NOTE: This article is taken from The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions, pp. 47-51.
One of the problems with the way our brains function has to do with the ease with which others can influence it. I am not referring to someone convincing us of something using reason; quite the contrary. This problem exists because the way our brains function makes it possible for us to be influenced by circumventing our ability to reason. In its simplest form we can be persuaded to accept someone’s suggestion about what is true. In its most severe form we can be brainwashed. In essence, the different ways in which our left and brain hemispheres deal with context, the nature of our different brain activity states, the ways in which our brains can be caused to malfunction, and other factors have made it possible for people to develop methods to manipulate what we believe without our realizing that it is happening. The degree to which this is possible varies from person to person, but, that fact notwithstanding, our control over our beliefs is not as secure as you might think. Most of us have seen demonstrations of hypnosis. Understanding what it is and how it works is essential to understanding neurolinguistic programming, persuasion techniques, and brainwashing.
The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) found that dogs can be retrained easily after they have been stressed, physically exhausted, or deprived of sleep. One theory suggests that shared stressful activity has been a unifying force for our ancestors. For example, group activities like rhythmic chanting and clapping, drumming and music making, dancing, and rituals, such as those used in Voodoo ceremonies, when practiced to the point of exhaustion may have established common group beliefs using Pavlov’s conversion process.1
Although it is likely that we humans have experienced hypnotic trances throughout our history, it is relatively recently that hypnotic trances have been used by medical professionals for treating mental conditions, controlling pain and nausea, relaxing anxious patients, relieving post-surgical depression, and counteracting some sexual dysfunctions. Hypnotizeability is thought to peak between the ages of 10 and 12 years. People who achieve high scores on hypnotic susceptibility tests, such as the Stamford Scales of Hypnotic Susceptibility [ http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~kihlstrm/PDFfiles/Hypnotizability/SHSSC%20Script.pdf ], tend to have a history of imaginative involvement. Hypnotic trances begin with an “induction” and are “deepened” to increase the likelihood that hypnotic “suggestions” will be acted upon. Induction can involve relaxation, monotonous stimulation, involvement in fantasy, activation of unconscious motives, and initiation of aggressive behavior. Once a trance is induced, a rhythm at the approximate rate of the human heart-beat will increase its depth. Thereafter, suggestions can be “planted” with a command from an authority figure.2
What is happening in the brain to make hypnosis possible? Sensors sensitive to weak electric fields, when placed on the scalp, register overall activity resulting from neuronal activity in the brain. Charts of brain electrical activity are shown in Appendix C. As neuronal activity changes with our mental state, electrodes on the scalp surface can detect electromagnetic wave patterns of different frequencies. The patterns range from ½ to well over 13 cycles per second (Hertz or Hz), and have been grouped and labeled with Greek letters. Brains oscillating at frequencies of 3 Hz and lower are in a delta state, at 4 to 7 Hz are in theta, at 8 to 12 Hz are in alpha, at 13 to 19 Hz are in beta, and at 20 to 100 Hz are in gamma. When we are in the waking state we usually have a high degree of beta activity. Passing from being awake to being asleep involves passing through a series of brain states. Although the states overlap and involve some complexities, the process begins with alpha immediately preceding sleep and ends with delta in the deepest sleep state. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, associated with dreaming, demonstrates a wave pattern similar to the post-alpha or beginning sleep state.3 Gamma wave activity at about 40 Hz has been associated with perception and learning arising from synchronized activity of clusters of neurons. Experiments suggest that the electrical peaks of large numbers of neurons may synchronize to unify recorded neural information into a coherent perception and recollection. According to Wolf Singer of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, gamma activity “could well be the mechanism that binds neurons into functionally coherent assemblies.”4
Of the various brain states, one in particular is significant regarding our beliefs. A trance is an altered state of consciousness, like sleepwalking, which involves the alpha state. Typical signs of being in an alpha trance are body relaxation, dilated pupils, and a high degree of suggestibility. A relaxed feeling results from an alpha-related release of opiate-like molecules such as enkephalins and beta-endorphins, introducing an addictive element to the alpha trance. We are much more likely to accept suggestions from an authority figure while we are in a deep alpha trance than in a fully conscious beta state. To varying degrees, when in this condition, our beliefs can be altered through commands or suggestions given by the person controlling the trance. And experiences during a deep trance might not be remembered unless you are instructed to remember.
How is an eyes-open alpha trance induced? Recall that hypnotizeability varies from person to person, but a substantial part of the population is susceptible to an eyes-open alpha trance. Electrical measurements have shown that during a trance state the right brain hemisphere is much more active than the left brain hemisphere. In a simplified view the right hemisphere deals with emotions and imagination, and functions without the capacity to relate present experiences to the past or the future. This is quite unlike the left hemisphere, which is analytical and rational, and constantly strives to find meaning in experiences and to place them into an overall context. The left hemisphere, in attempting to ascribe meaning to events, often incorrectly links cause and effect, thereby creating a false memory of events and their meanings.5
Imperfect as it is, given the left hemisphere’s context evaluation of information, it is better able to detect charlatans and thereby protect the context-deficient, gullible right hemisphere. That electrical activity in the left hemisphere is low during alpha trances while the right hemisphere is active suggests that during alpha trances our connection with reality and the source of our skepticism is diminished and that we are much more likely to believe what we are told.
Regular meditation for at least an hour every day, for at least a few weeks, is very likely to cause a prolonged state of alpha with little strong beta. Excessive and continual meditation is part of some spiritual rituals, and the resultant stifling of virtually all left hemisphere rational thought and the resulting feeling of detachment from reality is perceived by some as disinterested wisdom and freedom from desire—or a higher state of consciousness. It appears to fit the description of Buddhist Nirvana. [Note: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the monastics are required to do at least 1/2 hour of Prayer of the Heart daily. Monastics who do their prayer rule before bed, have their entire vigil (3+ hours) to do the meditative breathing exercises of Prayer of the Heart. As well, many monastics do rhythmic breathing while mentally reciting the prayer during the long church services. The excessive daily meditative breathing exercises, combined with long hours of labor and minimal hours of sleep broken up into two portions makes the average monastic a perfect candidate to be induced into an eyes-open alpha trance].
Meditation and self-hypnosis are voluntary activities. However, when alpha trances are induced involuntarily and a manipulator alters our beliefs, we call it brainwashing. Then again, if we agree with the manipulator, we may call it conversion, motivation inducement, or being born again. In other words, even though the induced alpha state subject is aware that his or her beliefs are being manipulated, others may agree that it is a good thing—if they believe in the purpose. Ordinary citizens are converted into single-minded military units by experiencing boot camp training. Criminals are rehabilitated when they experience religious “rebirth.” People are “healed” at revival meetings. Human-potential organizations use this kind of belief manipulation to help some to deal with their counterproductive and self-destructive beliefs. [Note: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, “conversion” is “voluntary” as the monastics struggle to renounce their own way of thinking in order to acquire the Elder’s way of thinking. As Geronda Ephraim teaches: One should say, “Whatever the elder believes, thinks, and decides, I also believe, think, and decide in exactly the same way”. monastics struggle, insult and reproach themselves, beat themselves with wooden sticks, and do various forms of mental and physical exercises to “acquire the fronima of Geronda.”]
- Bower, Bruce, “Bridging the Brain Gap,” in Science News, November 2, 1996, Vol. 150, No. 18, p. 280.
- Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd Edition, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1994, Vol. 2, pp. 197-9.
- Encyclopedia of Psychology, 1994, Vol. 1, pp. 183-4.
- “Neural ties that bind perception,” in Science News, February 20, 1999, Vol. 155, p. 122. More in Bower, Bruce, “Brain cells work together to pay attention,” in Science News, march 11, 2000, Vol. 157, p. 167.
- Gazzinga, Michael S., “The Split Brain Revisited,” in Scientific American, July, 1998, pp. 51-5.
To understand how belief manipulation and alpha-trance states work in zealotry and fundamentalism, as well as one of the more thorough descriptions that can be applied to the mechanisms of life in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, see:
A key concept in the above writing, as it pertains to monastic life in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, is:
A brainwasher’s objective is to change what you believe to what he or she wants you to believe. It can be accomplished in four steps—alertness reduction, confusion, thought stopping, and maintenance.
Alertness reduction: With the exception of Arizona–Geronda Paisios does not like his monks to eat sugar because it upsets normal brain chemistry–most of the Geronda Ephraim’s monastics eat desserts on a daily basis, sometimes in excessive amounts. This is allowed out of “economia.” The diets fluctuate from high carbs and high proteins depending on time period. A typical day of desserts for a monastic can be: Breakfast has a Nutella type snack. At 10 am, a monk brings honey buns to everyone. Lunch has a piece of baklava. At 2:30 pm, a monk brings around Oreo cookies. Dinner may or may not have a snack. After Apodeipno, the monastics gather for a large piece of cheesecake, or a bowl of 3 scoops of ice cream, etc. Many dairy desserts have been converted into fasting recipes with the help of Coffemate and other non-dairy products.
Fatigue associated with strenuous activity and sleep deprivation can impair your ability to reason as well: If a monastic is able to fall asleep on time, he/she can average 6 1/2 – 7 hours+ of sleep a day, which is broken up into two portions. This broken sleep, and lack of normal sleep, affects the circadian rhythm. Combine this with long work hours and strenuous labor, and it produces a monastic in a constant state of fatigue.
After your alertness has been reduced, programmed confusion can be achieved by overloading you with information, questions, guilt, self-doubt, or humiliation, perhaps in combination. Monastics are constantly bombarded with information: readings at lunch and dinner, requirements of spiritual reading, frequent homilies by the superior. This is also combined with frequent “tests” of insults and being humiliated. When in trouble, with rapid fire questions, accusations, and insults, etc.
Thought stopping involves placing you in a trance-like alpha state. It is achieved in stages. Focusing on a simple mental task such as meditation, chanting, or rhythmic marching or dancing at first calms you; if that focusing is prolonged, you will hallucinate. You will focus solely on your brainwasher’s agenda and will ignore everything else. And it will all be done within the context of the movement, cause, organization, or whatever wants to control your thinking. When you are under your brainwasher’s control, you will be taught the cult’s beliefs while any of your unacceptable pre-existing beliefs will be “washed” away. This, in essence, explains life in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries to a tee. “Besides the prayer, the only two phrases a monk should speak are ‘Na einai evlogemeno’ and ‘Evlogeson.’ Nothing else,'” as Geronda Ephraim teaches. All thoughts, feelings, emotions, ego, self-identity, etc., are eradicated through ceaseless recitation of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” and blind obedience. Anything other than Geronda Ephraim’s “fronima” (or mindset) is either demonic or worldly and has no place in the mind or heart of his monastics.
Control will be maintained through reinforcement at regular meetings or by your living with other converts, and you may be kept away from your family and others who are likely to interfere with the brainwasher’s agenda. Maintenance is intended to reinforce your new beliefs and to create a sense of belonging. These are the regular homilies, readings during meals, etc., as well as living in the monastery, constantly monitored and under the watchful eye of the Elder.