“Stop Thinking about Death… and Stop Shouting at People”: Psychic Driving at the Museum of the Normal

David Saunders started his PhD in the Centre for the History of the Emotions in October 2016. His research is funded by the Wellcome Trust and intersects with our Living with Feeling grant.



On 24 November 2016, seventy-three individuals entered a small room on the third floor of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and disclosed their hopes, fears, and anxieties to a tape machine. Attending the Museum of the Normal, an event organised by Queen Mary’s Centre for the History of the Emotions, these “subjects” had been taken away from the bright lights and greenish specimens of Bart’s Pathology Museum and led into a darkened clinical room, where a silent, mechanical therapist was waiting to hear their confessions. Taking a seat under harsh lamplight, these individuals had volunteered to take part in a “revolutionary” therapeutic exercise called Psychic Driving.

man in a lab coat sitting at a desk with a tape recorder in a dimly lit room

The “Psychic Driving” apparatus. (Cred: Stewart Caine)

“Psychic Driving,” as explored previously on this blog, was a radical therapy developed in the early 1950s by Dr Donald Ewen Cameron, a psychiatrist at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal. For Cameron, talking therapies had failed to stem the tide of psychiatric illnesses; instead psychiatrists needed to embrace new technologies to mechanise the process of psychological healing. Cameron’s imagination had been captured by one piece of technology in particular: the tape machine. By taping positive messages and replaying these to his patients on a never-ending loop, Cameron believed he could destroy their pathological memories, beliefs, and behaviours, and reprogram them into productive, well-adjusted members of society. The power to wipe clean and rewrite the memories and personalities of citizens was a powerful fantasy in the Cold War environment, and soon Cameron’s research drew the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who began to covertly fund his work. Ultimately, psychic driving was a complete failure as both a therapeutic tool and a weapon of mind control. Patients forced to listen to Cameron’s looping messages for weeks and even months on end experienced disorientation, hallucinations, and severe memory loss.

It would perhaps be all too easy to cast off psychic driving as yet another “stranger than fiction” tale from the Cold War, another example of military and scientific excesses fed by paranoia, suspicion, and nightmares of nuclear destruction. Yet many of the motivations sustaining Cameron’s research remain entrenched in contemporary therapeutic culture: the endless search for “normality” and “equilibrium”, the modernist faith that technology can provide the solution to daily woes, the continuing obsession with “quick-fix” solutions. How, then, might the history of psychic driving point to the unexpected and troubling ramifications of our search for easy answers? Given the opportunity, what attributes and behaviours might we wish to “program” into ourselves?

These very questions were explored by visitors to the Museum of the Normal. Left alone with the tape machine, all participants were asked to respond to the same question: if they could change one thing about their lives overnight, what would it be? Their responses – disarmingly honest and frequently surprising – have been drawn together into a single “self-help” tape, accompanied by an ambient soundscape inspired by recordings used for guided meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. The tape thus stands as a collaborative exploration into our assumptions, desires, and fears about what it means to be “normal”.

This track contains some strong language.

Responses to the psychic driving installation varied immensely, often with no clear patterns or trends. However, a number of tentative observations can be made:

  • The majority of responses (58%) focused on a desired change of attitude towards life and its challenges. These frequently involved wanting to worry less, appreciate positive things more, and seize opportunities.
  • 31% of responses involved anxieties about time in some form. Most of these referred to fears surrounding procrastination, or a desire to use time more efficiently.
  • Only 7% of responses referred to relationships with others. Overwhelmingly, responses focused on the individual, often in isolation.
  • The vast majority of responses (76%) concerned abstract aspirations, such as working harder, enjoying life more, or becoming more motivated. A much smaller number of responses put forward specific goals (24%), which ranged from learning languages to quitting smoking.
  • In general terms, 60% of responses were framed in a positive manner – broadly defined as a desire to improve or augment certain attributes or characteristics. Meanwhile, 40% were framed in a negative manner – as corrections to perceived flaws or prohibitions of perceived bad habits.

The psychic driving apparatus has returned to its laboratory in Peckham for recalibration. A second test is currently under consideration.

The Team would like to thank all those who took part in the Psychic Driving installation at the Museum of the Normal.