Mind control is purely science fiction, isn’t it? There’s no way that anyone, not even a large organization with government backing, could find a way to influence people’s private thoughts, right? Maybe there isn’t, but the CIA certainly tried their best to find a way!

In the middle of the 20th century, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted numerous experiments in the area of mind control. The project, dubbed MKUltra, was officially sanctioned in 1953. The experiments conducted under the purview of MKUltra focused mainly on the idea of using drugs to influence a person’s mind while they were being interrogated to make them more compliant.

The project only lasted 20 years, but the repercussions of the experiments and the American public’s opinion of them are still being felt today, almost 50 years after MKUltra was shut down.

Bluebird, Artichoke, and other friendly names for inhumane experiments

There were many experiments and smaller projects carried out under the umbrella of the MKUltra project. Many of these were later deemed illegal and inhumane when previously-classified documents were released. Some of the experiments were even conducted on citizens of the United States and Canada without their consent, making people understandably upset.

Pixabay/TayebMEZAHDIA

Two of the most well-known projects carried out under MKUltra were codenamed Bluebird and Artichoke. In Project Bluebird, subjects were experimented on and studied by teams of professional psychiatrists in hopes of finding ways to access information, affect thoughts and behaviors, and even control subjects’ minds. These doctors attempted to create multiple personalities, implant hypnotic suggestions, erase memories, and much more. Many of these experiments were deemed illegal and inhumane, even those that were published in professional medical journals!

The participation of psychiatrists and medical schools in mind control research was not a matter of a few scattered doctors pursuing questionable lines of investigation. Rather, the mind control experimentation was systematic, organized, and involved many leading psychiatrists and medical schools. – Colin A. Ross MD

Project Artichoke was begun after Bluebird, and was more limited in scope, though perhaps more frightening in its implications. The goal of the scientists working on this project was to find out if there was any way to control a subject, a person, to the point where they could be made to carry out actions against their will. Could they turn ordinary people into unwilling assassins?

The lasting effects of MKUltra

In 1973, the CIA officially shut down MKUltra. The project was declared an overall failure, as they had found no way to reliably affect a subject’s mind in any measurable way. The public was kept in the dark about Project MKUltra until two years after its shutdown when it was talked about in the Rockefeller Commission. Understandably, when the public learned about some of the experiments conducted, many illegally, there was a powerful backlash against the CIA.

The CIA shut down MKUltra in 1973

To this day, the American people’s trust in their government is impacted by the memory of the things that were condoned during MKUltra. Part of the reason people are still affected by this historical event is the reality that we don’t have a full picture of what happened. When the project was shut down, many of the records were destroyed, ensuring that people will always have questions, theories, and fears about their government.

Many forms of popular media such as books, video games, and movies have used the MKUltra project as a basis for their story. Alternate histories in which mind control experiments were successful are potent vehicles for frightening ideas, giving rise to thriller and horror media. Documentaries that delve into the realities of what experiments were done are only slightly less terrifying than the fictional stories.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

Analysis of a modern study into reading minds

A prior experiment conducted by the other side with a more physical lean