09/29/2013 12:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 29, 2013

How Cults Rewire the Brain

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A neuroscientist told me that she is pleased by the recent surge of interest in the brain but concerned because sometimes speculative theorizing is passed off as knowledge. This is especially so in the area of cults, where even the traditional psychological research base is limited.

An assumption of modern science is that every mental event is connected to a brain (and/or other biological) process. If so, why bother with neurological speculations, especially in such an under-researched area as cults? Why not restrict our focus to more accessible mental events and stick with familiar psychological models?

The answer is that sometimes psychological models cannot account for what we observe. There was a time, for example, when psychological models tried to explain schizophrenia. Although life events and internal psychological experiences may influence the behavior of schizophrenics, we now know that biologically autonomous processes underlie the disorder. Schizophrenia is not caused by a "schizophrenogenic mother."

Are there phenomena within the cultic studies field that we might better understand if we considered brain research and theorizing? Two come to mind: (1) susceptibility to influence, (2) trauma.

We are influenced by a cacophony of external and internal events every moment of our lives. Some forms of influence, however, are systematic and directed by human beings pursuing strategies designed to induce us to behave, think, or feel as they wish, e.g., advertising, propaganda, hypnosis, and some forms of "engineered" cult conversion. Different people will respond differently to the same influence strategy. Even in tightly choreographed influence scenarios, such as the Moonie recruitments of the 1970s, most people do not respond as the influencers would like. Why, for example, do some recruits wind up fund-raising for Reverend Moon after a few weeks of indoctrination, while others don't? Perhaps an unknown percentage of the "converts" have brains that are wired in a way that makes them less able to resist the indoctrination strategies of the group. There is, for example, a body of research that suggests that hypnotic susceptibility may, to a degree, be an in-born trait. Perhaps that susceptibility has a biological component that must be considered in order to understand fully why A becomes a convert and not B. Perhaps other forms of susceptibility to influence may have biological components, e.g., the capacity to think critically in environments that purposely overstimulate the brain. Some tantalizing research exists. But much more investigation is needed before we will be able to speak with scientific authority.

Another promising area for neurological research is trauma. Trauma, of course, is by no means limited to cult situations. However, those who have worked clinically with former members report significant levels of trauma among former cult members and especially among those born or raised in cultic groups.

Increasing evidence suggests that experiencing trauma affects brain structure and function. These changes may better account for maladaptive behavior, such as persevering in actions that continue to produce painful outcomes, than psychological models, e.g., the person unconsciously "wants" pain and suffering. A forthcoming issue of our organization's magazine, ICSA Today, will include an interesting essay, "Why Cults Are Harmful: Neurobiological Speculations on Interpersonal Trauma," by Dr. Doni Whitsett of the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

Dr. Whitsett suggests that those born or raised in severe cultic environments may develop maladaptive mental templates, or what attachment researcher John Bowlby called, "internal working models of attachment" (IWMs). These templates, which are thought to be based at least partly in brain structures developed early in life, may affect some cult children throughout their adult lives.

Let me close with a note of caution. Neuroscience is and ought to be a science. Scientists propose theories with empirically testable hypotheses. Theories with hypotheses that stand up under empirical testing gain credibility, but the theories are always provisional and never "proved." This is especially so with theories of human behavior because so many interacting factors affect everything that we do. "Brain" factors may help account for certain phenomena that psychological theories cannot explain. However, brain-behavior research is still in its infancy. If we are to speculate about neurological factors in cult situations, let us acknowledge from the start that we need to know much more than we know now if we are to help cult victims in practical ways.

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