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?”

20 responses so far

20 thoughts on “Hypnotized by Charisma”

  1. Timmyson says:

    So there is an obvious (though somewhat unflattering) question to ask here that you don’t address: Do the non-Christians turn off their critical thinking when they are being addressed by a non-Christian speaker?

  2. Lucian says:

    Thank you for sharing this one with us Steve. I’m currently reading the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and the book is discussing a topic very similar to the issues brought up in this article. Most notably, what the results imply to evolutionary psychologists (I’m with you Steve, I find their work especially interesting) how we are psychologically predisposed to religion, in this case, the suggestions of a charismatic individual. I just want to echo what you said of our “inherited monkey brains…” we need to be aware of the traps we can fall into as humans and constantly keep our critical thinking filters up. If only more of the populace knew how their brains worked. Keep it up Dr. Novella.

  3. daedalus2u says:

    Great research and a very nice article explaining it. This fits right in with my conceptualization of the autism spectrum (which all of us have a place on), a trade-off of a “theory of mind” for a “theory of reality”.

    This is how all top-down social power hierarchies are formed, by people at the bottom believing the “leaders” at the top. The content of the belief doesn’t matter. This type of behavior is obvious in religious and political power hierarchies where the “beliefs” don’t have a basis in facts, logic or reality. This is the essence of peer pressure. But it can occur even in science, where anointed “experts” exert disproportionate influence based on their seniority or on their perceived expertise rather than on the facts. Even very senior scientists can fall into this trap, the Emperor’s new clothes effect, where they accept an idea because it is their idea, and not because it best fits the facts. The comments by Watson on genetics are an example.

    Feynman’s discussion on Cargo Cult Science is an excellent warning for scientists to not let this creep into their work. Unfortunately there is such a pull by our evolved monkey brains to fit into a social power hierarchy that it is really difficult.

    I have an older brother who is a “born again” Christian. When I was a teenager, he was involved in a cult, and I went to some of the meetings a number of times to see what it was about. It was a very high pressure sales pitch to “accept” and surrender to Jesus. As hard as I tried, I could not turn off my critical thinking and reality testing abilities. He left that cult years later when he found the leader in multiple lies. But he joined others. Older and wiser, I now know to be more careful and don’t turn my reality testing off for anything.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to have an fMRI of political candidates listening to such things before we decide who to vote for.

  4. T. says:

    The heuristics and biases literature may shed some light on the phenomena described. (See, e.g., the work of Norbert Schwarz). If people are not relying on modes of critical thought, they are likely relying on feelings and moods to make evaluative judgments. The research suggests that individuals are more likely to rely on feelings as a basis for judgment, for instance, when those feelings appear highly relevant to the judgment. Secondly, reliance on feelings is more likely when other informational inputs are scarce. Thirdly, increasing cognitive load and task demands coupled with decreasing cognitive resources constitute another set of conditions.

    The literature indicates that misattribution manipulations tend to be more prevalent with individuals in a sad rather than happy mood. While heuristic processing is reportedly more frequent in happy moods (and systematic processing in sad moods, by contrast), sad individuals would seem more prone to engage in causal thinking about their very moods.

    To my own preliminary thinking, it may be the case that the ‘successful’ charismatic con artist or guru shifts the affect of his audience, and that is part of the act. If he burdens his listeners congnitive capacities with lengthy presentation and esoterica, their moods take on a sadder effect, at least initially. Thinking in this state may become causal, i.e., self-reflective to some extent, at which point the con artist, having created the sense of perceived need, proceeds to shift affect into the positive range by offering a cure or plan for whatever ails. Once in a more positive range, the audience member relies on the affect heuristic, dampening critical causal thought.

    At the risk of vast oversimplification, the sequence seems to run something like: (1) induction to feel a sense of sadness, inadequacy, loss in the presence of some charismatic persona (2) wonder why you are feeling the sadness and inadequacy, etc., (3) be led to transition into a happier mental state or even euphoria–well into heuristic-dominant, non-critical thinking–and then be persuaded to turn over money, etc.

    In conclusion, I would pay attention not only to my self-perceived reality testing functions, but to subtle affective shifts which may be amplified in social settings or according to different contexts.

  5. Marshall says:

    Timmyson’s question is the first that popped out at me. I’d hate to cite this study to say “ha-ha, look, Christians turn off critical thinking during their religion-induced hypnosis of Bible study” when the counter-argument (that we skeptics do the same to non-religious material) might still hold.

  6. eean says:

    I guess Timmyson’s question didn’t pop out at me since the answer is pretty obvious, that Christianity could be swapped out for any coherent group. This wasn’t a study on Christians so much as the brain in general, which is why a neurologist is blogging about it. 🙂

    I think all of us are familiar with the feeling of “hey I really agree with this gal or dude” and get into the emotion of the speech. A few MLK day’s ago, I went on the web and listened to a few of his speeches. Despite not being Christian or black, it’s so easy to fall into his speeches (which turns out means my critical thinking was turning off). And though it wasn’t clear tribalism at work, I do consider myself part of a liberal movement that MLK Jr was also a part of. So its the same situation.

    Like the evolutionary psychologists point out, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    I also wonder how this applies to people shouting orders when you’re driving. My dad always told us to say “green” instead of “go” since the latter would circumvent normal decision making. I find the same thing happening when I drive.

  7. I agree that it is not reasonable to interpret this study as saying something unique about Christians – it is just the model they used. We all have basically the same brains (obviously with variations) – I think the real lesson is that we are all susceptible, so make an effort to keep your skepticism engaged, especially when confronted with a situation that is likely to turn it down.

  8. ccbowers says:

    How much of this effect is the charisma of the person versus the level to which we agree with the message?

    What about the flip-side of this… is this also how we can be reluctant to change our minds? Is this how we can crank up our ‘skepticism’ too much (to an insurmountable degree) in the light of new evidence, if the message (or messenger) is one that contradicts our own beliefs/ideology?

  9. HHC says:

    Are we hypnotized by charisma or really the passion of the human voice. It has quite an expressive range to humans with fine hearing. But is the charisma present when the audience is hearing impaired? Or the same impassioned speech given by a poor speaker? Or when there is not sound, and only sign is used?

  10. Juan Antonio says:

    Steve! Just wanted to drop a quick comment saying how much I love your blog posts, specially when explaining new studies on how the brain works and putting them in context with the things that scientists have already been figuring out.

    I’m very passionate about science in general, and trying to understand how the brain works is one of those ultimate questions I’ve always been very excited about (I’m a computer science specialized in AI related topics).

    Have you ever considered writing a book about this? i.e., our current knowledge and understanding about how the brain works? Being yourself a neurologist and with the amazing skills you have to explain things very clearly, I would definitively love to read a book like that!

  11. BillyJoe7 says:

    Stephen Novella,

    “And by now most of you probably have seen fun examples of inattentional blindness.

    That is the famous example of “change blindness”

    Here is the famous example of “inattention blindness”:

  12. BillyJoe7 says:

    …sorry, Steven.

  13. brian7777 says:

    I suspect a good reason to turn off some of the critical thinking centers is that skepticism, while healthy and rewarding in many circumstances, is costly and cumbersome in others. None of us, rationalist, mystic, ideologue, skeptic, could process *all* of our conversations with our skeptical filters in full mode–it would require far too much. It makes sense that once some person or speaker passes some threshold of trust, they would be exposed to less challenge, apparently getting a pass in regards to statements that would receive a clear challenge from outsiders. I would think there would have been an evolutionary advantage in a mental system that maintains a balance between the efficiency of not processing some statements through critical, challenging thought, and the need to catch cheaters or filter out unreliable claims.

    The problem, of course, is that the system can be gamed by any group with an agenda that might not bear up to critical scrutiny. Charismatic speaks seem to be using their rhetorical skills to get “insider status” and past those critical mental modules.

  14. Billy – Oops, you are correct. I should have linked to the basketball thing. Thanks.

  15. Rhettfairy says:

    In response to Timmyson, I found this quote in the study:

    “In the secular group, we found no significant activations in these contrasts, which indicate that these participants did not
    modulate their neuronal response to the prayers according to the perceived speakers’ religious status.”

    I take this to mean “no”, in answer to your question.

  16. Roger Bigod says:

    Was there any tendency to lateralization? One would expect that the non-dominant hemisphere, being new agey and holistic, might be more suggestible. OTOH, the dominant hemisphere tends to overlook inconsistent data and confabulate.

    Religious messages might involve some elements that more mundane subjects wouldn’t have. IIRC, temporal lobe seizures can involve obsessive thinking about cosmic issues and the Meaning of It All. It would be interesting to know if that part of the brain is involved here.

  17. ccbowers says:


    You misunderstand the quote… they quote is referring to their specific study, and the study was not specifically designed to address Timmyson’s question. The real-life answer is likely “yes”. The study does not imply this phenonemon is unique to the religious, but they used the religious model. Other people who subscribe to other ideologies (religious and nonreligious) and find a speaker charming should experience similar phenomena.

  18. acipsen says:

    Hi Steven,

    I’m a little confused by your statement

    “… 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.”

    As I read the study (which was, admittedly, not very carefully), there was no significant response among the secular group to any of the speakers. This is also the message I get from the quote in Rhettfairy’s comment.

    Love the blog, by the way.


  19. daedalus2u says:

    I know a woman MD, who has listened to Andrew Wakefield talk, and she mentioned that she thought he was quite charismatic.

  20. ccbowers says:

    “As I read the study (which was, admittedly, not very carefully), there was no significant response among the secular group to any of the speakers”

    I agree, I’m not sure if he misread the study or if I missed something in glancing over the study.

    “This is also the message I get from the quote in Rhettfairy’s comment.”

    I see why it is confusing when we attempt to apply their results to the real world (which is how I took Timmyson’s comment)… this study was looking at prayer specifically, not nonprayer speech (they removed this group from their analysis). So all of the groups they used in the analysis utilized prayer as their speech.

    Since the 2 groups were Secular and Christian, it is not surprising that the Secular group was not affected by the religious status of the speaker…. as group they did not pray in their normal lives nor have a strong belief in a god. Why would they be affected by the religious status? Only the Christians were affected by the perceived religious status of the speaker, and that is because two of the categories were Christian speakers.

    This does not mean, in a different context, that a secular person could not have a similar response. The study design would have to be different (one that doesn’t use prayer as the method of communication). I hope that clears

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