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Brainwashing – Kathleen Taylor ****

Here we see a prime example of that rarest of species – a book that is both academic and readable. It makes no concessions on content, yet Kathleen Taylor writes well enough to keep the attention of the interested lay person.
The topic is a controversial one. “Does brainwashing even exist?” is a legitimate question – but you’ll have to read the book to find the answer.
This isn’t a “true crimes”, “revel in real human horror stories” type book, but the first section does contain a few rather unsettling case studies as it reveals examples that could be labelled brainwashing. Taylor is catholic in her coverage, though – as well as explicit attempts to brainwash by totalitarian military regimes you will find religious cults, advertising and even the apparently innocent activity of education.
The book is in three sections. The first examines the different activities that could be and/or are described as brainwashing, the second examines the brain itself, its surprising fluidity and the different activities and mechanisms that could be the subject of attempts at thought control, and the final section looks at the possible future developments in brainwashing, and whether it is possible to have strategies for resistance.
Few criticisms can be raised here. Surprisingly, one of these might be that Taylor is too scrupulously fair – so a lot of statements are bordered around by qualifications and “excepts” and “despites”, which is honest but breaks up the flow of a good read. It’s also a long book – only around 300 pages, but of tight-packed, smallish text – and for the lay reader she probably goes into too much detail on the workings of the brain. That’s really all that comes between this book and a five star rating.
One of the best things about reading Brainwashing is Taylor’s light touch with language – she really does write as if a real person is sharing with you something that fascinates her, and she knows you will be interested in too. It’s a delight. Also Taylor is quite happy to take on some heavyweights for their oversimplifying – you might even say brainwashing – approach in putting across a scientific message. So for example, she points out how Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore misinterpret the idea of faith by associating its dangers with religion, thus blundering into blaming religion for most of the world’s woes without considering how totally religion-free inter-human disasters from the Chinese cultural revolution to Nazi Germany have been even more destructive. Taylor isn’t supporting religion, but rather pointing out the over-dependence on simplistic views that is a common feature of brainwashing, and that is being incorrectly used to put down religion here – her standpoint should be obvious, but it takes guts to oppose names like Dawkins and Blackmore.
Altogether a thoughtful, insightful and thoroughly well-written book on a subject that is often mentioned but rarely understood.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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