Face masks make you stupid:Why face masks are a form of dehumanisation
by Patrick Fagan, originally published in The Critic, 28 July 2020
In Joost Meerloo’s analysis of false confessions and totalitarian regimes, The Rape of the Mind, he coins a phrase for the ‘dumbing down’ of critical resistance – menticide. “In the totalitarian regime,” he wrote, “the doubting, inquisitive, and imaginative mind has to be suppressed. The totalitarian slave is only allowed to memorise, to salivate when the bell rings.”
Neolithic man had a similar problem dealing with his livestock. Homo sapiens’ success has relied not insignificantly on cattle – their dairy, meat, leather and manure. Yet the cow’s ancestor, the auroch, was quite a different beast. It was fast, aggressive and dangerous – hardly conducive to be corralled into predictable channels of behaviour. So, about 10,500 years ago, man started to deliberately breed the most docile aurochs for domestication.
The key word here is docile, which comes from the Latin docere, meaning “to teach” (as does, say, ‘doctorate’ and ‘document’). Being docile means being compliant and following commands, which means submitting to a system of thought.
Whereas animals, however, typically need to be bred to have a higher level of reasoning to be taught commands, human beings, already being quite smart, need to be dumbed down. You won’t disobey an order if you lack the cognitive ability to question it. This is particularly pertinent to the smooth running of a modern world system which relies on millions of individual souls, each with their own nuanced life history and perspective, thinking and acting in the same way.
The empirical literature has shown that compliance and suggestibility are negatively related to intelligence (e.g., Gudjonsson, 1991). In consumer psychology, there is even a technique called ‘disrupt-then-reframe’: bamboozle people first and they’ll be more likely to buy what you’re selling (Davis & Knowles, 1999). Ultimately, the common denominator for increasing suggestibility is switching off executive function in the prefrontal cortex – disabling the superego, the conscience, the internal monologue. Without Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder, Pinocchio would never have become a real boy – he would have always remained a puppet. Modern society is shot through with things that make us similarly dumb (literally, unable to speak).
The effect of television, for example, as Meerloo wrote, is to “catch the mind directly, giving people no time for calm, dialectical conversation with their own minds.” The mind-numbing, irrational effect of visual communication has been recognised throughout history. Not for nothing did religions talk about the word of God and forbid graven images. Unsurprisingly, empirical studies showing that watching television makes you stupid in both the short- and long-term (Hoang et al., 2016; Lillard & Peterson, 2011). This is to say nothing of pornography, which is now consumed by 98% of men but known to inhibit the part of the brain dealing with conscience and consciousness, the prefrontal cortex (Kuhn & Gallinat, 2014).
Moving from circuses to bread, alcohol, of course, reduces cognitive function in the short-term (Hindmarch & Sherwood, 1991). Even at moderate levels of consumption, it accelerates cognitive decline in older age (Topiwala et al., 2017). Junk food, likewise, makes it harder to think in the short-term (Barnes & Joyner, 2012) and harms cognitive ability in the long-term (Reichelt & Rank, 2017).
Fluoride has become something of a cliché of conspiracy theorists; being added to the public water supply in multiple countries around the world, ostensibly to reduce tooth decay. However, the evidence supporting the dental benefits of fluoridated water is poor, while many studies have shown it can damage tooth aesthetics via fluorosis (McDonagh et al., 2000). Many more studies have found that fluoridated water lowers the population’s intelligence (e.g., Borman & Fyfe, 2013; Green et al., 2019; Lu et al., 2000; Rocha-Amador et al., 2007; Wang et al., 2008).
Which brings us to face masks.
Face masks can now be added to the list of mandates that make you stupid. As if Piers Morgan feverishly promoting them weren’t evidence enough, here are the facts on why you absolutely, categorically should not wear a face mask. They make you suggestible; they make you more likely to follow someone else’s direction and do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. In short, they switch off your executive function – your conscience.
A great example comes from a study by Mathes and Guest (1976), who asked participants how willing they would be, and how much they would have to be paid, to carry a sign around the university cafeteria reading “masturbation is fun” (this being 1976, doing such a thing would be considered embarrassing; these days it will probably earn you a course credit!). The results showed that when people wore a mask, they were more likely to carry the sign and required less money to do so ($30 compared to $48, on average).
Meanwhile, Miller and Rowold (1979) presented Halloween trick-or-treaters with a bowl of chocolates and told them they were allowed to take only two each. When the children thought they weren’t being watched, they helped themselves. Children without a mask broke the rule, taking more chocolates, 37% of the time, compared to 62% for masked children. The authors concluded that masks “lead to lower restraints on behaviour”.
The effect has similarly been found online: the online disinhibition effect refers to the tendency for people to act antisocially when anonymous online (Suler, 2004). There is even an infamous trolling movement calling itself Anonymous and using a mask as its symbol.
The disinhibiting effects of wearing a mask are described by psychologists in terms of a suspension of the superego’s control mechanisms, allowing subconscious impulses to take over. Saigre (1989) wrote that masks ‘short-cut’ conscious defence systems and encourage “massive regression” to a more primitive state; Castle (1986) wrote that eighteenth century masquerades allowed mask-wearers to release their repressed hedonistic and sexual impulses; and Caillois (1962) similarly wrote about European masked carnivals involving libidinal activities including “indecencies, jostling, provocative laughter, exposed breasts, mimicking buffoonery, a permanent incitement to riot, feasting and excessive talk, noise and movement”. In the 12th Century, Pope Innocent III banned masks as part of his fight against immorality; and in 1845, New York State made it illegal for more than two people to wear masks in public, after farmers wore masks to attack their landlords.
From a neuroimaging perspective, masks are known to inhibit identity and impulse control – both associated with executive function in the prefrontal cortex (e.g., Glannon, 2005; Tacikowski, Berger & Ehrsson, 2017). In other words, masks silence the Jiminy Cricket in the brain.
It is little wonder that covering our mouths would ‘shut us up’ psychologically. Studies have shown that clothing has a powerful effect on how we think (or not), via a principal known as enclothed cognition: wearing a lab coat enhances cognitive function (Adam & Galinsky, 2012), wearing a nurse’s scrubs increases empathy (López-Pérez et al., 2016), and wearing counterfeit brands increases the likelihood of cheating in a test (Gino, Norton & Ariely, 2010). Similarly, in the world of body language, someone putting their hand over their mouth is a sign that they are listening intently: they are ready to receive information, not to question it.
While no studies have looked at the effect of masks on verbal reasoning, it is fairly safe to assume that priming a ‘shutting up’ would have a cognitive effect. For example, extraverts are less compliant than introverts (Cohen et al., 2004; Gudjonsson et al., 2004); the development of conscience in humans is heavily linked to that of language (e.g., Arbib, 2006); and inner speech is highly related to cognitive functions (Alderson-Day & Fernyhough, 2015). Crucially, verbal reasoning is strongly correlated with moral reasoning (e.g., Hayes, Gifford & Hayes, 1998): being unable to ‘speak’ makes one less able to deduce what is moral and immoral behaviour.
There is also a more basic reason masks might make you stupid: decreasing oxygen flow to the brain. Face veils reduce ventilatory function in the long-term (Alghadir, Aly & Zafar, 2012), and surgical masks may reduce blood oxygenation among surgeons (Beder et al., 2008): believe it or not, covering your mouth makes it harder to breathe. Reviewing the N95 face mask, a 2010 study (Roberge et al.) concluded that “carbon dioxide and oxygen levels were significantly above and below, respectively, the ambient workplace standards” inside the mask. A post-COVID study found that 81% of 128 previously-fit healthcare workers developed headaches as a result of wearing personal protective equipment (Ong et al., 2020).
Not only do face masks make it hard to breathe, but the evidence that they even work to stop the spread of coronavirus is limited at best. A popular brand of mask even carries a warning on its packaging that it “will not provide any protection against COVID-19”; as for preventing carriers from spreading the disease, a meta-analysis found, for example, that of eight randomised control trial studies, six found no difference in transmission rates between control and intervention groups (while one found that a combination of masks and handwashing is more effective than education alone, and the other found that N95 masks are more effective than standard surgical masks; bin-Reza et al., 2012). Non-surgical masks, such as scarfs and cloths, are almost useless (Rengasamy et al., 2010). Masks may even be unhealthy, causing a build-up of bacteria around the face (Zhiqing et al., 2018).
The fact that masks likely don’t even work brings us to the final reason that wearing one inculcates stupidity and compliance: through a bombardment of lies, contradictions, and confusion, the state overwhelms your ability to reason clearly.
As Theodore Dalrymple wrote, “In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control.”
The point of face masks is not to protect humans, but to diminish humanity – to rob people of their ego, their identity, and their autonomy. Masks are worn by disposable horror movie villains and ignorable background dancers; they make people less-than-human.
Dehumanisation is rarely followed by anything good. Face masks are another worrying portent of what’s to come, alongside a seismic shift in mainstream discourse. In an analysis of the Rwandan genocide, one of the first linguistic predictors was the tendency to look backwards, to blame, and to focus on past wrongs and injustices (Donohue, 2012), which will sound familiar to anyone unfortunate enough to have read The BBC or The Guardian recently. Similarly, where the Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches by the Hutus, and the Nazis depicted the Jews as rats, Nancy Pelosi recently promised to “fumigate” President Trump out of the White House.
It is hard to predict how the wheel of life will revolve in the coming years, but all signs point to trouble. During the crisis years of a generational cycle, only one thing can be guaranteed: the importance of a clear mind. To that end, allow yourself the dignity, identity and Logos of being human – and never, ever wear a mask.