May 04 2010

Hypnotized by Charisma

Have you ever found yourself saying, “What were they thinking?” or more importantly, “What was I thinking?” In the light of day (when your thinking at least appears to be more clear and rational) you may have a hard time understanding how you were fooled by a con man, caved in to a slick salesperson, or were taken in by a charismatic politician. It’s almost as if your brain were functioning differently.

Well – increasingly evidence suggests that perhaps it was. A recent study, looking at fMRI scans of Christians and non-Christians in response to the speech of a faith healer, is just the latest in a series of studies which sheds an interesting light on how our monkey brains work.

But first, some background.

Our brains, as I have discussed in previous posts, is organized like a committee. There are modules that are optimized for certain kinds of processing, and there are networks among those modules that are involved with specific mental tasks and functions. These all report to the “global workspace”, or a widely distributed area of the brain that puts it all together as our conscious stream. Meanwhile different parts of the brain compete for attention, cortical resources, and ultimate control of our behavior. (This is at least my understanding of the current synthesis of research.)

For example, one part of our brain may be producing a feeling of hunger and desire toward that cheesecake, while another (executive function) is looking out for our long term health interests, and still another may be feeling guilt or shame. It all comes together, and the net result is our behavior – do we eat the cheesecake or not, or perhaps we compromise and have “just a small slice.” We may not even be aware off all the factors that lead to that net result, just the outcome. Then our frontal lobes happily rationalize our decision and diminish the cognitive dissonance and internal conflict.

Neuroscientists are painting an increasingly complex picture of all the parts of the brain and how they work together, and this is tying in nicely to psychological research that describes how people behave (without looking specifically at how it relates to brain function). Meanwhile, evolutionary psychologists are trying to explain it all from an evolutionary perspective. (This layer is a bit speculative and controversial – I find it fascinating, but acknowledge the difficulty in devising testable models.)

One area that I find particularly interesting is how different parts of our brain can be suppressed at different times. We can “turn off” our critical thinking, for example. This seems to be partly due to simple resource availability. To some degree cortical function is a zero sum game, especially when different neural networks literally share gray matter. When one is activated, the other is diminished because the processing power is being used. This is like running multiple applications on your computer, they all slow down, but some may get priority over others.

We all experience this every day as being “distracted” or in the perils of multi-tasking. The evidence is now pretty solid that talking on the phone while driving is dangerous – it takes too much brain power away from concentrating on the road. And by now most of you probably have seen fun examples of inattentional blindness.

But there is more going on here than just limited brain resources. Hypnotism is now often used in psychological research as a tool. When one is hypnotized they are not in a trance or asleep. In fact they are relaxed but have increased awareness. They are also highly suggestible. Research shows that susceptible individuals actually inhibit their frontal lobe executive function while hypnotized. A small minority of  individuals can even suppress the Stroop effect – they can turn off their language center in response to a post hypnotic suggestion.

So while hypnosis is not a trance, or an altered state of consciousness like sleep, it does represent a state in which there is a certain proportion of activity in different parts of the brain – specifically inhibited executive function, increasing suggestibility. Our waking state has several different “sub states” that we all recognize. We can be daydreaming, focusing on a specific task and filtering out extraneous information, on alert and sensitive to any outside stimuli, passive like when watching TV, or multi-tasking. And these are different from emotional states that can also color our brain function.

To summarize – even while awake, our brains can be in different identifiable states that alter how we process information. And one of those states – hypnosis – involves a decrease in critical thinking and executive function.

To extend this a bit – psychologists have also studied our response to various social interactions. This reveals that people perform better on tasks when exposed to supportive or in-group people, and worse when exposed to out-group individuals. This has been interpreted as  exposure to people we perceive less favorably using up limited brain resources, therefore leaving less for other tasks. While being exposed to comfortable people puts us at ease, freeing up brain resources for other tasks.

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?”

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