind. Audiences can see quite clearly that the IPCRESS process is achieved with the help of film projectors that cast moving, colored lights onto the screen-like walls of the programming box. Audiences also see these projected images, and hear the eerie IPCRESS noise, as the film’s protagonist experiences them: as a diegetic film that plays on their own cinema screen before them.

The villains look on as the programming box begins to be hoisted in the air. On the left-hand side of this still image, a film projector can be seen attached to the outside of the programming box by a metal arm. Copyright for this image is owned by StudioCanal; it is reproduced here for the purposes of criticism only.

In this frame, the programming box is lit with an abstract image that appears to move rhythmically in and out of focus. To the left of the box is the shadow of a film projector, implying that the abstract image is being projected from the outside of the box. Copyright for this image is owned by StudioCanal; it is reproduced here for the purposes of criticism only.

Inside the box, the victim Harry Palmer (played by Michael Caine) reacts to the sensory onslaught with intense discomfort. He tries to resist the lights and sounds around him by focusing on physical pain, gripping a bent metal nail in his hand until his palm bleeds. Copyright for this image is owned by StudioCanal; it is reproduced here for the purposes of criticism only.

This kind of overt reference to film’s psychological effects appears in several brainwashing films. For instance, The Manchurian Candidate is partly a meditation on the influence of television on American politics; and A Clockwork Orange (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1970) portrays a very effective form of aversion therapy that utilizes film. The Ipcress File is unique, however, in how it emphasizes the structural aspects of film: how light projected through images appearing at a certain frequency can create the illusion of movement, and other effects on consciousness. This is significant because, as I explain in my paper, The Ipcress File was made in a period when many artists, and indeed some scientists, were interested in how the structural elements of film affect spectators’ brains and mental experience. The challenge for historians posed by The Ipcress File, I believe, is to account for the changing cinematic imagery of brainwashing not only with reference to specific filmmakers’ technical innovations and artistic preoccupations, but also with how such innovations and preoccupations may have been in conversation with contemporaneous developments in art, science, and media technologies – as, indeed, historians have done for earlier films about hypnosis.

RH: So could I pick up on that point and ask you to say a bit more about the relationship between particular post-war technologies and new understandings of selfhood that emerge in the 1950s and 60s?

MH: There’s an obvious genealogy that The Ipcress File invokes: popular fears and fantasies of mass media as capable of influencing, even coercing, audiences’ beliefs and behavior. During the Second World War, the Allies were intrigued by film and radio’s power to transmit propaganda, and this fascination continued in the postwar period with the advent of commercial television and televisual advertising. In the late 1950s, there’s a brief but memorable moment when Americans and Britons worried about ‘subliminal advertising’. Even though the possibility of subliminal influence was quickly and notoriously debunked, this didn’t stop moviemakers (of the B- and C-level variety) from creating ‘psycho-rama’ films that purported to embed subliminal messages that would enhance moviegoers’ sensations. Of course, psycho-rama films didn’t succeed in thrilling general audiences, and only a few were produced. But there were other 1950s’ cinematic experiments in manipulating audiences’ sensory experience – such as Cinerama and Circarama – that were relatively more successful and long-lasting. Intriguingly, when The Ipcress File first opened in British and American theaters, critics compared its brainwashing sequence to a demented form of Cinerama or Circarama. Their implication, I believe, is that the film’s depiction of brainwashing was consciously spectacular, and rather gimmicky.

How Cinerama is projected.gif

First exhibited in 1952, ‘Cinerama’ theaters had a curved cinema screen to give film audiences a more immersive experience. Three projectors were needed to cover the screen in a single image. ‘Circarama’ (later known as Circle-Vision 360) was invented by Walt Disney Studios in the 1950s, and involved nine screens aligned in a circle around the audience, and nine film projectors at the centre of the circle. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, as I mentioned before, The Ipcress File was made in a period when avant-garde artists and scientists were interested in how the structural elements of film affect spectators’ brains and mental experience. This suggests another lineage that I believe is important to understanding The Ipcress File’s imagery for brainwashing, and why this imagery is historically significant. The Ipcress File premiered in 1965, at roughly the same time that the 1960s counterculture – with its “happenings” and psychedelic art – became recognized by mainstream Americans and Britons. And so, for some art historians, The Ipcress File’s programming box evokes the immersive, multimedia exhibitions of Stan Vanderbeek and USCO, and Tony Conrad’s experimental film The Flicker (1966-67).

In September 1966, LIFE Magazine featured the psychedelic art of USCO. Image source: Google Books LIFE archive, from which the full issue can also be accessed.

In my paper, I argue that this is a case of correlation, not causation. It just so happens that The Ipcress File’s filmmakers were responding to the same innovations in art, science and media technology that were also inspiring countercultural artists’ explorations of film and other media. For example, in my article I explain how The Ipcress File’s depiction of brainwashing references Grey Walter’s neuropsychological experiments on the effect of stroboscopic light on brainwaves. The film even shows an EEG plotter as part of the Ipcress apparatus, and the film’s villain explains that the programming box works in synchrony with the “rhythm of brainwaves.” As many historians have previously noted, Grey Walter’s scientific experiments also influenced Tony Conrad’s Flicker film, as well as the design of a distinctive artefact of 1960s’ counterculture, Bryon Gysin and Ian Sommerville’s rotating stroboscope, the ‘dreamachine’. While Flicker and the dreamachine apply Walter’s ideas to the liberating exploration of consciousness, The Ipcress File appropriates Walter’s same ideas in a dark vision of mind control.

RH: Yes I guess you’re referring to John Geiger and Nik Sheehan’s work which I’m a fan of.  It seems your work shares their aim of presenting a counter cultural history of the cold war which shows how control technologies could be subverted.

MH: Yes. One of the interesting challenges in researching the Cold War history of ‘brainwashing’ – whether you focus on the scientific research that it inspired, or its evolution as a cultural imaginary – is accounting for how certain technologies, techniques, and concepts can shift in meaning from negative to positive, from coercive to liberatory. There are well known examples, such as how the CIA initially encouraged scientific research on LSD as a potential truth serum, but the drug proved more effective as a means of ‘expanding consciousness’ than of interrogation, and it became emblematic of the 1960s counterculture as well as of brainwashing. A similar story can be told for the flotation tanks that were used in sensory deprivation experiments. In the Hidden Persuaders project, we have been investigating these developments as more than just the creative innovations of a psychedelic counterculture. We probe how these shifts have been informed by changing popular and scientific assumptions about human subjecthood – not only cybernetic models of mind, but psychoanalytic, behavioristic, and neuropsychological models. We consider the evolving cultural and intellectual meanings of brainwashing to be part of a longer history of how concepts of psychological coercion and personal freedom have changed over time.

In my paper, I discuss how the technology of immersive multimedia begins as a mode of entertainment and artistic expression, and then later becomes associated with brainwashing. It’s a rare example of a seemingly positive and liberatory technology becoming rebranded as potentially negative and coercive. There are some excellent histories of the evolution of immersive multimedia technology by scholars like Beatriz Colomina and Oliver Grau. Fred Turner, in his recent book The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties, offers a particularly convincing and helpful genealogy of postwar artists’ experiments with multimedia environments, a phenomenon that he dubs ‘the democratic surround’ because of artists’ utopian, liberal democratic motivations. Turner shows how the counterculture’s seemingly revolutionary installations of psychedelic art – like Vanderbeek’s Moviedrome and the USCO exhibitions – had important precursors in more mainstream exhibitions of the 1950s and early ‘60s, such as Ray and Charles Eames’ multiscreen films, and that these precursors in turn drew on earlier artistic explorations of media’s effect on the mind. He also suggests how cybernetic philosophy was variously interpreted by different artists, encouraging their belief that multi-image, multi-sound-source environments would have a beneficial, psychologically-freeing effect on spectators.

In researching the making of The Ipcress File, I learned that the movie’s producer Harry Saltzman conceived the Ipcress programming box after reading about a multimedia surround in LIFE Magazine, the ‘Knowledge Box’ that was designed by Ken Isaacs. Isaacs was a contemporary of Ray and Charles Eames, both chronologically and in his aims and inspirations. He considered his Knowledge Box as a tool of progressive education, one that took advantage of the human mind’s ability to learn from sheer exposure to information. Meanwhile, Harry Saltzman was not alone in perceiving the Knowledge Box as a potentially coercive technology – some journalists at the time also suggested it could be used for brainwashing – but as a film producer Saltzman was well placed to bring this re-interpretation of multimedia surrounds to general audiences.

Ken Isaacs’ Knowledge Box, as featured in LIFE Magazine, 14 September 1962.  Image source: Google Books LIFE archive, where there are more images of the Knowledge Box. It is interesting to compare the Knowledge Box with Ken Adam’s set design for the Ipcress programming box. Ken Adam’s sketches, and a brief clip from The Ipcress File that shows the programming box in action, can be found on the Deutsche Kinemathek website:

RH: Yes!  I guess it’s this tension around the use of coercive technologies as tools for self-mastery or psychedelic liberation that grounds your idea of the cybernetic spectator.  Could you say a little more about that?

MH: The ‘cybernetic spectator’ is my own construct for understanding the relationship between developments in cinema and television, the mind sciences, and cultural fantasies of mind control during the 1960s. It is a model of mind, a way of making sense of human subjectivity, that informed certain developments in these domains and, at times, interconnected them. I’m inspired by the work of Jonathan Crary, who argues that there is a history to our ways of perceiving, and that this history is reflected in artistic media, the human sciences, and cultural anxieties about human subjectivity. My concept of the ‘cybernetic spectator’ comes from trying to envision what Crary’s historiography might look like in the 1960s when cybernetic concepts and philosophy were rewriting many assumptions about how the mind works, not only for scientists but also for artists, media theorists, and sometimes even general audiences.

But, admittedly, cybernetics itself is tricky to define, especially for the 1960s when cybernetics’ forefathers like Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and Warren McCulloch had long given up on keeping the field definitionally pure. Arguably, a strictly historicist reading of cybernetics’ originary ideas, such as what Peter Galison offers in his seminal article on cybernetics’ ‘enemy ontology,’ doesn’t help us understand the cultural and intellectual efflorescence of cybernetic concepts in the 1960s. So, scholars like Andrew Pickering and N. Katherine Hayles have advocated for a long-historical view of cybernetics as a science of complexity with a deep but lively influence on a wide variety of endeavors – not only engineering and computing, but also the psychological automata of Ross Ashby and Grey Walter, the science fiction of Philip K. Dick, the anthropological theories of Gregory Bateson, and the management philosophy of Stafford Beer. And as I noted before, Fred Turner has reminded us of the influence that cybernetic theory, and cybernetics-inspired commentators such as Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, had on mid-century avant-garde artists. These scholarly accounts, Pickering’s and Turner’s especially, emphasize how utopian ideals routinely accompanied discussions and appropriations of cybernetic thinking in the 1960s. That is, cybernetic ideas may be value-neutral in and of themselves, or even reflect the values of the military-industrial complex, and yet for many sixties’ thinkers cybernetic philosophy nevertheless signalled a future technotopia where a free flow of information – through various forms of media! –  would liberate individual thought and behaviour. They believed that cybernetic ideas and technologies might even remake society to be more democratic and more enlightened.

Yet, as contemporaneous debates about brainwashing can attest, there were also moments during the 1960s that brought into focus the downsides, even the threat, of the cybernetic interpretation of mind and society. For example, when Marshall McLuhan gave an interview to Playboy Magazine in 1969, he prophesied a future where a worldwide media network would keep the peace within nations by responding to unrest with pacifying messages. McLuhan’s interviewer asked whether this was tantamount to brainwashing. McLuhan acknowledges the possibility, apparently with some consternation, as he argues that such an interpretation misses his point that such a network would respond to the needs and desires of its audience. The Ipcress File is another moment that clarifies the negative potential of the cybernetic spectator interpretation of mind: even though The Ipcress File movie is itself a harmless entertainment, its depiction of the programming box insinuates that the mind is vulnerable to film’s ability to stimulate the senses – that multimedia surrounds can be a technique of brainwashing.

RH: Given that we now, in our iphone addled age, live in a media-saturated environment, do you think this cybernetic model of mind and media still holds good?

MH: That is a challenging question, and a very important one considering that we live in an age of heightened political extremism. Because my own thoughts on this are constantly evolving, I’ll just sketch a couple of points that I’ve been considering lately. It does seem like we still hold many of the concerns, and many of the utopian visions, that surrounded 1960s’ cybernetic interpretations of mind and media. They seem to be especially germane to debates about ‘information bubbles’ and the cloistering effects of internet-based media. I am struck by how we often rely on spatial metaphors – concepts akin to the multimedia surround – to imagine how the internet can envelop a person with messages, with the result of radicalizing her or encouraging her belief in conspiracy theories. The solution to such a predicament is often presented in spatial terms, e.g., to ‘get out’ of one information bubble by exposing oneself to contrary information, or to leave the internet behind altogether and “enter the real world.”

And yet, unlike in the 1960s, we now have a powerful discourse on trauma, one centered around the diagnosis of PTSD, that also shapes how we imagine the effects of media on the mind and the possibilities for mental manipulation. We now understand that certain messages – usually depictions of horrific physical and/or sexual violence – can ‘trigger’ old traumas or create new, traumatic memories. To put it more generally, psychotherapeutic models of the mind, whether they are psychoanalytic, cognitive-behavioral, or otherwise, are also influential for how we imagine the effects of media on the mind, and the possibilities of mental infiltration and coercion. Cybernetic philosophy is arguably not fit for the purpose of distinguishing between psychologically harmful or beneficial messages; it is famously agnostic about the semantic content of information.  So perhaps we have moved on from the ‘cybernetic spectator’ as a prevailing model of mind and media influence, even though cybernetics’ signature technology, the Internet, dominates how we access and interpret media.

So do you think psychoanalysis provides the wellspring for a new morality that cybernetics failed to provide? 

This is an issue that we discuss in the Hidden Persuaders project. I think that psychoanalysis might be able to provide such a wellspring; it has certainly shaped our cultural discourse on trauma to be empathetic, if not moralistic (the work of Robert Jay Lifton with Vietnam veterans comes to mind). But I am not convinced that, in current practice, psychoanalytic theory serves this purpose.

I’d certainly agree with that.  Thank you so much Marcia!

Marcia Holmes is a post-doctoral researcher with the Hidden Persuaders project at Birkbeck, University of London. She is currently researching the American and British militaries’ Cold War-era community of psychological researchers, tracing how political, bureaucratic and intellectual fault lines influenced service psychologists’ assessments of brainwashing.

Rhodri Hayward is Reader in History at Queen Mary , University of London, and one of the Editors of HHS.  His most recent book, The Transformation of the Psyche in British Primary Care, was published by Bloomsbury in 2014.