to make someone believe something by repeatedly telling them that it is true and preventing any other information from reaching them :
Their government is trying to brainwash them into thinking that war cannot be avoided.Cambridge Dictionary
Dangerous cults and “brainwashing” appear to go hand in hand. It’s a contentious issue that has been complicated by the introduction of the term “coercive control”. In this article, I am going to attempt to tease out issues with a focus on what it means for humans to excise the opposite: free will.
About fifty years ago, the infamous cult leader, Charles Manson, persuaded followers to commit a series of murders.
In the late 70s, cult leader, Jim Jones, convinced several hundred followers that a “revolutionary suicide”, conducted by drinking kool-aide laced with cyanide, was a good idea.
Earlier this year (2023) hundreds of Kenyan’s died of starvation because their cult leader, Paul MacKenzie, told them the end of the world was nigh and suicide was the best way to meet Jesus.
In response to these atrocities, a generalised public assumption is that those who followed their leader to deadly lengths are somehow brainwashed. From ivory towers of judgment, many have asserted they would never be victim to such pressure.
The notion that, given the right circumstances, anyone could fall prey to a charlatan’s persuasion is harrowing. Yet, I propose that accepting irrational, radical, and/or extreme beliefs is not beyond the realm of possibility for any neuro-typical person.
Brainwashing is a term that often infers the victims are somehow weak, manipulated, or otherwise unable to critically evaluate concepts and directions given to them.
There are “experts” on both sides of the fence. Some claiming brainwashing is non-existent and everyone involved in a cult or religious movement is operating according to free will. Other’s refute this by suggesting brainwashing is a phenomena to be recognised in conjunction with hypnoses, neurolinguistic programming techniques, or similar means.
I take the pragmatic approach and recognise that anyone can be influenced. High levels of education and socio-economic status are not a guaranteed safety net. Likewise, the overriding of seemly natural instincts, like the will to live and preserving the life of others, cannot be explained by low education and socio-economic status. What is really happening to a person’s free will?
To the best of my understandings, the fastest and most effective means of interfering with free will is fear.
Fear as a control mechanism
When a person is frightened, one of the first things that happens is that their amygdala is activated. This small, almond shaped part of the brain is located near the brain stem. It’s one of the oldest parts and plays a key role in stress responses and regulating emotions.
When the amygdala is activated by fear, the body reacts with fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. These are survival modes. Signals are sent out throughout the nervous system that are designed to maintain life. This means that operations like heart rate, digestion, and hormone production (ie. adrenaline) stop functioning as normal in an attempt to put all energy into perform whatever response is deemed necessary to combat danger.
Prior life experiences (also known as conditioning) influences what action is taken. For example, if a person with kick boxing skills was faced with a thief holding a knife, the immediate reaction may be engage with physical combat (fight). A person with no fighting skills but able legs may react to the same situation by running away (flight). A person with no physical skills may stand idol while their wallet is taken from them (freeze). And a quick-witted talker may respond by giving the thief compliments in an attempt to get them to change the robber’s mind (fawn). In every one of these instances, the victim’s response is has an element of being an automatic process.
(The full process is a little more complicated than is being presented here. For instance, a kick boxer could easily freeze or have another response depending on other factors. What I’ve just described is the basics.)
When the amygdala is activated, the next most signifiant brain alteration that occurs is in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain sets humans aside from other creatures; it’s where we do our complex higher order thinking.
Between the activation of the amygdala and deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, a person’s cognitive and emotional processing is drastically impaired.
Thirdly, the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a major role in memory formation and retrieval, does not operate as usual. This has a twofold effect. Firstly, inefficient memory retrieval means that when a person experiences a fear response, then they will recall and enact upon the knowledge and skills that is most readily available to them. (Ie., taking two kick boxing classes is probably not going to activate the same fight response as someone who trains every day.) Secondly, after a fear event has passed, a person’s recollection of the trauma could be debilitated, ie., blocked out, confabulated, repeated, or other.
Fear does not need to be real
The body-mind response to fear is not dependant upon an obvious, direct event (like a being robbed at knife point). Remembering, thinking about, or imagining a fearful situation can trigger the brain’s automatic reactions.
In the case of dangerous cults, like the ones mentioned at the start of this blog, fear is evident through the presentation of ideas that are frightening. From government conspiracies to doomsday predictions of the world ending, dangerous cult leaders preach doctrines of fear. Repeated and continuous tellings of scary stories mean the amygdala’s alarm bell is set off again and again.
Prolonged exposure to stress means the brain gets hi-jacked. Synaptic networks that would ordinary assist in the operation of the prefrontal cortex are shut down. Thus, zombi-like states in which a person appears to be “brainwashed” can be noted. The lights are on and nobody is home. Or, to put it rather crudely, a person with no or minimal prefrontal cortex activation is like a really smart domesticated animal.
In psychology, priming is a technique in which the introduction of one stimulus influences how people respond to a subsequent stimulus. Priming works by activating an association or representation in memory just before another stimulus or task is introduced.
There are many different examples of how this priming works. For example, exposing someone to the word “yellow” will evoke a faster response to the word “banana” than it would to unrelated words like “television.” Because yellow and banana are more closely linked in memory, people respond faster when the second word is presented.Very Well Mind
With the brain operating in fear mode, cult leaders can more easily prime victims to respond to a stimulus through association.
For example, introducing the fear that governments are trying to microchip citizens can set off the amygdala. An association with this fear can then be linked to religious beliefs such as evil, the devil, or an eternity in hell. The association between a possible life occurrence and a supernatural force that cannot be defeated is reinforced by the belief that dying in a certain way will ensure bliss in the afterlife for eternity.
Anyone not in a fear state could probably see through lack of evidence to support any of the above mentioned claims. But with fear interrupting thinking processes, it is easier for the suggestion that dying is a better option to getting a national identify card (as appears to have been the driving force behind the Kenya Starvation cult). Moreover, if there is no break from the repeated fear messages, then the prefrontal cortex does not have any hope of interrupting automated survival responses of the amygdala.
Imagine being faced with a thief holding a knife and not knowing what to do. If an external influence gave instructions (like fight, run, give them the money, etc), then a person unable to think for themselves is more likely to obey instructions than think for themselves.
The absence of efficient critical thinking (by the prefrontal cortex) can result in following through with suggested actions by outsiders, which can include committing suicide or murder.
Paradoxically, victims of dangerous cults can kill themselves or others because doing so appears to be the only way they can “survive”. Doomsday predictions (that the likes of Jones and MacKenzie) are so catastrophic that believers perceive death as inevitable. The will to survive then turns to the best afterlife option.
If victims were able to step away from the situation, and calm their amygdala, they’d probably see other possibilities. However, this isn’t how dangerous cult leaders operate. The “outside” world is demonised, and the only salvation option provided is death through certain circumstances. The focus on preserving life switches to focusing on ensuring the best afterlife.
When fear is not enough, the leader’s personal fears (which can take many forms) directs behaviours to higher levels of control.
Sadly, as demonstrable in the examples of Jones and MacKenzie, there are instances in which victims tried to escape but were murdered for refusing to forsake their own lives.
Coercive control is a pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviours within a relationship.Relationships Australia
It is becoming more and more widely understood that coercive control tactics in domestic violence situations impairs a person’s thinking and feeling. The same tactics can be identified in high demand groups and dangerous cults.
The notion that some people are “brainwashed” by ideologies needs to be understood as occurring on neurological and physical level. From surveillance to name calling, coercive control in domestic settings and groups has the same impact on the brain. Moreover, in both situations, free will is diminish.
the ability to decide what to do independently of any outside influence:
No one told me to do it – I did it of my own free will.Cambridge Dictionary
Philosophically, the concept of free will can be hotly debated. However, at the root of all arguments, the fact that a person who is in a state of fear (or chronic stress) does not have access to rational, higher order cognition, needs to be acknowledged.
The term “brainwashing” is fast becoming an old fashioned term. Its meaning is nuanced by out of date understandings of how people are influenced by information presented to them. “Coercive control” is a welcomed update to a phenomena that better explains what occurs to victims of domestic violence and dangerous cults.
It is only in the absence of fear that the brain has any chance of exercising free will.