When you think of brainwashing, the name Patty Hearst might come to mind. Daughter of the late newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst, in 1974, the then nineteen-year-old was kidnapped by a fringe terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Several months later, she resurfaced, calling herself Tania and wielding a gun for the SLA during an attempted bank robbery. In September 1975, the local police and the FBI apprehended Hearst in an apartment in San Francisco, along with another SLA member. That January, she was tried for her involvement in the robbery.
The Hearst family's legal team claimed Patty had been operating under a "classic case" of Stockholm Syndrome. They argued that after weeks of rape, torment, and imprisonment in a closet, she could no longer withstand an SLA indoctrinement.
The prosecution argued that she had willfully decided to aid the SLA, given some circumstantial evidence and her refusal to name names or turn anyone else in. The jury agreed. She served two years of a 35-year jail term before President Carter commuted her sentence. Twenty four years after that, President Clinton issued a full pardon -- one of his last official actions in the Oval Office.
The strange case of Patty Hearst, and indeed, the very concept of brainwashing, is still hotly debated. That said, as a clinical diagnosis, it has yet to gain a foothold in the psychological community.
Yet recently the idea of brainwashing has resurfaced with a whole new twist -- minus the terrorists, kidnapped heiresses, or attempted bank heists. Still, if you're a neuroscience buff, you might find this case even more exciting. It concerns the dreaded brain disease known as Alzheimer's.
According to a story by John Hamilton entitled "Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep", researchers discovered that brain cells shrink during sleep. This makes room for cerebral spinal fluid to circulate around the cell walls. It's theorized that this circulation flushes out harmful proteins, the waste product of extracting energy from the blood's glucose.
"It's like a dishwasher," says Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and author of study in Science magazine.
This buildup of toxic proteins, sometimes referred to as 'brain plaque', has long been associated with Alzheimer's. According to Nedergaard, a variety of sleep disorders might interfere with the cleansing -- leading to some substantial problems later.
Why does this mental rinse cycle only happen during sleep? Since the process uses a lot of resources, she theorizes it's an energy- saving strategy.
Furthermore, says Nedergaard, it could "explain why we don't think clearly after a sleepless night and why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person."
Nedergaard's team first observed the process in laboratory rats, and since then it's been observed in baboons. Scientists haven't detected it yet in humans, but Nedergaard believes it's only a matter of time.
This kind of brainwashing might not have the headline appeal of a kidnapped newspaper heiress gone rogue, but its implications extend to millions of people who may be suffering from plaque-related brain disorders.
If Nedergaard is right, it might turn out that brainwashing is something each and every one of us will be glad we are a party to.