Fundamentalist Brainwashing

Fundamentalist Brainwashing:

As you read through these slides, it might be a bit difficult to really understand how prominent Fundamentalist Cults brainwash people.

Take a deep breath. Put on some coffee. Turn off the TV. Put down the tweeders & the spacebooks.


Share it when you’re done! (of course)

But really slow down your busy life and realize that millions of people have been affected by the Fundamentalist cult(ure).

Think of at least 5 groups, churches, friends, or even social contacts you can share this with!

The Science Behind Brainwashing

Fundamentalist Brainwashing
Fundamentalist Brainwashing

Brainwashing has, for a long time, been a controversial and polarizing concept among those who study cults.  The term itself is vehemently dislikes to new religious movement scholars and even many anti-cultists have questioned whether it is really worth hanging onto.

The irony of this is that recent advances in neurological measurement have lately begun to catch up to the ethnographic insights of social and behavioral scientists. 

For the first time, it has become possible to actually observe structural changes in the brain that occur when the unlearning, the new learning, the emotional addiction and the traumatic aversion that are all integral parts of brainwashing occur. 

These structural changes, which have been called by those scientists who study them: neuroplasticity, are revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain and providing for the very first time laboratory evidence of the charismatic re-socialization process we have known as thought reform or brainwashing.

What Brainwashing Is

Fundamentalist Brainwashing
Fundamentalist Brainwashing

There is no doubt that brainwashing is popularly used (and abused) as a metaphor.

Metaphoric brainwashing serves as a millstone threatening to drown the concept.  Millstone Metaphors:  cloning, rape, etc.  Objections to the word itself rather than the concept.  The word is not what’s important.

The major obstacle to the widespread acceptance of brainwashing theory has always been that it is a difficult theory to test empirically.  If, as now seems certain, the structure of the human brain is changed in measurable ways by traumatic resocialization experiences, this will provide both evidence for and insight into the extremes to which the human mind can thereby be remolded.  

Such empirical documentation is important because, in the absence of clear empirical evidence, there has been a strong tendency for most social science scholars, both in the USA and in Europe, to deny these phenomena or to explain them away.


Fundamentalist Brainwashing
Fundamentalist Brainwashing

Just involves focused methods of ordinary persuasion well known to social psychologists for many decades orchestrated in a concerted traumatic way within a totalist environment in which countervailing influences can be neutralized or eliminated.


A deployable agent is one who is uncritically obedient to directives perceived as charismatically legitimate(In other words: The person is going to do it with blind, authentic, and happiness as though it’s totally normal)

A deployable agent can be relied on to continue to carry out the wishes of the collectivity regardless of his or her own hedonic interests and in the absence of any external controls or surveillance. (In other words: Even after the person has left the cult like brainwashing, one can still count on them to independently adhere to those same beliefs.)

Deployability can be operationalized as the likelihood that the individual will continue to comply with hitherto egodystonic demands of the group (eg: mending, ironing, mowing the lawn, smuggling, rape, child abuse, murder) when not under direct surveillance.

(Said w/out big words: The subject will continually carry on nomal-ish activities COMBINED WITH the brainwashed belief behaviors as though ironing and abuse have been socially conditioned to be similarly acceptable activities)


  1. Validity: If you distinguish between those who have been raised in a brainwashing fundamentalist cult between those who have been raised in a more mainstream environment, does the behavior still exist?
  2. Measurability: Find a common factor.  Unfortunately this one is simple to measure. The amount of time the individual has spent in the cult being brainwashed directly proportionate to the recovery.  If they have been in for multiple decades – spanning birth, childhood, prepubescent years, adolescence, young adult and into their family forming years – the level of recovery is measureable. Shorter timespans exposed to cult brainwashing can have recovery. Sometimes brainwashed cult survivors simply can NOT cognitively unlearn their beliefs.
  3. Evidence: Notice the frequency that it happens.  If an individual shows consistent and repeated behavioral patterns of False Evidence Appearing Real, then they might have been subjected to abusive brainwashing.


Fundamentalist Brainwashing
Fundamentalist Brainwashing

These phenomena are all part of a family of traumatic events that affect the brain in similar ways.  Of course, they are all different from one another in ways that we don’t have time to discuss here.  Still, their areas of similarity and overlap provide a frame of reference which is helpful in keeping our theory building on the right track.


slide notes


slide notes


Never always ask and trust a person’s self-reporting to this question.  In case that sounded simplistic and confusing, let me clarify.

A Person who has been in a culture of religious brainwashing will almost never say, “Hi. Would you like some home made bacon wrapped jalepenos? By the way, I’ve been brainwashed by the Fundamentalist culture for the last 35 years.”  Yeah, that’s not going to happen.  Obviously!

But even if a subject is asked, “Have you ever taken part of, or been in, a brainwashing fundamentalist cult(ure)?” Asked in a yes/no paper intake form, an electronic questionaire, or verbally in person, the answer will almost always contain a denial of ‘NO‘.

Actively watch for the cluster of behavioral characteristics.

Charismatic Leadership

This model is based on an empirically generalized observation that charismatic leaders are capable of creating organizations that are easy and attractive to enter but difficult and painful to leave. 

The model does not, therefore, attempt to account for how charismatic cults obtain members.  It is assumed that an abundant pool of potential recruits to such groups is always available. 

The model does attempt to account for how some percentage of these ordinary members are turned into hyper compliant deployable agents (brainwashed cult members).  A deployable agent is one who can be relied on to continue to carry out the wishes of the collectivity regardless of his own hedonic interests and in the absence of any external controls.   

  A schematic diagram of this model is seen in the slide.  The model posits that charismatic leaders, using nothing more than their own intrinsic attractiveness and persuasiveness, are able to gather around them an initial core of ‘disciple’-like individuals necessary to create an attractive group.  Many studies have shown how easy it is for such small groups to attract new members from a general pool of “seekers” that always exists in the population of an urbanized mobile society. 

The initial attractiveness of the group, its vision of the future and/or its capacity to bestow seemingly limitless amounts of love and esteem on the new member are sufficient inducements in some cases to motivate a new member to voluntarily undergo a rather difficult and painful process of resocialization known as brainwashing.


  I operationalize brainwashing as an influence process orchestrated toward the goal of hyper credulity and relational addiction.  A key hypothesis is that each of the three phases of brainwashing achieves plateaus in both of these processes. 

Isolating a person (like not letting them leave the college, cult(ure) or fundamentalist defined areas) creates the vulnerability to this sort of transformation.  The identification phase creates the biochemical realignment, and the rebirth phase breaks down the barrier between the two so that convictions can be emotionally energized and held with zeal while emotional attachments can be sacrificed in terms of the charismatic ideology.

The cognitive goal of the stripping phase is to destroy any & all prior convictions and prior relationships of belonging.  The emotional goal of the stripping phase is to create the need for attachments to the brainwashed beliefs. 

Overall, at the completion of the stripping phase, the situation is such that the individual is hungry for convictions and attachments and dependent upon the collectivity to supply them.  This sort of credulity and attachment behavior is widespread among prisoners and hospital patients & fundamentalist religions.

  The cognitive goal of the identification phase is to establish repetitious search for conviction and bring about the erosion of the habit of incredulity.  The emotional goal of the identification phase is to instill the habit of acting out through attachment.  Overall, at the completion of the identification phase, the individual has begun the practice of relying on the collectivity for beliefs and for a cyclic emotional pattern of arousal and comfort.  But, at this point, this reliance is just one highly valued form of existence.  It is not yet viewed as an existential necessity.  

  In the rebirth phase, the cognitive and the emotional tracks come together and mutually support each other.  This often gives the individual a sense of having emerged from a tunnel and an experience of spiritual rebirth.  The cognitive goal of the rebirth phase is to establish a sense of ownership (and pride of ownership) of the new convictions.   The emotional goal of the rebirth phase is to make a full commitment to the new self that is no longer directly dependent upon hope of attachment or fear of separation. (In simpler words, the person is now INDEPENDENTLY thinking these false beliefs for themselves).

  Overall, at the completion of the rebirth phase, we may say that the person has become a fully deployable agent of the charismatic leader.  The brainwashing process is complete.

Most empirical evidence from Lifton and Schein to the present suggests that some participants in the brainwashing  process do not make it all the way through the rebirth phase.  Such participants are not necessarily failures of the system since even a partial brainwashing can produce situationally dependent hyper compliance.  For many purposes, particularly for isolated cults, this may be all that the cult needs.


ok, this slide is really full of tons of information.  most of it being a bit self-explanatory. Nonetheless, here’s the slide notes:

The exact nature of this resocialization process differs from group to group but in general is remarkably similar to the resocialization process that Robert Lifton and Edgar Schein observed in Communist re-education centers in the 1950s.  This process has become known as brainwashing or thought reform. 

Although the specific steps and their exact ordering differ from group to group, they always involve a stripping away of the vestiges of an old identity, the requirement that repeated confessions be made either orally or in writing, and a somewhat random and ultimately debilitating alternation of the giving and the withholding of “unconditional” love and approval.

  This resocialization process has baffled many observers, in my opinion, not only because of its socio-psycho-biological nature, but also because it proceeds simultaneously along two distinct but parallel tracks one involving cognitive functioning and the other involving emotional exchange.  These two tracks lead, in my model, to the attainment of states of hyper credulity and relational addiction respectively. 

Here’s what happens:

  • The group member learns to accept with suspended critical judgment the often shifting beliefs espoused by the charismatic leader. 
  • At the same time, the group member becomes strongly attached to and emotionally dependent upon the charismatic leader and the other group members and cannot bear to be shunned by them. (this is seen in Ms. Conaway and others similar to her scenario – demonstrated by vehement denial of that-which-is-real all the while making awesome & delicious stuffed mushrooms, social charisma, and high social like-ability factor) 
  • These cognitive and emotional states together bring about a situation in which the perceived exit costs for the individual increase without limit. 
  • This closes the trap for the individual and induces the state of hyper compliance
  • As soon as exit from the group (or even from its good graces) ceases to be a subjectively realistic option, it is rational for the individual to comply with whatever the group demands— even to the point of suicide in some instances.  Borrowing from Sartre’s play of that name, this can be seen as the “no exit” syndrome. 
  • When demands for compliance are particularly harsh, the hyper credulity aspect of the process sweetens the pill somewhat by allowing the individual to accept uncritically the justifications offered by the charismatic leader for making these demands, however far fetched these justifications might appear to an outside observer.

  The stages of the brainwashing process and the social structural conditions under which it is possible to brainwash have been well understood for more than a quarter of a century .  The biological aspects of the process have also long been recognized.  But early attempts to model these biological aspects  were hampered by lack of access to recent breakthroughs in the understanding of trauma and addiction.

The concept of brainwashing is relatively straightforward and depends on nothing but standard influence processes well known to mainstream social psychological theory.  However, the concept has been highly controversial, in part because a distorted and rather mystical caricature has been utilized by anti-cult activists as a weapon against unpopular religious cults. 

Hopefully, it is clear that the model being proposed here stays grounded in what is empirically testable, at least in principle, and does not involve such notions as loss of free will or information disease  that have characterized many of the anti-cult models.

RESISTANCE IS FUTILE (at least in perception)

Although resistance is not ultimately possible, some may resist for longer than others.  Those who resist longer may take longer to recover.


Explain ethnographic discrepancies:

  1. some cults brainwash and others don’t
  2. some hide brainwashing more successfully
  3. ethnographers bring their own biases to see what they want to see

Among scholars who have observed these phenomena in religious cults, there exists an enormous variation in estimates of the incidence rate of charismatic resocialization.  An informal survey that I did of such opinions found that, while all agreed that the early (stripping) stage of this process was commonly found among members of charismatic groups, estimates of how frequently the full process occurred varied by as much as three orders of magnitude, from a high of one in ten to a low of one in ten thousand.


slide contents:


slide contents


In actual brainwashing, these five steps are intermingled in a way suggested by the Liftonian chart in Part One of this talk.  But, for the purposes of explication, I’m disassembling them here and presenting them in a sequential way that does not do justice to their simultaneity and mutual dependency in the brainwashing ordeal.

 Unlearning is a key to this and is a more complex and recent evolutionary achievement than learning.  As Freeman (2000) has noted: “Unlearning can selectively break down the stability of the intentional architecture [of the brain] so that general knowledge, personal history, and language and motor skills, although briefly lost . . . are soon regained, but the social attitudes, values, and goals [associated with them] are disolved.  This opens the way for the growth of new learningthe growth of new intentional architecture as long as social guidance and support are provided by the brainwashers.”  In new learning, the adult learns like a child, by using mirror neurons and other rapid learning devices to take in entire cultural constructs uncritically.  Meanwhile, emotional flooding leads to a reliance on cues to know how to feel.  This leads to a dependency or emotional addiction.  What seems to be disturbed in the emotional aspect of brainwashing process are not so much the extroceptive senses (what we normally think of as our five senses) but the introceptive senses of which we are largely unconscious– especially the proprioceptive sense.  Disturbance of proprioception in the brainwashing process is profoundly disorienting, creating a sense of not knowing what one thinks or feels.  In these circumstances, the brain becomes flooded with too many contradictory emotions.  What the group or leader appears to be feeling becomes the source of the individual’s own feelings.  While all this is happening, the traumatic aspects of the harsh brainwashing process are creating walled-off areas of the brain (so called “black holes”) where neurons do not fire at all.  Traumatic aversion creates places in the individual’s own brain where he or she cannot go.

Important to clarify at the outset where we are scientifically at this point in time.  A plausible and testable biopsychosocial theory has begun to emerge.  As we succeed in testing it, as with all theories, many of the details will require modification and elaboration.  I am reasonably confident that that the broad contours will remain intact.  In this second part of my talk, I will be outlining this theory without burdening the presentation with a lot of qualifying clauses (like “as far as we currently know” or “much evidence suggests but other evidence contradicts”). This will allow a crisper presentation of what is a fairly complicated scientific argument.  But I wouldn’t want you to come away from this talk thinking that more has been definitively proven than is the case.


slide contents:

Traumatic unlearning remarkable evolutionary achievement of higher mammals.  Oxytocin and the first litter.

The childbirth pain analogy: distinction between forgetting and unlearning.  Unlearning involves the disruption of emotional memory. (Emotional) Forgetting involves the disruption of the memory of emotions.

my notes: here’s what i don’t really like about this dude’s slides – they’re good. don’t get me wrong.  but these are 


slide contents: (this is some deep sh!t ~ha! it’s either really simple to understand, incredibly difficult to comprehend, yet the “basic concept” is really clear = This who brainwashing stuff is real and takes a very specialized and systematic approach to begin recovery.) If you or someone you know has been immersed in a cult – be it since birth for 35+ years or a 4 year degree in one of these fundamentalist colleges- DO NOT ENABLE! Encourage them to seek professional level, highly specified, in patient therapy.


Learning new assimilated meanings: I think this implies that a lot of times someone has to take a very, Very, VERY purpose driven approach to letting go of their hyper-vigilantly held beliefs and accepting reality for what, where, who, when, and why they were taught the invalid beliefs.

I know that if Ms. Conaway had ever really seen me for who I am, it would have distinguished the differences between her past relationships, and me.  She would have unlearned that going to counselling does not result in Aubree, Alexis, and Katelyn being taken away. And, perhaps she could have unlearned that going to a simpler church counselor just to find some contacts for cult-specific licensed profession therapy centers did NOT need to result in her taking the nuclear-option out on me.

But, it’s a bit too late for that.  On to the next slide.


slide contents: (simpler language after slide contents)

The brain consists of patterns of connections among neurons and the synapses that link them.  Brain mapping has shown that neurons can be connected in many different ways as shown in this slide.  Most important for our discussion are those loops of positive feedback that lead to ever increasing excitation until a sudden plateau brings exhaustion.  Brainwashing relies on the the creation of these sorts of positive feedback loops at the neuron level.

(In simpler words:) Look at the bottom middle two. Not quite sure how to articulate this but here goes.  The one on the left is two positives.  “Hey honey. Thanks for not screaming violently at me b/c you thought you heard me say something that Jason (1st ex) said.” And the one on the right is the equivalent of Healthy Boundaries and goes like, “uhm…. Hey Faith.  Did I just say that, or did your mind just hear that? There’s a difference & I need to trust that your healthy & healed mind (post cult brainwashing) heard me ask you why your screaming at me like I’m Jason.”  (stays in cognitive psychosis of traumatic brainwashed induced flashbacks…) “Ok. If you don’t mind taking a few deep breathes and calming down for a second, that’d be great.  I’m gonna give you a bit of separation ’till the endorphins pass. Do you want the usual Route44 from Sonic?” (Yeah. That’s fine!) “Ok. The girls and I’ll be back in about 10 minutes.”


slide contents:

Predicting social behavior from brain patterns:

Shows interaction of dendrites and axons at the cellular level (top two graphs) and at the mesoscopic levels (bottom two graphs). 

Dendrites make waves and axons make pulses.  Pulses are converted to waves in the synapses and waves are converted to pulses in the trigger zones. 

Millions of neurons firing at roughly the same time create the asymmetric graphs in which the wave pulse conversions increase in excitement rapidly and then plateau in saturation  (Pavlov’s transmarginal inhibition)

Nonlinear dynamic analysis (chaos modeling) can be used to predict behavioral results of changes at the level ovf changed neural connections, which can the be observed by PET scanning. This is where the most new progress is expected in the next ten years.

(in simpler words: this is some badass nerdy stuff that I could geek out on if one ever studied to be a neurologist. hmmmmmm…..😀)


slide contents: Bullet point one there is pretty interesting.  Stimuli that is external to the person…..? IF ever the person becomes disoriented, they will search for external cues.  So, instead of saying to one’s self, “Oh. Hey wait a minute.  The girls aren’t being abducted or kidnapped.  They’re right there in the Suburban.”  <— That <— can only happen if the person is NOT momentarily disoriented, but can instead calmly subside their traumatic induced panic attack and REorient themselves – with OUT any external stimuli.


slide contents: (deep stuff, but worth the read) 

At the sensory level, what is disturbed in the brainwashing process are not so much the extroceptive senses (what we think of as our normal five senses) but the introceptive senses, of which we are largely unconscious.  Crucial among these is what is known as the proprioceptive sense (the feedback that gives a sense of parts of our body as they move in relation to each other– most especially eye movement.)  Proprioceptive dysfunction in children is a tragic disorder often stigmatized as clumsiness.  Induced proprioceptive disorder in cult members is profoundly disorienting but, instead of leading to clumsy motor behavior, creates a sense of not knowing what one thinks or feels and desperately looking for social cues to learn what thoughts and feelings are appropriate.

At the same time, and in parallel, neural activity in the brain with multiple feedback loops supports an asymmetry that results in the possibility of (and the modification of) intentional choice.  These loops can be altered or confused in the brainwashing process resulting in the perception of the exhaustion of intentionality that Lifton, Singer, and Lalich have described so eloquently, as have the autobiographies of some ex-cult members.

Proprioception is the feedback sense of the movement of parts of the body (including the eyes) in relation to each other.  Proprioceptive dysfunction in children is a pathological clumsiness due to the inhibition of proprioception.

The importance of proprioception to the formation and stability of intentions helps to explain the inducement of proprioceptive dysfunction in the brainwashing process through sleep deprivation and interuption of normal circadian rhythms.


slide contents: 

Flooding the brain and feeling what we think we should feel.  In these circumstances, the brain can be shown to become flooded with too much neural activity and thus too many contradictory emotions.  There is a bewildered dependence on outside cues not only for how to feel but also for how to interpret one’s own feelings.  The Schachter-Singer experiments of the 1960s showed that these cued emotions can become real long lasting emotional dispositions.  These in turn, at the cognitive level, induce what Janja Lalich has called “bounded choice” in which choices are constrained to those associated with acceptable feelings.  This gives the brainwashed subject the illusion of freedom of choice and leads to the well-known denial by the brainwashed that they are brainwashed.


slide contents: 

Just as psychotropic drugs need to be titrated over time to remain effective, in the same way brainwashing will not continue in its effects indefinitely unless it is periodically reinforced.

(in other words:) When someone comes to you with a sudden horrific claim, keep their accusation in perspective BEFORE making a knee-jerk impulsive reaction.

Brian repairing after BRAINWASHING

slide contents: 

But all is not lost.  The damaged brain also repairs itself as can be seen in simple observable instances of neuroplasticity.  When receptors are blocked, the brain tries to overcome the blockade by forming new receptors.  Here, the blockade is shown with drugs but can also, as van der Volk has shown, be created with trauma.

This demonstrates that the brain repairs itself, even from brainwashing.  No influence is permanent.  All influence decays over time and brainwashing is no exception.  This explains why the brainwashing effects on the Korean War prisoners in the 1950s were not permanent.  From from being proof that brainwashing is bogus, as some cult apologists have argued, this is actually a predictable consequence of the theory.

(my own thoughts: I really do wonder if this can be reversed.  In this slide, he’s talking about ‘war prisoners’.  That’s an acute time period.  What about when someone has been born into a cult and is the 2nd generation? …..and stayed in the “bubble” for 35 years?  At what point does a person’s brain become “unrecoverable” from the trauma?)


slide contents:

(i could probably type up my own notes on this slide for years)


slide contents:

Sooner or later, if you stick around long enough, you will buy the whole package


slide contents:

Where are we compared to 20 years ago?

  Movement from the political/moral arena to the scientific arena

  Movement from the psychiatric to the domain of social psychology

Where are we compared to 10 years ago?

From conceptual confusion to conceptual clarity

From scarcity of clear cases to abundance of clear cases

Movement from social psychology to a biopsychosocial model

Where are we compared to 10 years from now?

Many of the details still need testing

All of the details need direct as opposed to indirect testing

Field level portable PET scans will be the next important technological breakthrough

Emergence of neuropsychology, neurosociology, neuropolitics (Sardamov 2007)


As you read through these slides, it might be a bit difficult to really understand how prominent Fundamentalist Cults brainwash people.

Take a deep breath. Put on some coffee. Turn off the TV. Put down the tweeders & the spacebooks.


Share it when you’re done! (of course)

But really slow down your busy life and realize that millions of people have been affected by the Fundamentalist cult(ure).

Think of at least 5 groups, churches, friends, or even social contacts you can share this with!

Don't Leave Silent. Say Something!