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U.S. Government Mind Control Experiments

Hypnosis, LSD, and the Unabomber.

Project MKULTRA was the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) mind control program that used LSD and hypnosis techniques to brainwash individuals. Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, was a participant in one of Henry Murray’s experiments at Harvard where Murray’s team bullied, harassed, and psychologically broke down participants. Henry Murray had previously worked for the CIA’s predecessor and may have been funded by the clandestine MKULTRA program.

A History of Ethic Breeches

Science has had its share of ethical breaches, often with populations that are vulnerable to exploitation (Davis, 2006). From 1932-1972, the Tuskegee Syphilis study recruited black men for syphilis studies (Amdur, 2011). Children in mental hospitals have been infected with hepatitis (Willowbrook Hepatitis studies of the 1950s), exposed to radioactive materials (Davis, 2006), and patients with compromised immune systems have been injected with live cancer cells (Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital Studies of the 1960s, Amdur, 2011). Reaction to incidents of this type led to the modern Institutional Review Board System, based on the principles of the 1974 Belmont Report (Amdur & Bankert, 2011; Bankert & Amdur, 2006).

The U.S. Government’s Secret Behavioral Research

The CIA reacted to reports of chemicals used for interrogations and brainwashing in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in the 1940s and 1950s. In response to this national security threat, they developed a series of programs including MKULTRA (Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Human Resources, 1977). From 1953-1964, the U.S. government conducted behavioral modification research on people in which they tested, among other things, the utility of hypnosis and LSD for clandestine purposes. (CBS Network, 1984; CIA, 1977; Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Human Resources, 1977).

Hypnosis is an attention-focusing, consciousness-related procedure that consists of an induction stage and a suggestion stage (Kassin, 2004). In the induction stage, a person’s attention becomes hyperfocused. In the suggestion stage, a person is open to suggestions made by the hypnotist. Hypnosis is sometimes used to treat phobias, stress, and pain (Zimbardo, Johnson, & Weber, 2006). Evidence shows that those who are hypnotized will not comply with suggestions against their will (Wade & Tavris, 2000).

Individuals differ in their susceptibility to hypnosis (Kirsch & Braffman, 2001). Solomon Asch captured a historical context of hypnosis with a discussion of how interest in hypnosis had been the catalyst for social psychology’s empirical research on more general suggestibility (Asch, 1952). The CIA’s PROJECT ARTICHOKE used sodium pentothal and hypnosis on participants in search of more effective interrogation techniques (Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, 1976).

The CIA’s MKULTRA program consisted of 162 secret CIA-backed projects at 80 institutions with 185 researchers (Eschner, 2017). Most of the records of the program were destroyed on the orders of CIA Director Richard Helms in 1973, but some that were missed in the destruction were found in 1977 (Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Human Resources, 1977). CIA Chemist Sidney Gottleib ran the MKULTRA program (Gross, 2019). The program was conducted specifically to have a structured way to finance the behavioral research related to brainwashing without drawing negative public attention or ethical questions from the mainstream scientific community. The studies examined brainwashing and interrogations and included field applications after laboratory studies.

What were some of these studies like? One theme is that many were devoid of informed consent and appropriate ethical oversight. Ewen Cameron attempted to erase memories by repeated electro-shock treatments, forcing months of drug-induced sleep, and repeatedly administering LSD to his patients in Montreal (Kassam, 2018). The drug commonly known as LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), is a serotonin agonist that creates distorted visual perceptions (Carlson, 2010). Many of these patients came to the clinic to be treated for moderate depression and instead were subjected to months of horrific exploitation.

As part of the MKULTRA program, a CIA Agent hired prostitutes to slip LSD into people’s drinks and noted what happened through a two-way mirror (Zetter, 2010). In 1953, Dr. Frank Olson was given LSD by CIA agents without his knowledge and died as a result (Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Human Resources, 1977). CIA Agents administered LSD to other citizens they met at bars and elsewhere. The agents invited the citizens to “safehouses” in San Francisco and New York City where they were administered the drugs without consent.

Prisoners, terminally ill cancer patients, and American soldiers were also used for some of the studies, and some proposed studies sought to produce brain concussions with sound waves. Much of the research targeted the development of a “truth serum” that would facilitate compliance in an interrogation (Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Human Resources, 1977).

The National Institute of Mental Health funded some of the studies conducted on drug-addicted prisoners. LSD was administered to over 1,100 soldiers in the U.S. Army. (Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Human Resources, 1977.) According to the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1976), “These experimental programs originally included testing of drugs involving witting human subjects, and culminated in tests using unwitting, non-volunteer human subjects. These tests were designed to determine the potential effects of chemical or biological agents when used operationally against individuals unaware that they had received a drug” (p. 385).

Harvard’s Unabomber

Another ethically problematic study was conducted by Henry A. Murray. Murray was a professor at Harvard University and had worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the CIA) during World War II. He wrote “Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler,” which was the psychological analysis of Hitler that was used by the military. During this time, he also helped develop tests to screen soldiers, conducted tests on brainwashing, and determined how well soldiers could withstand interrogations. The interrogation studies included intense mock interrogations on soldiers as part of assessing the limits of their psychological breaking points (Chase, 2000). From 1959-1962, Murray conducted such interrogation studies on Harvard undergraduates (Chase, 2000). Theodore Kaczynski, who later became known as The Unabomber, was one of the 22 participants in Murray’s study, subjected to several years of interrogations designed to psychologically break the young man.


It is no wonder that Richard Condon’s 1959 book, The Manchurian Candidate, captured so much attention during the tail end of the MKULTRA program. A stream of other movies shortly after the 1977 Senate hearings touched on many citizen’s fears of government psychological abuse (e.g., The Secret of NIMH in 1982 and Project X in 1987). Lingering fears of hypnotic exploitation are found in characters like the Screenslaver in Incredibles 2 from 2018. An unethical study’s negative impact on the public perception of science is enduring.


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Eschner, K. (2017, April 13). What we know about the CIA’s midcentury mind-control project. Smithsonian Magazine (online).

Gross, T. (2019, September 9). The CIA’s secret quest for mind control: Torture, LSD, and a ‘Poisoner in Chief’. National Public Radio (online).

Kassam, A. (2018, May 3). The toxic legacy of Canada’s CIA brainwashing experiments: ‘They strip you of your soul’. The Guardian (online).

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Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate (1976, April 24). Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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