Book: Battle for the Mind

I read a fair amount. I wouldn’t say a lot only because I don’t really read that fast. Well, that’s not true. Fictional and biographical works I cruise through fairly quickly. It’s non-fiction that slows me to a crawl.

It was a decade ago that I realized the obvious. Just because you start reading a book doesn’t mean you have to finish it. I can still remember the book that broke the spell: The Vermont Papers

If I’m reading a book for my own enjoyment and edification, if I can’t relate the book to my life, if I’m getting nothing out of the book, it’s history. Ciao, baby. The Vermont Papers was my last "I’ll finish the book simply because I started it" experience. When I finished that book, I said, "What a waste of my time."

Currently, I’m reading Battle for the Mind. This book I will finish and read again.

The text is easy to read but it’s been slow going for me. As I read, I can immediately relate the concepts and observations Sargant makes with an endless stream recollections. It is as if someone has come with a hand full of puzzle pieces that have fallen from the table.

This reading, I’m looking mostly externally. To movies. To history. To trends. To current day personalities. I’ll read some and then think some. Read some – think some. Again and again.

Next reading, I’ll look internally. Should be interesting.

I just finished chapter five. Here’s my description thus far.

William Sargant was an English psychiatrist who, while working with battle fatigue victims in WWII, made the connection between symptoms and treatment of battle fatigue (now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — PTSD) and the work of I.P. Pavlov (of "Pavlov’s Dogs" fame).

I gained an appreciation for who Pavlov was and the context of his work. I had heretofore believed Pavlov simply discovered the conditioned response commonly referred to: The dog learns that when the light comes on he gets fed; soon, the dog will slobber whenever the light comes on, food or no.

Not exactly. Pavlov traumatized these dogs, and in different ways, to see how much they could take before they broke down. He noted that there were different types of dog. Each type broke down with different levels of trauma and with different results. Pavlov also found that with a nervous breakdown, he could reprogram the dogs.

Sargant doesn’t go into all the various ways Pavlov broke his dogs down but did comment that the methods would be unacceptable in Britain (circa 1950). I gather that some dogs were brutally tortured.

It was the various phases/stages of neuroses that Sargant connected with PTSD victims, especially after the Normandy invasion. Well presented arguments and observations.

Chapter two centers mainly on dispelling that Pavlov’s works are not useful in human psychiatry as dogs are dogs and men are men. Interesting read but I was already convinced before reading the chapter.

Chapter three and four talk about psychoanalysis, psychiatric drug treatments, shock treatments and leucotomy (lobotomy?). This was one of those ‘a-ha!’ moments when all those old 70’s movies about mind control suddenly made sense. The big take away here is that sometimes psychoanalysis is not effective and other, more drastic measures, can help the patient. Sargant lays out, in lay terms, how these different measure work.

Chapter five is where Sargant moves out of PTSD treatment techniques and their background and into techniques for religious conversion. Had I read this chapter 25 to 30 years ago, it would have changed my whole perspective on how the world works (or doesn’t). I’ve lived much of my life skeptical of emotional assaults on the intellect. No longer. Sargant presents a compelling intellectual argument with numerous historical illustrations including mass conversions, serpent handling, speaking in tongues, miracle healings, voodoo, and other primitive tribal rituals.

I have a better appreciation for the historical and social importance of oracles, witch-doctors, voodoo and other priests.

This mid-book review is unusual for me. I almost didn’t write it. In light of my slow progress through the pages (reading as an academic work rather than pleasure read), I wanted to say something now. I’ll finish the review when I’ve finished the book.

But right now, the clock struck 11:30 and I’m suddenly hungry. 🙂