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Research Spotlight: Prof Daniel Pick

30 Jun, 2014

Professor Daniel PickProfessor Daniel Pick holds a senior investigator award from the Wellcome Trust and is professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is also a qualified psychoanalyst and Fellow of the British Psychoanalytical Society. Prof Pick combines these interests in his research of the history of psychoanalysis, psychology and psychiatry, currently taking a special interest in ‘brainwashing’. We asked him to tell us more about this emotive topic…

What are you working on?

I’m about to start a new project involving a number of other researchers that explores the history of ideas about brainwashing, mind control and hidden persuasion as these developed in Britain, the United States and various other states across the post-war period. I want to investigate how and why ‘brainwashing’ debates erupted into public consciousness during the Cold War and look at where such practices and cultural fears of ‘hidden persuasion’ led.

Fears about the unconscious power one person can exert over another are of course much older, but visions of brainwashing after 1950 gained extraordinary traction in popular culture, the human sciences and political thought.

I think the word ‘brainwash’ expresses a host of fears, old and new, about the susceptibility of mind to influence, but also the particular conditions of modern life, politics, commerce, and the role of the psychological sciences themselves.

Why is your work important?

One thing that concerns me in particular and that I think is important here is the contribution (real and imagined) that the clinical professions played in this history. I am interested to then investigate how the reputation and role of therapeutic disciplines was affected by fears of brainwashing.

It is clear that many branches of the human sciences were deployed in military and intelligence work during the Cold War. Some clinicians also produced influential warnings about the dangers of hidden persuasion in the treatment of POWs, not to mention in the world of advertising and political propaganda. Psychoanalysis and psychiatry seems to me to be at the eye of this storm in the post-war period.

At worst, the talking cure perhaps was perverted (along with other ‘psy’ professions) into a normative discipline, a mode of adaptation, or even, in extremis, an adjunct of social control or coercion. But all of this admittedly is far too broad brush as a characterisation. One needs to differentiate carefully between various approaches, to look at particular controversies, show what was done in the name of certain disciplines, in given times and places, often in ways far removed from the original, radical spirit of the discipline’s pioneers.

To hear about the role that some doctors and some psychologists have played in the so-called War on Terror, at Guantanamo and other camps, invites not only extreme concern and outrage (well portrayed in the recent documentary film, Doctors of the Dark Side), but also raises questions about these multiple earlier histories too.

V0011947 A psychiatrist with intense, bulging eyes. Colour process prWe might well ask: how did we get to here?  In the period in which the Allies fought against Nazi Germany, and across the Cold War, psychiatrists, amongst other clinicians, played a variety of significant roles in co-operation with government agencies of diverse kinds. For instance providing expertise on interrogation, propaganda, and ‘re-education’.

I am concerned to see what can be learned from this history – and the history of that history – to map how particular techniques could be used to shape and influence human desires, and shape minds, for good or ill, and also to look at the multiple cultural reverberations of this theme, for instance in Hollywood.

The work I will be leading has several strands, with different colleagues pooling their expertise; it ranges from exploring the experiences, and cultural representation of PoWs in the Korean War and Vietnam War (amongst others) to the idea of psywarfare in defeating ‘totalitarianism’. It draws upon memoirs of key participants, unearths forgotten archives, and analyses a host of different psychological and political fears.

We want to consider the rich history of debate on this topic, in order to ask what brainwashing fears may teach us about freedom and coercion in therapeutic encounters, education, judicial processes and prison systems.

This work bears upon contemporary policy discussion of mental health, the rights of PoWs, and the fate of prisoners of conscience, and considers new technologies of interrogation, and propaganda.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I intend this collective work to lead not just to academic publications, but to several different kinds of writing, as well as a short film, an exhibition, website, some radio broadcasts, events, and more.

I hope that by pooling the research, making connections, bringing people into dialogue, and putting together topics that are often considered discretely (if at all) there will be real gains.

I have been struck already by the enormous potential there is to engage clinicians, historians, social scientists, journalists, and others in a large and shared public conversation about these themes. Whatever anyone might say critically or skeptically about the ambition of such a project, nobody I think would regard the underlying issues as trivial, or anything less than timely.

Daniel Pick - The Pursuit of the Nazi MindHow did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

In an earlier project, for which I also received a Wellcome grant, I studied clinical archives of the 1930s and 40s, on both sides of the Atlantic, mapping contributions of psychoanalysis to the Allied struggle against Nazism. The effective terminus of that core, documentary research was the Nuremberg trials. This work brought to my attention a quite distinct and in fact much larger set of questions regarding abuses of psy science across and beyond the Cold War.

How has Wellcome funding helped you with your research and career?

I have previously had Wellcome Fellowships on two occasions. These have helped me greatly in my research, mainly by freeing up time to devote to the work. I also regularly use the Wellcome Library and archives, and have attended many events at Wellcome over the years. I have badgered many of the librarians, archivists and other staff there for advice.

Some years ago I had Wellcome support to explore the history of debates on fever and malaria in nineteenth-century Italy. This, in part, led to my book Rome or Death (2005). More recently, I was awarded Wellcome funding for my enquiry into the history of psychoanalytic investigations of fascism and Nazism, which formed the basis of my book The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind  (2012) as well as a website, conferences and other publications and activities.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

I have so often been asked questions such as ‘Isn’t Freud defunct?’ that I rather dread hearing myself repeat my own responses as to why I disagree. Nor do I particularly relish it when people, on hearing I am an analyst, at a party, might say, ‘ah well can you analyse this dream I had last night?’ As Freud showed you need a dreamer not just a dream – associations, a whole process of analytic work – so reading off the ‘meaning’ of a dream from its casual iteration is really not what analysis can or should ever claim to do. Not that it stopped all of Freud’s followers from trying – in the early days they were often busy conducting such interpretations of one another’s unconscious motives on the hoof. It seems to me, however, that Freud’s own later advice that it is best to try and eschew ‘wild analysis’ was rather good advice.

Sometimes people misunderstand the nature of my interest and expertise, assuming that I am setting myself up as some kind of pundit who could explain the ultimate cause, via psychoanalysis, of social conflicts, wars and the rest.

L0015371 Portrait of S. Freud in 1891On occasion I have found this irksome, as well as, often enough, a bit absurd. Admittedly, some analysts, even Freud, great polymath that he was, were at times incautious about applying analysis, or claiming too much for it.

Nonetheless, I think psychoanalysis is an immense and indispensable resource, not only in various therapeutic contexts, but also as a body of knowledge about mind, groups, and social relationships. But it cannot replace history, economics, anthropology, and the rest. It needs to be part of a repertoire, not the privileged ‘key to all mythologies’.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I am usually introduced as a psychoanalyst and historian, I admit this is always a surprise to me, even if it may not be to you, to have got here, to work in both those professions, not least perhaps a curious outcome because I don’t have a degree in History. Literature was where my university life started and I had no conscious intention of seeking to become an analyst or historian at that stage.

What keeps you awake at night?

Amongst other things, climate change and dogs barking.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

I’m not sure about the best advice I’ve ever been given, but I do recall, during my analytic training, that one of my supervisors, Edna O’Shaughnessy, pointed out that to be any good at this work you have to be willing to be hated.

Now that you ask the question, I also recall a word of advice I was given when I became a lecturer. This was offered by a former academic mentor of mine, Tony Tanner, in Cambridge, not to be too in awe of the professors, to try not to overdo deference, without being rude… he said something about it being a mistake to imagine anyone however senior (he was probably borrowing from Lacan), ‘the subjects supposed to know’. He said of his professorial colleagues that the real frauds were the ones who felt fully entitled to occupy their positions.

I think he also once recommended to me that I should never, however, underestimate how thin-skinned, anxious for reassurance even the most senior colleague is likely to be deep down. I suppose the advice to try and tolerate the position of being hated as clinician has to be countered (this is the other side of the same coin) by the recognition that we want to be loved, and often more so than we consciously know.

The chain-reaction question, set by our previously spotlighted researcher, Dr Molly Crockett, is: What has been the most unexpected or surprising finding to come out of your research?

In the research that led to my first book, Faces of Degeneration, I was rather amazed to discover the sheer extent of concern, in the nineteenth century, with the flip side of evolution – the fear that we, or at least some people, could  ‘degenerate’, making them biologically prone to commit crime.

Some argued that criminals were simply born not made. Arguments for curbing the fertility of the so-called ‘residuum’, or the ‘unfit’ became prevalent. Given that Darwin was such a remarkably probing figure and to me, a Victorian intellectual hero, it came as a surprise to me to realise how far he and many of his associates were drawn towards the language and theory of degeneracy, one that we would tend now to consider so obviously dubious and sinister.

More recently I have been surprised, as my answers above already suggest, at the extent to which important figures within the psychoanalytical profession were drawn, for better or for worse, into applied work, caught up in major political struggles, policy questions, even sometimes work directly for agencies of the state.

Perhaps one point of origin of this kind of involvement was the contribution made by Freud and his associates to debates about ‘shellshock’ during the Great War. Analysis was never, for Freud, just a matter of seeing individual patients, but he might have been surprised too at some of the work undertaken in his name, in the context of anti-fascism, then of world war, and thereafter of Cold War.

Find out more about Daniel Pick and his publications here and listen to his radio documentaries  The psychiatrist and Rudolph Hess’, Witness, BBC World Service (from 9th May 2012) and  ‘The Roots of Extremism’, BBC Radio 4 (March 2014). He was the editor of ‘The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind’, archive, Birkbeck College  and presented on  ‘The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind’, How to Change the World? at the Nexus Conference in December 2012. 

Image credits: The psychoanalyst by Carl Josef and Portrait of Freud, both from Wellcome Library, London

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