Excerpt from The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Shock Doctrine

The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

by Naomi Klein

The Shock Doctrine
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 576 pages
    Jun 2008, 576 pages

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The CIA, of course, had other interests. Yet even in closed-door meetings like the one at the Ritz, it would have been impossible, so soon after revelations of Nazi torture had provoked worldwide revulsion, for the agency to openly admit it was interested in developing alternative interrogation methods of its own.

One of those at the Ritz meeting was Dr. Donald Hebb, director of psychology at McGill University. According to the declassified minutes, Hebb, trying to unlock the mystery of the GI confessions, speculated that the Communists might be manipulating prisoners by placing them in intensive isolation and blocking input to their senses. The intelligence chiefs were impressed, and three months later Hebb had a research grant from Canada’s Department of National Defense to conduct a series of classified sensory-deprivation experiments. Hebb paid a group of sixty-three McGill students $20 a day to be isolated in a room wearing dark goggles, headphones playing white noise and cardboard tubes covering their arms and hands so as to interfere with their sense of touch. For days, the students floated in a sea of nothingness, their eyes, ears and hands unable to orient them, living inside their increasingly vivid imaginations. To see whether this deprivation made them more susceptible to “brainwashing,” Hebb then began playing recordings of voices talking about the existence of ghosts or the dishonesty of science—ideas the students had said they found objectionable before the experiment began.

In a confidential report on Hebb’s findings, the Defense Research Board concluded that sensory deprivation clearly caused extreme confusion as well as hallucinations among the student test subjects and that “a significant temporary lowering of intellectual efficiency occurred during and immediately after the period of perceptual deprivation.” Furthermore, the students’ hunger for stimulation made them surprisingly receptive to the ideas expressed on the tapes, and indeed several developed an interest in the occult that lasted weeks after the experiment had come to an end. It was as if the confusion from sensory deprivation partially erased their minds, and then the sensory stimuli rewrote their patterns.

A copy of Hebb’s major study was sent to the CIA, as well as forty-one copies to the U.S. Navy and forty-two copies to the U.S. Army. The CIA also directly monitored the findings via one of Hebb’s student researchers, Maitland Baldwin, who, unbeknownst to Hebb, was reporting to the agency. This keen interest was hardly surprising: at the very least, Hebb was proving that intensive isolation interfered with the ability to think clearly and made people more open to suggestion—priceless ideas for any interrogator. Hebb eventually realized that there was enormous potential for his research to be used not just to protect captured soldiers from getting “brainwashed” but also as a kind of how-to manual for psychological torture. In the last interview he gave before his death in 1985, Hebb said, “It was clear when we made our report to the Defense Research Board that we were describing formidable interrogation techniques.”

Hebb’s report noted that four of the subjects “remarked spontaneously that being in the apparatus was a form of torture,” which meant that forcing them to stay past their threshold—two or three days—would clearly violate medical ethics. Aware of the limitations this placed on the experiment, Hebb wrote that more “clearcut results” were not available because “it is not possible to force subjects to spend 30 to 60 days in conditions of perceptual isolation.”

Not possible for Hebb, but it was perfectly possible for his McGill colleague and academic archrival, Dr. Ewen Cameron. (In a suspension of academic niceties, Hebb would later describe Cameron as “criminally stupid.”) Cameron had already convinced himself that violent destruction of the minds of his patients was the necessary first step on their journey to mental health and therefore not a violation of the Hippocratic oath. As for consent, his patients were at his mercy; the standard consent form endowed Cameron with absolute power to treat, up to and including performing full frontal lobotomies.

Copyright © 2007 by Naomi Klein All rights reserved.

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