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I was pondering this recently. Why didn’t the word develop to have positive meaning, as in: you wash your brain from the toxic thoughts, and instead come to mean indoctrination?

Are there other words which I can use that have the meaning of improving the mind’s condition?

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    Please consult a dictionary and include what you find to help us with where your got stuck.
    – livresque
    May 28 at 17:12
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    The second part of the question is rather vague. Are you really looking for a word for 'improving the mind’s condition', in which case learning may be the obvious answer, or specifically for countering the 'toxic thoughts'?
    – jsw29
    May 28 at 21:11
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    Regardless of what reasons for closing may or may not have existed when the question was first posted, it should not be closed or remain closed now. It has several good answers which are likely to be helpful to future visitors to this page, but should not be insulated from competition, which is the only result that the closing accomplishes.
    – jsw29
    May 29 at 15:46
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    Part #2: enlightenment, bodhi, erudition, percipience, edification
    – mcalex
    May 30 at 15:56
  • I've always perceived "brainwashing" to have a connection with "whitewashing", which is also negative when used as a political metaphor. The "wash" element doesn't mean "cleansing" in the positive sense, but rather "crudely concealing unpleasant truths from view".
    – Steve
    May 31 at 17:22

5 Answers 5

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The word brainwash is a calque of the Chinese 洗腦(xǐnăo “wash brain”). The Red Chinese government coined the original phrase to mean, as you say, to wash the brain clear of toxic thoughts — but their definition of “toxic” included thoughts about individuality, freedom, democracy, and respect for human life. When the American journalist Edward Hunter brought the phrase over in 1950, it described a system of coercive persuasion, backed up with torture and mass execution, that maintained a brutal, genocidal dictatorship.

Unsurprisingly, the English version never lost that taint. It’s rather unfortunate that no phrase has evolved to mean “improve the condition of one’s mind” — having a handy phrase might encourage people to do it — but attempting to repurpose “brainwash” for that would run into the same problems as giving a forest retreat where guests could avoid distractions and improve their mental focus the name “concentration camp”.

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    This is true, but needs references. The Wikipedia page on brainwashing tells the same story.
    – Stuart F
    May 28 at 17:11
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    You say it is unfortunate that no phrase has evolved to mean "improve the condition of one's mind". But wasn't that exactly what the Chinese intended "brainwashing" to mean?The difference between the original Chinese interpretation of "brainwashing" and our interpretation is occasioned by the different perception placed upon it - one of benign acceptance, and another of cynicism. Personally I take the cynical view - as do most western people. But who's to say who's right? It could be a millennium more before we find out.
    – WS2
    May 28 at 22:33
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    @Ben The word brainwashing originates from the Korean war 1950-1953. The Great Chinese Famine caused by Mao's ill-informed reforms was from 1958-1962. So we're talking here about a communist China from before they ended cyclical famines.
    – towr
    May 29 at 17:21
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    @towr — I don’t understand people how could genuinely believe — or lower themselves to pretending to believe — that the actions of the Chinese Communist Party, including the Famine, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution are somehow morally ambiguous or up for question. May 29 at 20:52
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    @ws2 — I know, today, that torture and mass murder are wrong, and I hope it does not take you 1000 years to figure it out. May 29 at 20:52
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Interestingly, cleanse your mind does have the positive connotation that you ask about. It does not have the meaning of “reprogramming” that brainwashing does. It is about taking a positive view or reframing, or getting rid of bad thought, where brainwashing is about changing belief of what is fact. Interesting because its component parts are synonyms of wash and brain.

Examples:

8 Ways to Give Your Mind a Deep Cleaning

Giving your brain a quick reboot when you feel stressed or stuck can help clear out the backlog of thoughts in your working memory and leave you with a tidier mental workspace.

How to Cleanse Your Mind and Body

Regularly cleansing your body and mind offers the same benefits. It helps them recoup, recharge, and return to their normal functions stronger than ever. Here are five things you can do today to get started.

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    Perhaps, it's also brain vs mind wash. Where the former is considered more vulgar, some might say, hence the abstraction.
    – Faither
    May 30 at 22:46
  • Likewise you can do a "digital detox". Jun 1 at 2:45
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Brainwashing (n.) has always had a negative connotation and has nothing to do with freeing your mind from toxic thoughts:

"attempt to alter or control the thoughts and beliefs of another person against his will by psychological techniques," 1950, a literal translation of Chinese xi nao. A term from the Korean War.

(Etymonline)

Brainwashing:

During the Korean War, it was revealed that up to 30% of American POWs collaborated with the Chinese and North Koreans after being taken captive. To justify these statistics, the American media began claiming that the Communist regimes were brainwashing soldiers, a term first being coined in a 1950 Miami News article by Edward Hunter and meant to mean "psychologically influence". This might seem like a simple portmanteau of brain and wash, which it is to some extent, but it is also a calque (literal translation) of a Chinese idiom sounding like xinao and meaning "to wash the brain". This was actually used by the Communists and was a bit of a pun on the xixin custom, a Taoist ritual of "cleaning the mind". However, the word literally comes from nao, meaning "brain" (from Proto-Tibetan snewk), and xi, meaning "brain" (from Sino-Tibetan mbsjl). Without the Chinese word, we wouldn't have the English word, and what a loss to our culture that would be.

(etymologynerd.com)

As for a positive expression that refers to improving your brain condition you may use:

brain training

learning ways to increase your intelligence, memory, ability to think, etc.:

(Cambridge Dictionary)

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  • Your answer had me submit a comment to etymologynerd.com, because I suppose that xi means "wash", not (also) "brain" May 29 at 20:25
  • @HagenvonEitzen it could be a mistake, but it could be correct. Repeating a word can change its meaning in some languages. For example, in Japanese, “toki” means “time”, and “tokidoki” means, “from time to time”. (The second toki has its t replaced with d in pronunciation.) May 30 at 0:58
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    @ToddWilcox Hagen's comment is correct though in this case. The word xinao is 洗脑, where means "wash" and means "brain".
    – Andrew T.
    May 31 at 19:23
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Whatever the provenance of 'brainwash' calqued from a positive expression in Chinese), it started off negatively in English.

A potential positive alternative is hinted at by the response to undo the 'brainwashing' and that was called:

deprogramming.

Deprogramming entailed intensive intervention to help reverse the ideas learned during brainwashing. Unfortunately, by association with brainwashing and also using controversial techniques, deprogramming has a somewhat negative feel to it (though not as much as brainwashing).

Another word from that era (Far East Cold War era) that is a near miss is:

re-education, or re-educated

meaning to train anew in order to get rid of older worse education. This has a negative connotation in the US however since it is associated with the Cultural Revolution (in China) where presumably educated people (doctors and teachers and such) were taken to 're-education camps' to learn better communist principles, and this was looked down upon in the US.

So, in some sense, these two suggestions, deprogramming and re-education are not good candidates for a positive version of brainwashing but it would be irresponsible not to mention them in attempting to answer such a request.

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"Brain washing" did not originally have a negative connotation

A clickbait title gives a little insight:

By New Process of Brain Washing, Drug Habit Is Cured in Six Days

This is from The Democrat and Chronicle, 1932. This is one of several citations given by Merriam Webster for the expression in the 1930s. Notably, all of these are positive usages:

  • He could begin with brain washing. Every brain, male or female, needs a good cleaning every now and then.
    The Manhattan Mercury (Manhattan, KS), 18 Jan. 1934

  • The most dramatic part of the exhibit is a motion picture of a boy cured completely in four days of St. Vitus dance, which at the start of treatment made him unable to talk. One arm was paralyzed and the rest of his body twisting and twitching. Two brain washings effected the cure.
    The Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, AL), 10 Jun. 1935

Merriam Webster notes that early in the century, "brains would sometimes be washed, generally as part of a cure for an illness" but not so much that this could be considered a fixed expression.

The current sense comes from Chinese in the 50s

The expression as we know it today is a translation of "xǐ nǎo" (from Bejing dialect). MW's first citation is:

China Under Red Flag-IV. “Brain-Washing”—A New Version Of the Mental Purge

This is what Chinese papers graphically term “washing one’s brains,” or “laying one’s heart on the table.” There was a case of a school teacher in a small town between Shanghai and Nanking who was summoned to a “brain-wash” before a large audience, partly consisting of his pupils. When asked to speak he confessed his sins for some ten minutes, and then stopped for lack of more ideas. He was begged not to be so brief. And was then forced to go over his mea culpa for some two hours.
The Times of India (Mumbai, Ind.), 23 Jan. 1950

I'm not sure who wrote that. Edward Hunter is credited, however, with popularizing it (if not the one to bring it to English in the first place) starting with his September 1950 article in the Miami Daily News titled "Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party" which is mentioned by the Smithsonian Magazine. He also wrote a book, which I found neatly summarized in the Indianapolis Times from November 1951:

Edward Hunter explains some of the methods of the Reds in destroying the minds of men in BRAIN-WASHING IN RED CHINA (Vanguard. $3.50). What is behind the "confessions” of the innocent?" How may an innocent man be made to confess to activities in which he did not participate? The author says that the Reds have attempted to place an entire people under hypnotic control and that the experiment is too successful for comfort. The Chinese call the method "brain-washing."


I also found this snippet from the 1907 New York Tribune, though it looks like an unrelated one-off probably spurred by the context:

Let the slumbering slums of New York get wind of the great bathtub contest; let San Francisco's new Chinatown hear that its reputation is at stake, let the Buffalo waterfront and a few other distinguished places learn that the American Athens is trying to add a hygienic sprig to its crown of laurel, and then the war will be on and the limerick or brain washing contest will lapse. And it will be well, for it is nobler by far to encourage water in the tub than water on the brain.

And another newspaper clipping (1911; reprinted as late as 1919 with minor changes), too brief to say much:

Chemistry has given us many a face wash, but the world still waits in vain for a successful brain wash.

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  • From "Books as a Medicine," in the Clearfield [Pennsylvania[ Republican (December 8, 1875): "But of all these ['employments in which these precious evenings may wisely be passed'] there is none to supply the place of books. These, in their multiplicity, fulfill all desires. quench all thirsts, feed all appetites. Their entertainment is constant, their cost trifling, their benefit co-extensive with the memory. ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 3 at 7:11
  • ... As a moral physician we should prescribe for the disorders which this or that fond parent remarks in his boy a brain-wash of books, to be taken hourly between supper and bedtime. It is very much more effective than morning cocktails, precisely as the ounce of prevention outvalues the pound of cure."
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 3 at 7:11

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