In the Social Progress and Evolution article I say that our most important attribute is that we have free will, but that this is regularly subverted by deterministic social influences that shape how we think and act. Typically, this process is viewed only in behavioral terms, through the description of such things as the "conditioned response." Advertising, for example, is dedicated to creating a conditioned response. (The phenomenon was first described by Pavlov.) Advertisers, using a variety of motivators, but most often fear or sex, attempt to condition us to believe that using their products will be beneficial, i.e., that they will either relieve a specific fear (generally one that the advertisements themselves have created) or enhance our prospects for sex.

What is rarely recognized is that the process involves more than a behavioral consequence. The creation of a conditioned response changes the brain as well. And through such changes the conditioning is not just a one-time event; it endures for the rest of your life.

This is brainwashing. Advertisers, and the other purveyors of social messages that are designed to satisfy selfish purposes, are brainwashers, and not only in an ill-defined, pejorative sense. No less than the Chinese communists who perfected mental manipulation techniques in the 1950s, and from which the term arose, they are attempting to physically dominate and reconstruct our brains.

Our will originates in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for reason and problem solving, and also the recognition that actions have consequences. But our will regularly conflicts with our emotions, which derive from the mid-brain or limbic system, and on which behavioral manipulation – behavioral determinism – is targeted.

This distinction can also be used to define all social influences into two fundamental categories. With appeals to your will, to your reason, the goal is to educate. Appeals to your emotions are attempts at determinism; the goal is to brainwash. Another way to clarify this is to say that with will and education, the objective is to convince; with emotions and brainwashing, it is to persuade.

Brain development occurs from the bottom-up. It is not until our 20s that the cortex is fully formed. But by this time we have been conditioned by two decades of influences targeted on our emotions (mainly fear and anger). Through this we develop psychological and behavioral addictions that we must fight for the rest of our lives.

The good news is that reason can be stronger than emotion. Using our will power we can defeat the conditioning, and the addictions. It’s not easy, but we can do it. As an example of the strength of our will, participants in high-risk activities can use their self-discipline to control fear and panic, which is the normal emotional response to such activities.

This also explains why so many problems are caused by gangs of young men, from drug gangs to armies, and now Islamic extremists. Such gangs have been manipulated using emotional appeals (get money!; through the idea of nationalism – our nation is the best – who cares about other countries!; or, sit next to God, and sleep with virgins!), before the cortex has developed and the men fully appreciate the consequences of their actions (and that they have been manipulated).

The actual mechanics of brainwashing are as follows. The brain, or unconscious mind, initiates many thought impulses, and through a process of selection our consciousness – the conscious mind – decides which to develop. The influences of the brainwashing interject themselves into this process.

If a new thought is supportive of the brainwashing, then the interjection encourages the mind to develop it further (e.g., I’m hungry; let’s go to McDonalds!). If the thought is in opposition to the brainwashing, the interjection cuts it off (but it’s not healthy; but it tastes so good!).

Through this brainwashing undermines your free will and determines what you think. And, it is not only a temporary phenomenon. Such influences are repeated again and again (repetition is an essential element), with the result that your brain undergoes a process called LTP, or long-term potentiation. In this process the synapses of the neurons involved in forming the thoughts related to such influences are strengthened; they are physically enlarged or cemented such that they can carry more neurotransmitter chemicals (to other neurons). Meanwhile, neural networks associated with other ideas, i.e., the expression of self-control, are pruned. Over time, you are predisposed to think the thoughts suggested by the influences more frequently, at the same time your defenses against them are reduced. You are brainwashed.