For the last decade or so, I’ve had a fascination with parapsychology. Some of this stems from the work that I did on dream archaeology many years ago and some comes from puerile fascination with things like Jon Ronson’s Men who Stare at Goats. So, I couldn’t resist reading Wladimir Velminski’s Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny (MIT 2017) this weekend.
This short book examines Soviet efforts to use brain waves and mind control to create their workers utopia primarily in the first part of the 20th century. Velminski locates these efforts not at the fringe of the scientific establishment, but as closely tied to research into psychology, telecommunication, and scientific management in the first three decades of the 20th century. Soviet adaptations of Taylorism (one of my favorite topics for consideration in our contemporary society) explored the link between industrial practices, movement, and observation not as the basis for simply more efficient workers, but as a way to pool mental resources and promote invention and innovation. This research brought together physical and mental activities in ways that are strikingly modern and offered a particularly Soviet definition of inventor not as the contemplative tinkerer, but as the corporate citizen who combined keen observation and optimized physical movement to synchronize brain waves and create new ideas.
The idea that television and radio waves could be synchronized with brain waves to communicate directly to the mind developed in parallel to television technology in the 1920s and 1930s. Both scientific literature and in science fiction expected that broadcasting thoughts could serve to control and coordinate collective actions on a local and even national scale. Broadcasting television brought together the transmission of ideas, electromagnetic waves, and the physical features of broadcasting towers in the landscape in Soviet thought and located at this intersection new forms of thinking and being that characterized homo sovieticus.
Scientists interested in the electrical signature of the human nervous system used more sensitive electrical devices to detect “brain waves” that emanate from the connection between the brain and various organs. These, like the earliest forms of research grounded in particular Soviet approaches to Taylorism, recognized that the body, at its core, depended upon the same electrical modes of communication as the Soviet state. The hope was that by registering the communication within the body, one could diagnose and perhaps even heal illnesses.
The book concludes with the remarkable broadcasts by Soviet psychic Anatoly Kashpirovsky who sought to induce mass hypnosis during the tumultuous days at the end of the Soviet Union. Velminski parallels this with the work of Pavel Pepperstein and his remarkable film Hypnosis (which I’ll let you Google on your own!). Velminski returns to his initial case study of the Soviet adaptation of a kind of mental Taylorism and argues that the transmission of thought whether through parapsychological means or more conventional broadcasting relies on a kind of neural prosthesis through which we recognize, interpret, and analyze relationships between what is broadcast and what we see.
This book offers a garbled and complicated lens through which to read the current political and media climate in the U.S. Efforts to control the message pushed out via partisan outlets and to obfuscate rival recognizes idea that the media is a prosthesis to mind of the state, but, as Vilminski has shown, a deeply imperfect one. The static, disruptions, and complexities of reception and the recursive efforts to correct, improve, and synchronize the message with the ideas of the transmitter. Far from being distinct from the world of brain waves and mind control, the theories of media and broadcasting that developed over the course of the 20th and 21st century had clear parallels both in their technical dimensions, shortcomings, and goals.
Bill Caraher is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota