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Brainwashing (Charles Knowles/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Brainwashing (Charles Knowles/Getty Images/iStockphoto)


Is there any way we can really change your mind? Add to ...

Now relax, clear your mind and put on these headphones. We’re going to play you a tape. It’s quite harmless. All it says, over and over, is: “Collected Wisdom is the greatest, Collected Wisdom is …”

The question

Does brainwashing really work? asks Deborah Smith of St. Andrews, N.B. “If so, could a terrorist be converted into a pacifist?”

The answer

“The short answer is very simple. No, brainwashing doesn’t work – absolutely not,” says Karen White of Vanier College in Montreal, who teaches a course on the psychology of cults.

“The longer answer,” she says, “is that there are many absolutely normal ways we can be influenced by other people and by the situations we are in,” such as by pressure to conform to behavioural norms, encouragement of black-and-white thinking, and the enthusiasm created by a charismatic leader.

While these “can lead people to believe in or do some pretty strange things, … there’s nothing magical or extraordinary about them.”

There is a big component of individual co-operation with the “radical” changes we sometimes see, Dr. White writes. While people can’t have their free will hijacked, they can choose to give it up to someone who they want to believe has answers they are seeking.

That is more like a fraud, “where victims want to believe that Bernie can give them a 15-per-cent return on investment year after year, and close their eyes to contrary evidence and their own common sense.”

Even that, fortunately, tends to be fairly temporary for most, she writes, and no one can convince us of things that really do not align with our world view or values.

This is even true in situations such as prison camps, where the authorities have life-and-death powers and may use such measures as torture or starvation. “People in those situations may choose to look co-operative, but their minds are not changed in the medium or long term. Patty Hearst probably concluded that her kidnappers had a point, and the Stockholm syndrome does not change fundamental values.”

Maybe it’s a good thing we can’t turn terrorists into pacifists through brainwashing, she concludes, “because that means nobody can do the opposite, either.”

Further notice

In a follow-up to our recent item on whether the rising human population is increasing the Earth’s mass, Bev Zacharias of Saskatoon writes: “It is quite true, as your readers have pointed out, that the Earth has not, and cannot, increase in weight simply because of any specific increase in plant or animal biomass.

“However, the Earth is not quite a closed system. It gains and loses weight regularly. The atmospheric escape of gases and of radiation [into space] causes a loss of mass. Meanwhile, [incoming] cosmic dust, meteorites, comet residue etc. cause a gain in mass (perhaps 40 tons per day in some estimates).”

Help wanted

Marco Balestrin of St. Marys, Ont., often reads about how fast cars can accelerate. Why, he asks, is this usually stated as zero to 100 kilometres an hour or zero to 60 miles an hour?

“Whenever hurricanes threaten the southern United States, we see pictures of people buying plywood and nailing sheets of it to their window frames,” writes Julie Beddoes of Toronto. “Why aren’t houses there constructed with external shutters that can be locked when storms threaten?”

How do TV and radio stations know the exact numbers of people watching or listening to programs? Karen Quinton of Toronto wants to know.

Let’s hear from you: If you have the answer to one of these questions (or a question of your own) send an e-mail to wisdom@globeandmail.com. Please include your location and a daytime phone number.

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