Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hypnotized by Charisma

Hypnotized by Charisma

Now to the new study, which has possibly identified another state in which our critical thinking and executive function is inhibited, much like hypnotic induction. The study looked at individuals identified as Christian and very religious (confirmed with a questionnaire) and non-religious controls. They were then exposed to speeches by a non-Christian, a Christian, and a Christian faith healer, while being examined by fMRI (functional MRI scanning looks at brain function by measuring blood flow to the various brain regions). One caveat – this is a smallish study with a low signal to noise ratio inherent in fMRI research. The results are interesting primarily because they conform to prior psychological research.

The authors conclude:

The contrast estimates reveal a significant increase of activity in response to the non-Christian speaker (compared to baseline) and a massive deactivation in response to the Christian speaker known for his healing powers. These results support recent observations that social categories can modulate the frontal executive network in opposite directions corresponding to the cognitive load they impose on the executive system.


So two things appear to be happening here. The first is an increase in activity among the secular group when exposed to the speech of a Christian faith healer – this can perhaps be interpreted as a negative reaction, putting their critical thinking on alert. Further, Christians who believed in faith healing had the opposite reaction – they turned off their critical thinking. They were literally hypnotized by the faith healer. The authors write:

Insights from hypnosis research may further explain how such effects become established in interpersonal interactions suggesting that frontal deactivation indicates a ‘handing-over’ of the executive function to the perceived charismatic speaker similar to a patient’s ‘handing-over’ of executive function to the hypnotist.


It is probably not a coincidence that in the vernacular we talk about a charismatic figure “hypnotizing” his audience. This research suggests that this is no mere metaphor and may be literally true.

The take home from all of this is that our brain function is complex, and has many inherent weaknesses. We may fall victim to simple resource limitations, and when we tax our brain function our performance – including critical thinking – diminishes.

But there is also another layer here – it is interesting how easy it is to turn off our critical thinking. Evolutionary psychologists speculate that our ancestors may have been selected for the ability to hand over their executive function to a charismatic leader. This allows for group cohesion, and it allows for the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the group. If the group is comprised largely of our genetic relatives, this self-sacrifice can make Darwinian sense.

This level of handing over may be necessary to do otherwise unthinkable acts, such as following your commander into a deadly (even suicidal) situation.

But there is a dark side to the monkey brains we inherited. Cults are the ultimate expression of this – turning over complete control to a charismatic leader. Cults then indoctrinate their members into a belief system that enhances this effect. They further cultivate an us vs them attitude, which makes them more pliable to their leaders and resistant to outsiders. Cults even manipulate their recruits with sleep and protein deprivation, to further stress their neurological resources.

But we all encounter this phenomenon in day-to-day life. Charismatic leaders of all types may exploit this neurological effect. As will con men. Free energy guru Dennis Lee comes to mind – he crowds people into a conference room and then wears them down for hours with multiple presentations. As the night drags on, those more predisposed to suggestion remain. He heavily doses them with appeals to God and country – manipulating their faith and patriotism. He does all the things this research shows inhibits critical thinking. Then he hits them up for an investment scheme.

In the morning many of them may ask themselves – “What was I thinking?”

Published by Steven Novella

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