In 1951, the Canadian Defense Research Board (DRB) convened a secret meeting in Montreal attended by military officials from the United Kingdom, Canada and two CIA officials. The focus of the meeting was — “brainwashing techniques.” Dr. Donald O. Hebb, chief of DRB Behavioral Research and chair of Psychology at McGill, whose experiments using extreme sensory deprivation laid the foundation for a new paradigm for psychological torture. In March 1951, the CIA initiated a “top secret” research program — ARTICHOKE — to study “all aspects of special interrogation” — CIA’s euphemism for torture.
McCoy reports that according to minutes of the Montreal meeting (1951), Hebb spoke at length, suggesting that: “sensory isolation might lead to some clues” “intervention in the individual mind together with methods concerned in psychological coercion.” Hebb suggested that by “cutting off all sensory stimulation . . . the individual could be led into a situation whereby ideas, etc. might be implanted.” (McCoy, Science in Dachau’s Shadow, 2007, p. 404)
Citing the DRB minutes and CIA’s minutes, McCoy rejects claims that the research was intended for defensive purposes. The Montreal group agreed that there was “no conclusive evidence” that the Soviets had made “revolutionary progress,” dismissing their interrogation methods as “remarkably similar. . .to the age-old methods.” They understood and agreed to develop methods of control over human consciousness for offensive “cold war operations” leading to “ideological conversion and coerced interrogation.” (McCoy, 2007, p. 405)
Three months after the Montreal meeting, the DRB awarded Dr. Hebb a “secret” grant (from 1951 to 1955), for experiment to test a subject’s: (1) tolerance for perceptual isolation, (2) willingness to listen to distasteful dull materials, (3) change of attitude, (4) impairment of intellectual function, and (5) hallucinations and other effects of sensory deprivation. Hebb intensified sensory isolation by having the subjects wear (a) light-diffusing goggles (b) earphones that constantly delivered white noise and (c) cardboard tubes over the forearms. McCoy reports that Hebb was not prepared for the extreme hallucinations — akin to mescaline — resulting from sensory deprivation: “some of them [subjects] were seeing things in the experimental conditions, and feeling things. One felt his head was disconnected from his body, another had two bodies.”
Nor was he prepared for the devastating psychological impact on the subjects, many of who were McGill medical students. Among twenty-two subjects “four remarked spontaneously that being in the apparatus was a form of torture.” McCoy cites Hebb stating, in 1980: “It scared the hell out of us to see how completely dependent the mind is on a close connection with the ordinary sensory environment, and how disorganizing to be cut off from that support.” (p.407). Yet, the knowledge of the profound devastating effects did not prevent medical professionals at premier academic institutions — including the National Institute of Mental Health — from inflicting similar extreme trauma on human subjects.
In his 1952 report, which the DRB “classified,” Hebb indicated that, “the contract is opening up a field of study that is of both theoretical and practical significance” (McCoy, p. 405). McCoy learned that one student suffered a complete breakdown and, without any treatment from McGill, he had not recovered 4 years later; after which contact with him was lost. Hebb admitted that he did not screen his subjects for instability. The DRB praised Hebb as having “the highest regard for the welfare of the volunteer students.” A Canadian inquiry mentioned an “unconfirmed report that one student developed a form of mental illness following the experiment,” but dismissed it as being “incipient to his illness. . .which would have resulted regardless of Dr. Hebb’s experiments.” (McCoy, p. 407).
Four of Hebb’s original student volunteers filed a complaint that they had been tortured. A leaked story in the Toronto Star (Jan. 1954) raised questions in the Canadian Parliament. Though the DRB concocted a misleading cover for the research, Hebb’s Canadian grant was suspended. But Hebb’s research was of particular interest to the CIA and he received funding funneled through a CIA front foundation.
In a congressional hearing (1956) Dr. Robert H. Felix, director of the NIMH criticized Hebb’s research “you can break down anyone with this. . . The testimony received press coverage with “Brainwashing” headlines. Hebb insisted the research was “defensive” in nature. Dr. Lawrence Hinkle of Cornell, co-author of the seminal report contracted by Allen Dulles, about Soviet and Chinese interrogation methods, found Hebb’s isolation paradigm “the ideal way of ‘breaking down’ a prisoner, because . . . it seems to create precisely the state that the interrogator desires: malleability and the desire to talk, with the added advantage that one can delude himself that he is using no force or coercion.” (McCoy, 407)