ATTENTION: This article contains major spoilers for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1.
Things just keep going from bad to worse for Katniss Everdeen.
Not only has she had to survive two massive bloodsport tournaments and then become the reluctant leader of a revolution, but now her friend and confidante, Peeta, has been brainwashed against her. Bummer.
The ending of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 saw Katniss reunite with a rather different Peeta. We discover he has undergone some kind of nefarious Capitol experiment that has driven him practically insane with rage. He now harbors the belief that Katniss is an evil murderer and cannot resist the urge to kill her on sight. But could such a severe mind-altering tactic actually work in real life?
MTV asked a hypnotist to discover the science behind the fiction.
How Does The Hunger Games Explain It?
In Mockingjay, the original novel by Suzanne Collins, there is quite a bit of explanation about how this 'hijacking' is supposed to work. The general idea behind the concept is that it is dependent on conditioning a stimulus - in Peeta's case, Katniss - with a negative response. Here's how it is explained in the book:
“Recall is made more difficult because memories can be changed.” Beetee taps his forehead. “Brought to the forefront of your mind, altered, and saved again in the revised form. Now imagine that I ask you to remember something — either with a verbal suggestion or by making you watch a tape of the event — and while that experience is refreshed, I give you a dose of tracker jacker venom. Not enough to induce a three-day blackout. Just enough to infuse the memory with fear and doubt. And that’s what your brain puts in long-term storage.”
I start to feel sick. Prim asks the question that’s in my mind. “Is that what they’ve done to Peeta? Taken his memories of Katniss and distorted them so they’re scary?”
Beetee nods. “So scary that he’d see her as life-threatening. That he might try to kill her. Yes, that’s our current theory.”
Could This Really Happen?
To answer this, MTV got in touch with Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist, hypnotist and former yoga teacher, to find out if this process could occur in real life. She answered:
In a nutshell, absolutely. They talk [in the book] about this place in the brain that they call the house of fear, and that’s exactly what they call the amygdala in psychological literature. And the amygdala is actually located in the brain near the hippocampus, and the hippocampus is the part that stores your memory. And there’s actually a drug, it’s called propranolol. But when someone for example goes through like a violent rape or something like that, or they see a very traumatic experience, if we give them propranolol, then they actually -– it’s a beta blocker and it does stop the amygdala in a way from doing whatever it’s doing, so that the person doesn’t have that acute fear based memory anymore.
So what this text is talking about is almost doing the same thing in reverse. Like they’re ingesting this venom into the brain to activate the amygdala and then whatever stimuli is presented to this person when the amygdala is activated, they’re saying that that person will then store it in code as a scary, violent piece of memory.
Can Peeta Be Deprogrammed?
Unfortunately, Carmichaell isn't clear on whether or not the damage to Peeta can be reversed. If it can, it'll certainly take a lot of time and effort. When asked if Peeta can be saved, she replied:
I think that it would be hard... If we have one narrative and experience that we know and then we go through a hijacking and it’s gets changed, then we have to reorient ourselves to that new experience. And if we then go through another change, I’m not sure that we could so easily then just grab onto yet another new reality.
I think at some point instead of reorienting, he would just become disoriented. He might even just start display confusion, flashbacks, not sure what he’s feeling because he’s just been exposed so many different narratives that it becomes hard to adhere to one of them and call it his own.
Real Life Mind Control Experiments
Mind control and brainwashing isn't something that's just limited to fiction. In fact, throughout the Cold War there was a clandestine parapsychology arms race which saw the US and USSR trying to unlock the secrets of the mind to gain an advantage over the other.
The US project, which was headed up by the CIA has now become famous for its unethical practices and testing on unwilling subjects. Codenamed Project MKUltra, the project was officially sanctioned in 1953 and included studies into hypnosis, conditioning, sensory deprivation, the administration of psychotropic drugs and verbal and sexual abuse.
The secret project was eventually abandoned in 1973, and became publicly known in 1975. The Supreme Court later noted MKUltra was:
...concerned with the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior. The program consisted of some 149 subprojects which the Agency contracted out to various universities, research foundations, and similar institutions. At least 80 institutions and 185 private researchers participated. Because the Agency funded MKULTRA indirectly, many of the participating individuals were unaware that they were dealing with the Agency.
MKUltra was particularly known for its studies into LSD - a hallucinogenic drug more commonly known as acid. The CIA were interested to see if the reality distorting drug could be used to turn Russian spies against their will or be used as a kind of truth serum.
To do this they drugged various vulnerable members of society, including drug addicts, mental patients and prostitutes (as well as their customers), and then subjected them to lengthy interrogation sessions to attempt to uncover their secrets. Meanwhile, the British MoD also conducted a study to see if placing LSD into an enemy's water supply could diminish their ability to fight. The result is this fairly hilarious video:
Ultimately, it was decided LSD was too unstable and unreliable in its effects to be of much practical use.
MKUltra also conducted experiments more akin to Peeta's 'hijacking.' They used electric shocks to see if they could alter the "stimulus-response relationship in biological systems," while in the 1950s they also studied whether hypnosis could be used to create "hypnotically induced anxieties" in subjects.
However, another branch of research attempted to see if hypnosis could create super-spies by "hypnotically increasing ability to learn and recall complex written matter" and "hypnotically increasing ability to observe and recall complex arrangements of physical objects."
For their part, the Soviets also invested in parapsychology (or psychotronics as they called it). Indeed, the USSR seemed to spend even more money on the project and only officially abandoned it in 2003.
The main crux of the Russian research was concerned with "human energy" and the Aharonov-Bohm effect. Researchers believed the brain could emit and receive a kind of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation that could influence other objects. It was believed that by using a device known as a "cerpan" this energy could be stored and used to change the magnetization of hydrogen nuclei. In theory, this meant this technique could be used to affect the immune system in crops such as wheat, but also, potentially, humans.
Ultimately, the Soviets spent $1 billion on this study, and much of its results still remain classified.