Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mind Control and the Quest for Certainty

I'm reading Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & The Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, which is possibly going to be my Cephalopod Coffeehouse review for this month, so I won't get into the nuts and bolts here. But certain snippets of this fascinating book have caught my attention, including this nugget:

"Behind ideological totalism lies the ever-present humant quest for the omnipotent guide — for the supernatural force, political party, philosophical ideas, great leader, or precise science — that will bring ultimate solidarity to all men and eliminate the terror of death and nothingness."

Lawrence is quoting social scientist Robert Jay Lifton here, from his work explaining how Chinese Communists were able to brainwash American prisoners into following their ideology. I'd never heard of Lifton before, and a quick peek at this page has me wanting to read more about him. But that quote in particular has so much packed into it, doesn't it? It seems to apply to much more than just the Orwellian techniques of the Communists. It applies to almost any belief structure that promises solutions in exchange for allegiance. The quote makes me want to look into myself more deeply: am I looking for a superhero? Do I turn my brain off at the promise of "ultimate solidarity?" Certainly I can get excited about movements, philosophies, ideas, leaders.

The word "brainwashing" can be applied too liberally — you can call anyone who believes stuff you don't believe "brainwashed." And some social scientists (according to Lawrence) don't even believe brainwashing exists. But ad hominem attacks aside, it seems pretty clear to me that mind control really does exist, and it's not that difficult to implement. I don't even think you need "terror of death and nothingness" to ready minds for indoctrination. I think you need just a little uncertainty, and a promise of simple answers.

What do you think?


15 comments:

  1. 'I don't even think you need "terror of death and nothingness" to ready minds for indoctrination. I think you need just a little uncertainty, and a promise of simple answers.

    What do you think?'

    I think that if these are the prerequisites for brainwashing, then it is easier now than ever to resist. I say this because of the multitude of books, articles and posts that are available describing the nature of belief and neuro-mechanics (did I just coin a word?) Put another way, it's harder to be unself-conscious now than ever before. You almost have to work at staying in the dark, if that makes sense.

    Or maybe I just associate with lots of really well-read, bright people and such good fortune informs my view of the world. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "It's harder to be unself-conscious now than ever before." You would think, right? But it doesn't seem to be working out that way. I don't think that many people are interested in the brain's susceptibilities, since that makes anxious people feel even more anxious: nobody wants to feel that their beliefs are largely influenced by neuro-mechanics. (I like that!)

      I wonder if the proliferation of information actually makes it even harder for people to be skeptical. The glut of data out there is overwhelming to people, and when people are overwhelmed their vision narrows. (Literally and figuratively.) Simplistic answers become even more appealing.

      Delete
    2. It's easier to find information to disprove myths, but it's also much easier to find self-serving and belief-reinforcing information. And being pleasure-seeking creatures, why would most choose anything other than the later? Even many atheists I know, if they search for things, will search for YouTube videos of debates between atheists and fundamentalists that leave them feeling smug. How is that any different to the fundamentalist finding YouTube videos of their favourite pastor banging on about how they're supposedly not related to a monkey? It's still the pursuit of pleasure rather than reason.

      Delete
    3. Steph, I'd be interested in your emotional response to 'Jeff, Who Lives at Home,' a film Shawn and I watched last night. Have you seen it/heard of it/have any interest in it?

      Delete
    4. Nodgene, you are so right about this: "if they search for things, will search for YouTube videos of debates between atheists and fundamentalists that leave them feeling smug." I played that game briefly and found it tiresome very, very quickly, but it seems a limitless source of pleasure for some. "I am SO RIGHT! They are SO WRONG!" Rinse, repeat.

      In his really excellent book "Thinking Fast and Slow," Daniel Kahneman talks about how really bad everyone is at challenging their own thought patterns. So his suggestion is to go ahead and "gossip." Pick apart everyone else's logical fallacies. It's fun, but more to the point, it will eventually retrain your brain to stop making those mistakes quite so regularly. Although nobody will ever be free of them. I think the retraining won't work so well if you always select straw men to destroy, though.

      Delete
    5. Suze, I've never heard of that film — definitely interested! Will add it to our watchlist.

      Delete
  2. I too have found sufficient satisfaction in the company of good minds, among which you and Suze number, but also understand there are crises in life that turn people toward manipulative sects. Sometimes the suggestions we give ourselves lead to anxiety, depression and other painful and recursive disorders. New rules and supportive community can relieve that. There is a dark region in us and it's easy to imagine we hear immortal things shuffling around in it. That's where manipulative churches make their entry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "There is a dark region in us and it's easy to imagine we hear immortal things shuffling around in it." Oh, I do love this. And you are so right about vulnerability. One of the ways Scientology pulls people in is to "find the ruin" in potential members. (Their phrase.) Once the recruiter finds the dark region in a potential recruit, he can immediately start to exploit that. Of course, it's not the only organization to do so ... I think all the door-knocking missionaries are counting on desperation or loneliness: who else would let them in?

      And even mentally-healthy people so badly want to believe in magic. I worked for a New Age bookseller when I was in college, and he used to tell me how special I was. He was in touch with aliens and magic (that was his biz, right?) and due to his sorcerer status he knew loads about me: I was marked by friendly + powerful aliens as an important figure here on Earth, plus also I was radiating magic of the occult variety. He was counting on such supernatural flattery to get him places. It didn't work on me, but I do wonder how many times he tried that on other young women. Who doesn't want to believe they are special and magical?

      Delete
  3. Sometimes you just want to belong. I only know one cult-ee and she was definitely desperate for support combined with a need to be right ALL THE TIME. Witness, so lots of black-and-white rules. You follow the rules, you are always right, no effort. There's certainly a lot of Simplistic Spirituality on FB, in all the little motivational poster-ette things.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Extreme clarity is very soothing, isn't it? J and I were talking about this today, regarding fatalism, which is another kind of clarity. There's not much difference between "I give up" and "it's all the hands of a higher power." It means you surrender agency, either way. What a relief!

      (It's so nice to have you here, btw!)

      Delete
  4. For a subtle version of the same, read a book about environmental psychology sometime.

    Wright's book, "The Looming Tower," was quite good.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had to look that one up, Laoch. I thought maybe it was the psychology of environmentalists. :) The definition wikipedia gave me was very vague, though: how does it relate to mind control?

      Having read this book, I am inclined to want to read the Looming Tower, too. He's a brilliant writer, and apparently a very good researcher. I wonder if Miscavige has sicced* his Scientology minions on him yet.

      (*Chrome spellcheck doesn't like this. What's the past participle of "to sic" then?)

      Delete
    2. It relates to mind control in that how you structure, shape, color people's environment's directly affects how they act. It is just a more subliminal, subtle and less dramatic way of accomplishing the goal.

      The Scientologists are notoriously litigious so my guess is he will have to fight them in court eventually.

      The Looming Tower is very good. You come away feeling like you understand what led up to 9/11 much better.

      Delete
    3. In this vein, I'd also suggest looking into Drunk Tank Pink. http://www.amazon.com/Drunk-Tank-Pink-Unexpected-Forces/dp/1594204543/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1370709074&sr=8-1&keywords=drunk+tank+pink

      Delete
    4. I listened to a Fresh Air on Drunk Tank Pink and was really intrigued. I love that sort of stuff. (I know you do too!) Did you read it?

      Delete