‘Curiosity’ Dresses Up Hypnosis in ‘Brainwashed’

Discovery’s “Curiosity” has sought to be provocative in its current run, with titles like “Plane Crash” and “I Was Mummified.”

Still, I was intrigued by the subject matter of “Brainwashed,” which asks, “Can the human mind be
31493_ep101_020_programmed?” and “Can we be brainwashed to kill?”

Fascinating stuff, especially if you grew up on movies like “The Manchurian Candidate,” remember the case of kidnapped heiress turned Symbionese Liberation Army member Patty Heart (whose story is mentioned near the outset) or simply watch “Homeland.”

But “Brainwashed” (which premieres Oct. 28) can’t really dive into its subject as a full-blown experiment for obvious ethical reasons, so the title becomes something of a misnomer. “Hypnotized” would be more accurate, and as a consequence, it’s a rather thin gruel.

Not that the producers don’t labor to make the show credible, which includes the rather silly approach of introducing neuroscientists as if they were the Avengers.

Once we get past the preliminaries, though, the whole hour boils down to what people can be convinced to do while under hypnosis, and that sort of “social norm abandonment” isn’t the same thing as breaking someone down and convincing them to engage in surprising behavior.

There’s also a lot of time put into trying to determine whether the test group of subjects are just playing along because of the incentive to be on TV. This includes a cold-water-immersion examination to see if they are truly in a “deeply hypnotic state.” (Another test involves having people strip down to their underwear, which only made me wonder what a hypnosis program on Showtime might look like.)

Like I said, the discussion by itself is interesting, and it’s not giving too much away to say the experiment leaves behind as many questions as answers.

Yet at the risk of splashing cold water on the whole thing, about the only way to completely buy into “Brainwashed” would be if you were highly susceptible or, um, coerced.

 

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