Jacob Kingsbury Downs: ‘Like a Voice within his Head’

Jacob Kingsbury Downs (University of Sheffield) considers a lesser-explored capacity of headphone technologies to inflict pain, shifting emphasis from physical excesses of volume, towards the erosive effect on selfhood, and reflects on its mobilization by the US and Chinese states.

‘Like a Voice within his Head’: Headphones and State-Sanctioned Psychological Manipulation

Rough scan of Jacqueline Moore’s write-up of Cameron’s ‘psychic driving’ experiments (1955) in Canada’s Weekend Magazine, 5(40), 6–8; here 6. The image shows a research participant who has a pained expression and is wearing headphones in a psychiatrist’s chair, overlooked by a psychiatrist. It is unclear whether the individuals featured are actors. Moore’s article predates any peer-reviewed publications of Cameron’s research findings. Photograph by Louis Jaques.

In the early years of the Cold War, the Canadian psychologist D. Ewen Cameron published a paper in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly describing recent amendments to a new treatment he had designed for psychoneurotic and schizophrenic patients. The technique, which he termed ‘psychic driving’, involved recording a psychotherapy session, selecting a short section during which the patient discussed their most pressing difficulties, and playing the clip repeatedly to the patient for a designated period of time with the aim of altering cognitive or behavioural tendencies. In its earlier stages, a dose of the treatment would be limited to 15 minutes, not more than once a week (Cameron 1957); but, following later revisions, a single instance could last as long as 16 hours, often together with the administration of psychoactive drugs (de Young 2015). It was during the preliminary stages that Cameron noticed how his patients would regularly appear resistant to listening attentively to the recordings during treatment, which in turn reduced the impact of the procedure. In light of these observations, he edited the treatment to involve headphones, which he regarded as circumventing a number of the shortcomings of his previous approach:

the sound should be conducted to the patient’s ears through headphones. This causes the patient to experience the driving with much greater impact, the more particularly since he frequently describes it as being like a voice within his head. For instance, one patient said: ‘I’ve heard enough. It goes right through my head.’ Another reported: ‘It’s too close; it’s horrible; I hear all the stuttering.’ (Cameron 1957: 706; emphasis added)

In amending the psychic driving treatment to include headphones, Cameron made use of certain sonic-spatial effects afforded by the technology. First, headphones can segment auditory space, separating their users to varying degrees of efficacy from their acoustic milieux. Second, in partitioning space and relaying sounds at close range, headphones may cause the auditory system to privilege the sounds they present, as they often appear more prominent to the listener. Third, as his patients describe, headphone-mediated sounds can appear to be located inside a listener’s head, meaning that voices heard through the headphones during the treatment ‘became tantamount to voices in the head’ (de Young 2015: 276). This facet of the experience appears to have been important to Cameron: in addition to certain patients displaying schizophrenic symptoms which may have included auditory hallucinations of voices, he also termed the recordings used during the treatment ‘dynamic implants’, which could refer both to the forcible insertion of the clip’s message into the mind of the patient and to its apparent sonic-spatial ‘implanting’ into the interior space of the head via headphones.

There is much to consider in Cameron’s method. Most striking is its astonishing disregard for clinical ethics, with vulnerable patients being subjected to horrific treatments that in many cases left them with more trauma than they began.[1] Moreover, his studies were funded jointly by the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Canada’s Department for National Defense (DND) in excess of $250,000, as uncovered in later years through investigative journalism and the declassification of state documents (de Young 2015; Horrock 1977; Klein 2008; McCoy 2006). Cameron’s was one of many studies conducted during the 1950s as part of the CIA’s project MKULTRA, whose ambition it was to learn more about the so-called ‘brainwashing’ techniques alleged to have been used by Soviet and Chinese communists against allied forces in the years following the Second World War. The CIA’s self-proclaimed aim was to provide their servicepeople with training in how to defend themselves from such a threat; but, in reality, what the agency and its allies learnt from these research outputs about how to break down human psychological functionality would later be crystallized into an arsenal of torture techniques for use in its violent conquests abroad, including the use of sound as a weapon.

Whether Cameron’s empirical methods constituted torture is a debate that warrants far deeper consideration than I am able to give here. What is certain is his findings formed the basis of future CIA-led torture offences using loud sound (Cusick 2008, 2013; McCoy 2006), and that the use of sound and its technologies to manipulate the spatial experiences of his subjects is notable not only for its insidiousness but for the darkly intelligent, calculated instrumentalization of its materials. Although Cameron did not use extremely loud sound in the same way that is documented in Suzanne Cusick’s (2008, 2013) pioneering work on music torture, studies such as his provide the genealogical root for such state-conducted human maltreatment. Discounting loudness, there are other similarities between the CIA’s torture techniques and the treatment documented in Cameron’s initial studies, including the sheer length of time that individuals were made to withstand the treatment, and the incessant repetition of its sonic materials. Nonetheless, in Cusick’s accounts, there is little doubt that the brutal loudness of the sound is what those detained remember as its cruellest component for the pain that it inflicted on their bodies in combination with other coercive techniques.


However, the mantric relaying of repeated messages over headphones present in Cameron’s method, designed to tear down a victim’s control over their cognitive and behavioural abilities, does surface elsewhere over a similar time period to that which concerns Cusick. While extreme loudness constitutes sonic torture at its most materially violent, and headphones are also used to such ends, I wish now to turn to a case in which headphones were used to flood—as Gascia Ouzounian (2006: 77) deems it—‘the private, secret chambers of the head, previously reserved for the mysterious working of the soul and the all-too-familiar sounds of the inner voice’, with voices whose spatial presentation may cause them to appear to violate the body’s limits, even to engulf an individual’s sense of cognitive agency, apparently without the need for extreme amplification.

As mentioned above, research such as Cameron’s was funded in response to allegations that, in the years following the Second World War, Soviet and Chinese communists had ‘cracked the code of human consciousness’ (McCoy 2006: 21), causing allied servicepeople to defect to their cause. The term ‘brainwash’ comes from the Mandarin 洗脑 (xǐ nǎo, literally ‘wash brain’), likely entering the English language via the journalist Edward Hunter, who disseminated the term most influentially in his Brain-Washing in Red China (1951). It is in China—here, in the twenty-first century—that headphones surface again as a medium for state-conducted violence against its people. In their list of ‘common’ torture methods reported to be used in the People’s Republic of China, the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) (n.d.) list the following: ‘Over a long period of time the bound victim is exposed to extremely loud music or propaganda tapes via headphones.’ While no source evidence is provided for its claim, it may be assumed that corresponding testimonies were acquired as part of the ISHR’s work as a non-governmental human rights organization with victims of torture, and that any validated sources were anonymized as a result.

Such a dearth of published accounts of Chinese headphone torture may be understood in light of the state’s severe approach to censorship. On the whole, specific, non-anonymized accounts are rare, appearing in cases where Chinese nationals who have defected from the ruling Communist Party (CCP) and left the country broadcast their testimonies as a means of activism. One example arises in a speech given in San Diego, CA on 30th December 2007, in which Sa Geng, a follower of the state-proscribed religious practice Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong), describes his wife’s persecution under the CCP from 1999 until her murder in 2003. Geng explains that, following years of abuse, her death resulted from a torture technique known as ‘strapped clothes’, in which the victim’s limbs are violently contorted and fastened in a modified straitjacket, after which they are hung up for at least 24 hours, using the body’s weight against itself in a manner not dissimilar to crucifixion. In his speech, Geng noted that,

According to witnesses of this torture, the victims are forced to wear these strait jackets, then their arms are tied up by the straps behind their back. Next, their arms are pulled to the front over their shoulders, and then tightly tied together with their legs. To make them suffer even more, the police will force them to wear headphones broadcasting defamatory programs about Falun Dafa. With their mouths covered, they are then hung from a widow frame [sic]. (transcribed in anon. 2017: n.p.; emphasis added).

In Geng’s example, the use of the headphone-mediated propaganda recordings is clearly ancillary to the horrifying physical treatment of the victims’ bodies, but one that Geng notes intensifies their suffering. To understand this treatment, we may recall the sonic-spatial affordances of headphone technologies that spurred Cameron to use them in his own coercive practices: to force the victim into a non-volitional relationship with a technology that segments perceptual space; to make the sound relayed attentionally unavoidable for the individual; and to cause a spoken voice to appear to inhabit the head’s interior, eliding the spatiality of the extraneous stimulus with that of the victim’s own body. For Geng’s wife and those tortured with her, the use of headphones may have afforded all of these sonic-spatial qualities, causing the forced propaganda broadcast to invade their broken, incarcerated bodies further, and removing the possibility to retreat into that ultimate centre of the self: thought.[2] The resultant state is one in which the ability to imagine themselves out of the situation is demolished, leaving in its wake the persistent noise of the propaganda, trying as it does to enter into the fabric of its victim’s consciousness.

Image of Sa Geng speaking at an anti-CCP rally in St Louis, MO, about former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who the Falun Dafa Info Center refer to as ‘the architect of the persecution of Falun Gong’ under the CCP (anon. 2017). Photograph courtesy of Faluninfo.net.

We may tentatively assume that the CCP would not have read Cameron’s 1957 paper as a means of gaining the idea to use headphones during their torture of the Falun Dafa practitioners, despite appearing to share the goal of restructuring cognitive and behavioural tendencies in their victims. The CCP’s use is more intensely violent than Cameron’s, though the two are clearly similar in their practices—and, I would suggest, in their ambitions. Instead, we might conclude that it was the intrinsic capabilities of the headphone technologies that led both parties independently to select them as a medium for their maltreatment. Headphones were never designed to torture, but to facilitate telecommunication;  yet, as these examples show, these affordances can easily be appropriated for malign means, their mediating function labile in the hands of those who seek to persecute. What we see in both Cameron’s and the CCP’s actions is a mapping of the sonic-spatial characteristics common to everyday headphone use over to violent domains, one that engulfs its victims’ minds as much as it floods their bodies with sound.


The state-sanctioned use of headphones to torture is one of many examples that I consider within the scope of my doctoral thesis. Examples of ‘headphone torture’ can also be found in peacetime, civilian environments, as in the case of Suzanne Capper’s maltreatment and murder during the 1990s (see Davis 2007: 298–304; Petley 2011: 89). Beyond torture, headphones appear in many contexts associated with military action for the purposes of both communication and self-regulation on and off the battlefield (see Daughtry 2015; Pieslak 2009); and similar uses, as documented in agenda-setting work by Michael Bull (2000, 2007) and Tia DeNora (2000), pervade everyday urban contexts, with individuals making use of headphone-mediated personal stereos’ affordances to manage their experiences of daily life. Further examples include those in which headphones perform an essential role within certain professional contexts, with the kinds of workers requiring their sonic capacities ranging from simultaneous interpreters to commercial airline pilots. My research draws together the diverse array of headphones’ functions for individuals across both quotidian and extreme circumstances to extend and expand upon previous accounts, focusing in greater depth on how headphones affect individuals’ experiences of embodied space, including engagement with issues such as the impact of the materiality of ‘wearable’ technologies on experience and the ways in which intimate social (and quasi-social) relations may be enacted by headphones through the mediation of voice. The central ambition of the thesis is therefore not only to engage deeply with the embodied and spatial reality of headphone listening, something which has previously been underprivileged in favour of broader sociological observations of mobile music listening, but to widen the data set to include a more representative account of the range of situations in which headphones are used while tracing out the phenomenological commonalities that link such diverse contextual experiences.

With the project’s broader aims in mind, the issue of headphone torture is a central, if non-normative, component in my development of a theory of headphone listening that weaves together issues of interiority and materiality in relation to the central theme of embodied space. First, headphone torture reveals much about the interiority of headphone-mediated sonic experience in that the perceived ‘inner space’ of the head becomes a site of violence, as the interior of the lived body is flooded with sound. Moreover, victims’ accounts of the experience suggest a perceptual elision of (physical) ‘head-space’ and (metaphysical) ‘thought-space’ in headphone torture, evincing certain tensions that surround sonic-spatial notions of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ during such experiences. Second, in terms of materiality, the non-volitional appendage of headphones to the bodies of torture victims highlights in extremis the important factor of skin-to-technology relations, given that individuals are necessarily unable to remove the objects from their heads and ears due to being restrained (as in the Falun Dafa example above). This illustrates the important issue of tactility in headphone-mediated experience, revealing the multimodal nature of the phenomenon as well as generating questions pertaining to the degree to which individuals experience the intensity of the connection that is formed between body and technology. With such themes considered together, cases of headphone torture not only represent important yet underrepresented instances of human rights abuse that require deep and critical engagement within scholarship and wider activism, but also render familiar experiences of volitional headphone use unfamiliar in their extreme use of sound technologies to subject the body to sonic-spatial violence.

Jacob Kingsbury Downs is an AHRC/WRoCAH doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield, where he is supervised by Professor Nicola Dibben (Music) and co-supervised by Dr Komarine Romdenh-Romluc (Philosophy). His thesis project considers headphone listening through a (post)phenomenological lens, with emphasis on individuals’ experiences of embodied space, mediated social relations, and the materiality of technology. He was previously an Ertegun Scholar at St John’s College, Oxford (MSt 2016) and Clifford Smith Prizeholder in Music at Christ Church, Oxford (BA 2015).


[1] Not until the late 1980s did some of his patients begin to receive (out-of-court) compensation settlements from the CIA and the Canadian government (Farnsworth 1992).

[2] The brutality of the example here recalls much of what Cusick (2013: 284) invokes in her analysis of her interlocutor X’s experiences in the CIA dark prisons: ‘when he tried to move outside of himself, into the mental space of transcendence, he encountered a space already so filled with music as to force his thoughts back to the pain, whence his thoughts would seek to escape again, only to be forced back to the pain again, over and over in a cycle of futility’.


anon. (2017). Imprisoned in China for practicing Falun Gong, wife tortured to death in labor camp. Falun Dafa Info Center, 12th May. Accessed online: https://faluninfo.net/imprisoned-in-china-for-practicing-falun-gong-wife-tortured-to-death-in-labor-camp.

Bull, M. (2000). Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life. Oxford: Berg.

Bull, M. (2007). Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience. London: Routledge.

Cameron, D.E. (1957). Psychic driving: dynamic implant. Psychiatric Quarterly, 31(4), 703–712.

Cusick, S.G. (2008). ‘You are in a place that is out of the world…’: music in the detention camps of the ‘global war on terror’. Journal of the Society for American Music, 2(1), 1–26.

Cusick, S.G. (2013). Towards an acoustemology of detention in the ‘global war of terror’. In Born, G. (Ed.), Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 275–291.

Daughtry, J.M. (2015). Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davis, C.A. (2007). Sadistic Killers: Profiles of Pathological Predators. Chichester: Summersdale.

DeNora, T. (2000). Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

de Young, M. (2015). Psychic driving, accelerated psychotherapy, or automated psychotherapy. In Encyclopedia of Asylum Therapeutics, 1750–1950s. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 275–277. 

Farnsworth, C.H. (1992). Canada with pay 50’s test victims. New York Times, 19th November, A-2. Accessed online: https://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/19/world/canada-will-pay-50-s-test-victims.html.

Horrock, M.N. (1977). Private institutions used in CIA effort to control behavior. New York Times, 2nd August, 1, 16. Accessed online: https://www.nytimes.com/1977/08/02/archives/private-institutions-used-in-cia-effort-to-control-behavior-25year.html.

International Society for Human Rights (n.d.). Common methods of torture and abuse in the People’s Republic of China. Accessed online: http://www.ishr.org/countries/peoples-republic-of-china/methods-of-torture-in-the-peoples-republic-of-china/.

Klein, N. (2007).The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.

McCoy, A.W. (2006). A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York, NY: Metropolitan/Henry Holt.

Ouzounian, G. (2006). Embodied sound: aural architectures and the body. Contemporary Music Review, 25(1–2), 69–79.

Petley, J. (2011). Film and Video Censorship in Modern Britain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Pieslak, J. (2009). Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.