Captive Brains: Electroshock for Mind Control

A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) document dated 3 December 1951 described the use of subconvulsive electroshock as having the effect of “making a man talk.” An unnamed psychiatrist quoted in the CIA document stated that the lower setting of the device “produced in the individual excruciating pain and that the individual would be quite willing to give information if threatened with the use of this machine.”  The psychiatrist called this a “third degree” method. [1]

This same CIA document stated: “… [blacked out name] is… an authority on electric shock. He is a professor at the [blacked out] and, in addition, is a psychiatrist of considerable note….[He] is, in addition, a fully cleared Agency consultant.” [2]

In the same document, the psychiatrist tells the CIA that a person “can be reduced to the vegetable level” through the use of electroshock.  The document further states: “… [t]he standard electric-shock machine could be used in two ways.  One setting…produced the normal electric shock treatment (with convulsion) with amnesia after a number of treatments….  [T]he other or lower setting of the machine produced a different type of shock… when it was applied without convulsion, it had the effect of making a man talk….”

An accompanying document from the CIA MK-ULTRA [code name] file mentioned a planned assassination experiment to be done “on a prominent … [blacked out] politician or if necessary against an American official.” [3]

The psychiatrists working on this phase of mind control did not find it immoral to kill foreign officials or even members of our own government.

Leo. T Alexander, a psychiatrist who had witnessed the first ECT being given to an involuntary patient in Italy in 1938 and helped get electroshock then broadly used in the U.S. theorized in one of his earlier papers that with a certain amount of force one could push a person into the subterranean levels of the unconscious mind where one could manipulate the most base purposes of man.[4]

Another CIA document further exposed the use of these psychiatric techniques.  “Can an individual of [blacked out] descent be made to perform an act of attempted assassination involuntarily under the influence of Artichoke?” [code name][5]

In Canada, the CIA funded the reckless and dangerous experiments using electroshock that were conducted by Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal in the 1960s.  The methods he developed were called “depatterning” and “psychic driving.”  They destroyed a patient’s personality by repeated shocks up to forty times the intensity considered safe.  In the 1950s, the CIA paid Cameron $69,000 carry out this abuse as part of their mind control operation code named MK-ULTRA. Cameron was president of both the American Psychiatric Association and World Psychiatric Association.  He was also a supporter of the Nuremberg Code, specifically designed to outlaw experimentation and medical maltreatment.  He swore an oath to uphold the code’s tenets and to abide by the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm.”[6]

“Operation KnockouT,” as part of MK-ULTRA, had the goal of conducting “research to define mechanisms involved in the production of involuntary sleep and related unconscious states.” [7] Many of Cameron’s victims were placed into a drug-induced stupor sometimes lasting 90 days.  A continuous audio tape played negative messages to the patient 16 hours a day for several weeks.  Patients received a shock to their legs at the end of the message.  This was followed by two to five weeks of “positive” messages run the same way.  Politically “correct” messages, therefore, were implanted into the individual’s mind to be unwittingly acted upon in the future.

“De-patterning” was more violent.  The patient was awakened two or three times every day for multiple electroshock treatments using a Page-Russell ECT machine which made it possible to give five consecutive electric shocks in one treatment.  Dr. Mary Morrow, a psychiatrist assisting Dr. Cameron with his multiple shocking techniques, recalled how she was told to set the timer for six jolting shocks, the settings 20 times more powerful than she had ever seen used elsewhere.  “They would go from one shock into another with apnea. That breathing means their breathing would stop.  And it was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life before or since.”[8]

John Marks, author of The Search For The Manchurian Candidate, detailed: “The frequent screams of patients [usually women] that echoed through the hospital did not deter Cameron or most of his associates in their attempts to ‘depattern’ their subjects completely.  Other hospital patients report being petrified by the ‘sleep rooms,’ where the treatment took place, and they would usually creep down the opposite side of the hall.”

Mr. L. McDonald, a patient who was 23 when Cameron “depatterned him,” had this to say—twenty-five years after his treatment: “I have no memory of existing prior to 1963, and the recollections I do have of events of the following years until 1966 are fuzzy and few….  My parents were introduced to me… I did not know them.  [My five] children came back from wherever they had been living.  I had no idea who they were.”[9]

In March 1980, eight of Cameron’s former patients sued the CIA and Canadian government over Cameron’s mind control experiments. In October 1988, the CIA, represented by the U.S. Department of Justice, agreed to settle with the plaintiffs for $750,000 on the understanding they would never discuss the case in public again.

We are faced today with this legacy of horror.  That psychiatrists go to any length to protect electroshock only fuels questions about the real motives behind its use. In reviewing psychiatry’s role in the CIA mind control experiments that had the potential to erase memory and create someone willing to carry out harmful acts, consider the words of Gordon Thomas, author of Journey Into Madness–The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse:

  • The Agency doctors would continue committing serious breaches of their sacred oath; would still, if need be, use treatment methods that were reckless and dangerous to life…. the [CIA’s] director [would look] beyond the borders of the United States, to Canada, to Montreal, to Dr. Ewen Cameron. The psychiatrist and his unsuspecting Canadian patients would be the Agency’s flag bearers into the unknown world of influencing memory, changing personality, and disturbing the mind.”

The ECT device today delivers electricity with the force of creating a grand mal seizure and permanent memory loss. It begs the question why the flag bearers of this treatment today are not brought to account for the “serious breaches to their sacred oath” to “do no harm.”


[1] Document obtained via the Freedom of Information Act dealing with the Central Intelligence Agency’s MK-ULTRA program “Artichoke” dated 3 December 1951 entitled, “Artichoke”–… (blanked out).

[2] Document obtained via the Freedom of Information Act dealing with the Central Intelligence Agency’s MK-ULTRA program “Artichoke” dated 3 December 1951 entitled, “Artichoke”–… (blanked out).

[3] Document obtained via the Freedom of Information Act dealing with the Central Intelligence Agency’s MK-ULTRA program “Artichoke,” dated January 1954.

[4] Leo Alexander, M.D., “Sociopsychologic Structure of the SS, Psychiatric Report of the Nurnberg Trials for War Crimes,” Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, Vol 59, (1948):  p. 627.

[5] Document obtained via the Freedom of Information Act dealing with the Central Intelligence Agency’s MK-ULTRA program “Artichoke,” dated January 1954.

[6] Judy Foreman, “How CIA stole their minds,” Boston Sunday Globe, October 30, 1988.

[7] Deborah Cameron, ”The CIA link to deep-sleep research,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October 1988.

[8] Gordon Thomas, Journey into Madness, The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse, (New York: Bantam Books, 1989): p. 149.

[9] Bruce Wiseman, Psychiatry: The Ultimate Betrayal (Freedom Publishing, Los Angeles, 1995), p. 101.