Computers May Hold Key to Subconscious

How do you turn a desperate drug addict into a harmless collector of matchboxes? Psychiatrists at the Moscow Medical Academy's Department of Psycho-Correction believe they have the answer.


By using a system of computerized psychoanalysis that relies on subliminal stimuli, the psychiatrists say they can understand a person's subconscious and even change a person's personality. The system has been effective, they say, on several drug addicts who were subliminally directed to crave matchboxes instead of drugs.


"It's relatively simple," said Dr. Igor Smirnov, the department's director, in no small understatement. "We create a computer mirror of the subconscious. We get information about a person that cannot be gotten any other way."


Smirnov is aware of the visions evoked by his work -- of brainwashing, zombies and "The Manchurian Candidate," in which the maniacal director of the film's Pavlov Institute jokes that a man's brain "hasn't just been washed, it's been dry cleaned."


But Smirnov's technology has provoked some serious interest. He said several private Russian firms have tried to hire him to conduct subliminal advertising for their products -- offers Smirnov said he has refused on ethical grounds -- and the FBI considered using his technology during last year's crisis in Waco, Texas in which 80 members of a cult eventually died in a fire.


"Americans are pretty skeptical of their own methods, but of our methods they're very respectful," said Smirnov, a soft-spoken psychiatrist.


Founded in 1980 to develop psychotherapy methods that did not involve drugs, the psycho-correction center has a mysterious history. Smirnov declined to talk about the early days, although he said that the state program was a large one and that the scientists had all the resources they needed. By 1984, Smirnov and his colleagues were practicing their new method of computerized psychoanalysis by treating psychiatric patients, drug and alcohol addicts and some psychosomatic illnesses.


He said the method works roughly like this: Electrodes that register the electrical activity of the brain are put on a patient's head. The patient is then given aural and visual stimuli -- words flashed quickly on a screen or voices manipulated into a code that sounds like white noise -- that can only be understood on a subconscious level.


A computer program then coordinates the reactions of the brain with the specific stimuli and assembles the data into a graph that can be analyzed to determine a patient's subconscious attitudes to different concepts. Smirnov calls it a kind of "truth detector."


"A lie detector reveals what a person is trying to hide," he says. "Our machine reveals hidden information that sometimes is not realized by the person himself."


In the next stage, the patient listens repeatedly to a tape of specific messages that have also been coded and will be understood subconsciously, Smirnov said.


He said his center made tapes of this kind for an expedition of Soviet women who skied across Antarctica in 1988. He said it prevented the women from having nervous breakdowns.


But the days of generous state funding for such projects are over.


Today the center works as part of the Moscow Medical Academy in a row of tiny, basement offices.


Because their budget is "kopecks," Smirnov said the center, which employs about 20 people, is forced to look for outside funding, although its main goal is to continue treating patients.


The roughly 15 patients they see each week are mostly referred by the medical academy's psychiatric clinic.


The search for funding has taken the scientists, who have developed an "Americanized" version of the program, to the United States. Smirnov said his firm is in "commercial discussions" with Psychotechnologies Corp., a Richmond, Virginia-based firm. Officials with the firm, which has an unlisted phone number, could not be reached for comment.


It was during a visit to the U.S. last year during the Waco crisis that Smirnov demonstrated his technique to a group of U.S. defense, intelligence and law-enforcement officials, he said.


An article that appeared in the Village Voice magazine this year supported Smirnov's account. The article quoted an FBI official who said that the agency had wanted to use Smirnov's technology to subconsciously alter the behavior of cult leader David Koresh by sending a subliminal message over the telephone while the FBI was negotiating with him.


Some of those present were impressed with the demonstration.


"The general reaction was that it was interesting but most of the doctors felt like they didn't have enough data to really appraise it," said Dr. Fowler Jones, a University of Kansas psychologist who attended the meeting. "It was impressive and certainly looks like it warrants further investigation."


The agreement with the FBI fell through because Smirnov said he could not guarantee there would be no risk without first conducting a controlled experiment.


FBI officials were unavailable for comment.