Christian Long

Diane Benscoter: How Cults Rewire the Brain

In TED Talks on April 6, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Reflection by JENNA K.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Diane Benscoter: How Cults Rewire the Brain

When thinking of the word “cult”, one thinks of a group of people that believes so strongly in an idea that they become a danger to themselves and to others around them. The infectious spreading of ideas, behaviors, and lifestyles is a scary thought, especially when they can be hazardous to human lives. Imagine a belief system that is trusted and accepted so strongly, followed so strictly, and spread so quickly that people outside of that belief are put in great danger. There are 2.5 million cult members in the United States and there have been over 20 million deaths due to involvement in cults in the past ten years. The chance of one family member joining a cult is four times greater than acquiring AIDS. The growth of cults and the violence and hatred that spreads because of them is a serious problem.

But what if this problem can be solved through education and research like Diane Benscoter believes?*

A cult is an isolated group of humans infected by a meme and brainwashed repetitively through exposure to an environment of leader-worship. A meme is defined as an information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior. Once infected, members begin spreading the pattern through slogans, catch-phrases, icons, and inventions. Any idea or information pattern that is replicated and spread from one human being to another is memetic. A viral memetic infection, as Benscoter mentioned, is the successful input of a meme in a human mind. Those who are infected are strongly influenced by a meme and their own lives become unimportant and subordinate to the reproduction of the infecting meme. Once infected, the mind is taken over by what Benscoter described as a circular logic. The person begins believing that if he or she follows the ways of the cult dutifully, everything they believe is wrong with the world will be fixed. Anything outside this cycle becomes obsolete, and the group becomes even more isolated. Once isolated, those who do not follow the same belief system become targets and the world is divided into “us” and “them” where the latter is everybody outside their cult. When this happens any course of action that tries to subdue those non-believers becomes rational and necessary – and that extremist attitude is the danger of cults.

As Benscoter pointed out, just like viruses, memes can more strongly affect people who are compromised and weaker. Cults offer easy ideas to complex questions, and when a person is in a vulnerable state, a feeling of understanding can seem helpful. Considering this, one way to fight the growth of cults would be to help those who have suffered and are vulnerable to the influence of cults. It seems it would be helpful if we put more effort in the rehabilitation of those who have been altered by life’s many traumas. Many times people become disoriented, insecure, isolated, or depressed and they have nobody to look to. If we were able to make help more accessible, I believe we could prevent people from turning to cults and lessen the influence those groups have on more individuals. Another way to prevent individuals from becoming involved in cults would to apply more censorship to our surroundings. But, although this may eliminate the milder groups, the more extreme ones will become stronger in order to survive and the highly infective memes will be able to do more damage. Another way of suppressing infectious memes is by exposing individuals to the ideas of faith, tolerance, and skepticism. If we can accept that there are a multitude of ideologies out there, groups of one belief system will not feel obligated to attack those of other belief systems.

For a few years Benscoter participated in “deprogramming” cult members by kidnapping them and keeping them in a safe area for some time while she guided them away from the cycle of thinking that they were infected with. While this method seems effective, it’s very unrealistic when considering the 2.5 million cult members in the United States. How can we help millions of people steer away from the dangerous path presented by cults without spending weeks on one individual? Although necessary, who has the time and resources to solve this problem in such a round about way? I think it would be useful to research ways to actually break the circular logic with some sort of chemical. We can hinder the further growth of cults, but we also need to help those who have already chosen that direction.


*Everything explained in this blog is either from the TED Talk itself or from the following websites:

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