The closing of young minds
May 2008: MANY years ago, at the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre, I saw a very bright
Karachi University student who had leprosy. His disease was quite advanced as it
had not been diagnosed and treated in time. Hanging around his neck were half a
dozen taweez of various sizes and colours meant to protect him from
When I told him that the disease had destroyed a number of
his nerves and the damage was irreparable he broke down but did not give up his
faith in the taweez as they were still there when he came for the
In this article, I am analysing this frightening phenomenon
which enslaves the mind of even highly educated and intelligent people.
Indoctrination, also known as brainwashing, is a process in which certain ideas
or beliefs are instilled in a person. Although indoctrination is possible at any
time in one's life, it is more easily accomplished during childhood.
this respect, it is akin to a phenomenon known as imprinting, which was first
described by Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz. This Austrian ethnologist discovered
that imprinting in birds can be induced by both auditory and visual stimuli, if
given early in life. For instance, if the embryonated eggs of a hen are exposed
repeatedly to a certain sound, on hatching, the chicks follow that sound rather
than the sound produced by the mother hen.
Imprinting also occurs in
higher animals, including primates. The affectionate responses of young rhesus
monkeys to cloth-covered objects known as 'cloth-mothers', for instance, are a
demonstration of this kind of behaviour.
Although, the exact mechanism
involved in imprinting is not known, it probably involves neuronal connections
or synapses formed during early life. It is estimated that the human brain
contains nearly 100bn neurons or nerve cells which are responsible for its
mental activity. The neuron's capacity to learn is greatest in the developing
brain and consequently many habits, convictions and beliefs are acquired during
In his book Total Man psychologist Stan Gooch expresses his
belief that nationalism is also linked to imprinting since children are exposed
to patriotic songs and symbols from an early age. Another psychologist, Daniel
Goldman, in his bestseller Emotional Intelligence states, "the emotional lessons
we learn as children at home and school shape the emotional circuits, making us
more adept or inept towards certain emotions. This means that childhood and
adolescence are critical for setting the habits that will govern our
Since 1994, researchers at the National Institute of Mental
Health in Bethesda, Maryland, US, have been using magnetic resonance imaging to
take photographs of the brains of volunteers belonging to various ages. From the
scans of more than 1,200 children and teenagers that have since been conducted
for this study, they found that the brain grows rapidly in the early years,
reaching 95 per cent of its adult weight of about 1.35kg by the time a child
enters first grade.
Another spurt in growth occurs around age nine. If
children spend time on academics, music or any other subject during this
critical time, that is what their brains would be optimised for in the years to
Similarly, racial prejudices and religious hatreds also develop
during this period. Thomas Pethgrew, a social psychologist at the University of
California, states that "the notions of prejudice are formed in childhood, while
the beliefs that are used to justify them come later". Even if it is realised
that a particular prejudice is unjustified, it may not loosen its hold, Pethgrew
says, adding that many southerners confessed to him that, even though in their
minds they no longer feel prejudice against the blacks, they feel squeamish when
they shake hands with one. The feelings are left over from what they learned in
their families as children.
There are, undoubtedly, many levels of
indoctrination. The kamikaze missions organised by the Japanese navy during the
Second World War are a good example of an extreme case. During these, Japanese
suicide pilots loaded their planes with explosives and deliberately crashed into
US ships. The ideology behind kamikaze was that suicide is a venerable act,
either to destroy the enemy or to avoid capture and humiliation.
philosopher Schopenhauer's famous saying that, "a man can do as he wills, but
not will as he wills", applies to these Japanese pilots as their will had been
subverted by the process of indoctrination. The suicide bombers we are now
witnessing in Pakistan and the Middle East are the modern equivalent of the
kamikaze pilots who took their own lives as a last resort when faced with a
Religious indoctrination was common in the 17th century
in almost all European schools run by the church. "Give me any child until he is
seven and I will make him a Jesuit," goes a famous saying by a Jesuit priest. As
the state took over greater responsibility for educating the populace in later
years, religious influence in day-to-day life declined. It is estimated that at
present not more than 6.3 per cent of England's population goes to
Secular education is now commonplace in the West although the
struggle between the secular and religious approaches to life still continues.
In the US, the debate between 'creationists' and 'evolutionists' is one example
of this. This debate began during the famous 'monkey trial' of 1925 when a high
school biology teacher, John T. Scopes, was convicted for violating a law which
declared teaching the theory of evolution in public schools a crime.
sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants continued in Europe for
centuries, mainly because children were indoctrinated in their respective
religious beliefs and grew up feeling distrust and hatred for each other. A
similar situation exists in Pakistan where at least some madressahs inculcate
hatred against other sects, with the result that there is unending sectarian
conflict in the country.
Across the border in neighbouring India, the
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is pushing hard for making the study of Hinduism
mandatory in all schools of the country, which could in turn lead to the
sharpening of the religious divide in the subcontinent.
One way to avoid
indoctrination, which often leads to prejudice and misunderstanding, is to
provide liberal education in schools and colleges so as to encourage pupils to
explore, ask questions and develop critical thinking. An open mind and
intolerance can't co-exist and this really is the best safeguard against
religious and ethnic conflict that has become common in many parts of the
The writer is a co-author of Religions of South Asia.
By Dr Viqar Zaman (Dawn)