A short comment on brainwashing


When I was 4 I asked my mother how I didn’t know I was living in a dream. She stood confused, contemplating the question herself. I don’t remember what her answer was, unfortunately. But this question has been asked several times throughout the ages. For me my eventual answer was “Dreaming feels different.” I want to use this to springboard to a related topic. How do you know you are brainwashed?

Dreaming is a lot like brainwashing. To be clear, when I say brainwashing- the term immediately implies that the idea trying to be pushed onto you is false. You cannot brainwash someone into believing Jesus is the son of man, you can brainwash him into thinking Jesus is man’s sun. The claim of brainwashing gets thrown back and forth a lot. I have heard ex UBF members tell me UBF will brainwash me, and I have heard UBF members tell me ex UBF members will brainwash me.
The problem with the brainwashing narrative is that it ignores that people can think. Dr. Ben can no more turn me away from UBF than he can tell me that the sun is pulled by chariots from dawn to dusk. I struggled a lot with this topic of brainwashing when I first read things from people. How do I know? I would say that it is easy to test if you are in a dream. Do something you cannot normally do. Many times when I have nightmares I wake up just enough so that I can change them. Suddenly I can do anything I want. If you think you are being brainwashed then my advice is to change something and see what happens. Do you think there are hidden rules? Break them, see what happens. If you can change the dream, it’s not a dream to you. Otherwise it might take a while to wake up. Cs Lewis remarks that we cannot fit the waking world into the dreaming world, but we can vice versa

“This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams: I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner: I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world: the dream world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one.”

Does your life fit into the church and its doctrines? Or does your church and its doctrines fit into your life? The distinction seems necessary.


  1. Thanks, forests, for your Lewisian and Chestertonian expressions and communications, that sometimes feels like it might brainwash me!

    btw, thank God and Amen to this!: “Dr. Ben can no more turn me away from UBF than he can tell me that the sun is pulled by chariots from dawn to dusk.” – See more at: http://www.ubfriends.org/2015/02/18/a-short-comment-on-brainwashing/#sthash.f5P2HYqP.dpuf

    But interestingly, I have heard how some people strongly believe as an indisputable fact that I am “controlling everyone at West Loop UBF.”

  2. Where did we get the term “brainwashing”? It was a word created by Americans first used in 1950 in response to what Chinese/others did to prisoners of war during the Korean War. I find this a highly accurate term to describe how Koreans at ubf tend to treat Americans (and other nationalities) when Koreans have an agenda.

    Fortunately, it has been demonstrated that brainwashing is not permanent in most cases. This also matches my experience when I threw off the yoke of Korean control of my life.

    “The term brainwashing was originally used in the United States to explain why, compared to earlier wars, a relatively high percentage of captured American prisoners of war during the Korean War defected to the Communists. American alarm was ameliorated after prisoners were repatriated and it was learned that few of them retained allegiance to the Marxist and anti-American doctrines that had been inculcated during their incarceration. Later analysis determined that some of the primary methodologies employed on them during their imprisonment included sleep deprivation and other intense psychological manipulations designed to break down their individual autonomy. When rigid control of information was terminated, and the former prisoners’ natural methods of reality testing could resume, the superimposed values and judgments were rapidly attenuated. This raised the question as to whether these changes were just a facade, or if the core beliefs of the soldiers had been altered for the extent of their incarceration.”

    “The term brainwashing first came into use in the United States in the 1950s, during the Korean War, to describe the methods applied by the Chinese communists in their attempts to produce deep and permanent behavioral changes in foreign prisoners, and to disrupt the ability of captured United Nations troops to effectively organize and resist their imprisonment. The term xǐ năo (洗脑, the Chinese term literally translated as “to wash the brain”) was first applied to methodologies of coercive persuasion used in the “reconstruction” of the so-called feudal thought patterns of Chinese citizens raised under pre-revolutionary regimes.”

    New World Encyclopedia entry for brainwashing

  3. Charles Wilson
    Charles Wilson

    This article brought to mind 1 John 4:1-3, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”

    It seems many are using the word “brainwash” in place of “influence.” A long time ago, a member of LA UBF was kidnapped by deprogrammers. But he told them, “You can deprogram the truth,” and was able to escape from their site in the mountains where he was brought. Another long time director in UBF once said at a staff conference that when confronted about brainwashing students he replied, “Yes, I do. I brainwash them to believe in Jesus and live as a disciple” (paraphrase). He was proud about it.

    We can think, but our ability to think does not mean that we cannot be brainwashed. I do think that we ought to give people freedom to think for themselves and not brainwash them about brainwashing. I think this is what John was doing in 1 John 4:1-3. He didn’t control them, but he educated them on the truth and let them test the spirits for themselves and make their own judgment. He trusted in God and spoke of them as having already overcome through God’s presence in them.

  4. Forest, I like your comparison between being in a brainwashed state and dreaming, and I think your idea that you can check this state by doing something unexpected to find out is legit. That’s a good advice to all cult members: Start asking question, start behaving differently, stop conforming and doing the same as everyone. Do something that may be painful, like pinching yourself in a dream.

    Some more thoughts about the idea of brainwashing: First, as Brian said, the term is a bit controversial. The terms “thought control” or “mind control” are a bit better, and there are many criteria you can use to check whether mind control is going on. Check the famous Lifton criteria” or Steve Hassan’s BITE model, for instance.

    Second, note the absurd and self-contradicting views many UBF members have about mind control. When discussing on the old forum, several UBF members tried to insist that there was no such thing as brainwashing or mind control. They claim everybody has a free will, so it’s impossible to brainwash anybody. Others claimed that the term had no meaning, since then “everything is brainwashing,” including advertisements on TV. My answer to them was: First, check reality: Many intelligent people are in strange cults, or living in strange political systems (think North Korea) – without a good amount of brainwashing this would not be possible, such cults or political systems could not exist. So reality tells us that brainwashing works quite well. Second, of course there are different versions of mind control. Yes, TV advertisement can be considered mind control, but it’s a lot less intense from what is going on in cults, and they are not pushing ideas on you that change your whole philosophy of life – unless you think whether you drink Pepsi or Coca-Cola will make the difference for the meaning of your life and your eternal well-being. Also, commercials are short. You don’t sit every week for hours in meetings to listen to the advantages of Pepsi. The more time and energy the brainwashing takes in your life, the more it enters into your mind by repetition and by being connected with emotions like fear, love, and social relations, it becomes even more effective. In UBF you have this all: They suck up all your time, replace your social framework, and put you in a roller-coaster of emotions by first love bombing you, then rebuking you, questioning your salvation, training you, humiliating you, and then flattering and praising you again, telling you that you are a King and Priest who knows it all and is saving the world, etc. And then there is a whole lot of repetition. Another factor is that most people who are fished into UBF don’t even suspect brainwashing is going on – after all you think you are in “God’s ministry” and not in a cult. Everybody is so nice to you, there is all this smiling, applause, prayers, wonderful music and singing and dancing (Koreans are particularly talented in this regard) – who would suspect anything problematic behind this? The intensity of all of this and this outward nice and harmonic facade lets you throw away all your guard and makes you vulnerable, so that they can feed al their ideas into you and slowly build their authority and control over you. Also, there are certain times in which people are particularly susceptible: Freshmen at the university seeking for orientation in life or feeling lonely, or elder students with examination fears are particularly susceptible. UBF and many other cults are targeting students for a good reason.

    And then, as you also have mentioned, there are those in UBF who believe the other extreme, that brainwashing is extremely easy, and therefore have fears that UBF members are being in danger of being brainwashed when reading critical material on the Internet, or talking with Ben ;-) Samuel Lee himself stoke these fears. Once he wrote in a newsletter that a UBF woman who was counselled by a “deprogrammer” during a weekend-session, had become a “brainless vegetable” after this, and he ordered her UBF husband to divorce from her. This is of course utter nonsense. As explained above, you need much time to brainwash someone. The exit counsellor just confronted her with some facts about UBF and its leader, which had opened her eyes. Or to use the picture of Forest, instead of luring her into a dream, he helped her wake up from the dream. When I confronted the UBF apologist who claimed that no brainwashing exists with the fact that Samuel Lee not only said that brainwashing exists, but was easily possible on a weekend, he could not answer. Either he had to admit that his claims were wrong, or that Samuel Lee was telling nonsense. The truth is, both were wrong: Brainwashing exists, but you cannot be brainwashed simply by reading some material on the Internet or going through an exit counselling session. Even if it would be possible, these effects would very quickly wash way. To stay brainwashed, you need to continuously stay in the cult environment. The longer you have been brainwashed, the longer it will need to get clear again. But still, over time your brain starts thinking normally again. That’s why UBF never wanted us to omit even one Sunday service or conference, and we were not allowed to have vacation or time-out from UBF for longer than a few days.

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      “Another factor is that most people who are fished into UBF don’t even suspect brainwashing is going on – after all you think you are in “God’s ministry” and not in a cult.”

      Yes. Those involved are already vulnerable because of the nature of the relationship. A student has accepted that this self-proclaimed bible teacher, Christian and shepherd really is what he says he is, and that his teachings really are truths found in the bible the word of God. I think it’s damaging for both sides and is a reason why all parties have difficulty to address “the reality” as you said, and to stand up to false teaches and leaders.

    • forestsfailyou

      I heard of the programming through a sermon here last year. It was stated that this is how we know that God is mightily using us, because even Satan attacks us.

    • Forest, regarding the “deprogramming,” this was a practice of the 1980s, a reaction to the many cults that arose in the late 1970s in America: Bhagwan, the Moonies etc. – but Jim Jones was when people really woke up and recognized they needed to fight against cults and their brainwashing. This practice has been discontinued since then, because various cults in the following years (particularly “The Family International”, “Scientology” and “David Koresh’s Brand Davidians”), had sued “deprogrammers” for violating the personal rights of those who they wanted to save from the cults (usually on behalf of their parents).

      The problem is that in order to help a person leave a cult, you must separate them from the cult for a while, at least for a weekend to have time to talk with them alone without cult people around. In some cults this was very difficult or impossible, so the deprogrammers resorted to what can be considered kidnapping the people, usually to the home of their parents. This “kidnapping” of adult children was the problematic point that cult lawyers used to sue the deprogrammers, together with a wrong understanding of “freedom of religion” (remember that in America, contrary to the EU, Scientology is considered a religion).

      Scientology had much success with this, and in the course they also sued the CAN (cult awareness network), the most important source of information about the individual cults, which had cooperated with or recommended some deprogrammers, they lost a lot of money through the trials and finally went bankrupt. Then Scientology in a tricky coup bought all their assets through a proxy, including the name “CAN” and the material CAN had collected about the cults over the years, usually reports of ex members. I saw a list of all the cults on which they had collected information on the Internet, and UBF was on that list. Now all this material is in the hands of Scientology, and if you ask “the new CAN” for help, you are actually contacting people who work on behalf of Scientology. At that time, Samuel Lee wrote in a newsletter that “the attack of Satan had stopped” and “the season of Christ has begun.” He also repeated slander and defamation of the former CAN director, Ms. Kisser, and added his own even worse lies and slander about Ms. Kisser on top of that. I can find what Samuel Lee wrote at the time if you are interested, it is very revealing. It was all lies, and when Scientology triumphed over rationality, then this was obviously more like a season of cults than a season of Christ.

      Anyway, since then much softer and legally unproblematic forms of exit counselling have been used, as e.g. described in Steve Hassan’s books, the latest one being “Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs.” To still warn of deprogrammers and to call them tools of Satan, repeating the words of Samuel Lee, is totally misleading and slanderous.

    • By the way, regarding the general issue of brainwashing and cults, I really recommend watching one or two of the great documentaries on Jonestown, a prime example for the power or brainwashing, like
      Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
      and Jonestown Massacre: Final Report.

      Don’t be so arrogant to believe that you would never have fallen into that trap: If at the time when we were most vulnerable, we had been invited and love bombed into the Jim Jones cult instead of UBF, I believe many of us current and former UBF members could have become his victims as well. Just like us, they only wanted to please God, do something meaningful with their lives, and have fellowship with other like-minded people, and then they were slowly and inappreciably mislead and deprived of their ability to think and decide on their own. Don’t be mislead by this example to think it’s only a cult when they commit mass suicide though. It is only an extreme example of what cult brainwashing can lead to – most cults keep their cult and members happy and alive in order to exploit and control them and let them recruit even more members.