Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Is Hanegraaff Too Heavenly Minded? Objective Evidence Supporting Thought Reform and Post-Cult Syndrome

Having nothing to do with Hank Hanegraaff's rejection of the effects of thought reform, I found myself in a discussion this weekend regarding the observable and often quantifiable physical and psychological effects of the altered states of consciousness induced in individuals who are subjected to religious manipulation and abuse. It can be a great deal of work to keep up on the new research pertaining to this topic, and if a person already holds a bias against a particular position, they certainly are not going to look into that new data, much of which was not available a decade or two ago. For example, what impetus does a Bible college professor have to investigate such information, particularly if that professor completed his own training before objective data about thought reform became available? If that professor is already biased on the subject, they have an impetus to avoid this data, and they certainly wont find time to instruct their students about it. Is this ignorance and bias in the best interest of the Church?

Altered States of Consciousness

In previous posts, I've mentioned many times how various factors change an individual's state of consciousness, as we all shift in and out of different states throughout the day which can be observed by Quantitative EEG. When thinking analytically/critically, the pre-frontal cortex in the brain activates and generates beta waves. The body undergoes physiologic changes along with this state of consciousness. An individual's posture and even their digestion will change in response, and their hands become cool while in a beta state. When those affected by migraines, ADHD, or scotopic sensitivity syndrome encounter florescent lighting, the wavelength of light stimulates the brain in negative ways (speeding it up too much) by producing a fast and frenetic beta while also stimulating another part of the brain to drop down into theta, the state associated with “fight or flight,” which actually inhibits critical thinking.

Alpha waves which occur at about 8-12 Htz are associated with relaxed alertness, the ideal state for prayer and mediation and the desired level of consciousness for hypnosis. Factors that slow the speed of brainwaves through physiologic reflex into an alpha state include deep breathing, certain body postures, bilateral eye movement, binaural sound, rhythmic bilateral body movement, raising one's gaze to 30 degrees above midline (looking upward), etc.... When you raise your gaze to watch a minister on a podium, especially when they walk back and forth, you're getting the double effect of both bilateral eye movement and an upward gaze which slows the brain into an alpha state, making that person more highly suggestible. (The speaker becomes a human pendulum.) Before pharmacologic agents were available, agitated patients were placed in rooms painted in certain colors to soothe them. Music has a profound effect, and biological rhythms will spontaneous change to match the rhythm of music. The reaction of of the body that results in a shift in levels of consciousness in response to these types of factors is called “brainwave entrainment.” From the entrainment of the rhythm of driving on the highway (sound and vibration) when a person can't consciously remember actually driving the car to their destination, they've dropped down into a theta state, a bit slower than alpha and just above sleep.

Whether manipulative groups deliberately employ these measures or just happen to innocently learn that certain practices make people more agreeable and malleable, cultic groups glean the benefits of these effects, actually putting the critical thought of their followers to sleep. Groups that require confession/repentance or sessions that encourage a person to talk about themselves on deeply personal levels (in place of Bible study) cause the participant to drop down into a highly suggestible alpha state of consciousness. (I can't tell you how many Bible studies I've attended that were about discussion and confession and were not about study at all, using social pressure to promote personal “sharing.”) Cognitive dissonance also suspends critical thought. To soothe itself in response, the brain drops down into an alpha state when bombarded with this type of stress induced by conflicting information that causes some conflict and confusing discord among emotion, thought, behavior, and the nature of information. The inconsistency among these factors stimulates a high degree of suggestibility.

PTSD and Post-Cult Research (Applied Clinical Psychology/Social Psychology)

After more than 30 years of the study of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the psychological changes that occur in people who have exited a high demand group that used thought reform, we know that they differ greatly from the general population. For example, research demonstrates solidly that those who develop what the Diagnostic Statistics Manual (the technical manual of diagnostic criteria of mental health disorders) defines as Acute Distress Disorder, 75% of those affected will develop PTSD and have strikingly high levels of hypnotizability. Studies have also demonstrated that those who seek therapy for the difficulties they experience after exiting a cult have strikingly high levels of dissociation and low levels of self-value when they exit, problems which correct over time after exiting the high demand environment of the cult and recovering from the experience. (There are so many studies, they are too numerous to post here, but a call to Dr. Michael Langone at the International Cultic Studies Association could be very helpful to Hanegraaff if he wanted to learn about them via an expert opinion and summary of that research.) These studies are not psychobabble opinions but are statistically significant and validated scientific studies which are subjected to statistical analysis to demonstrate true causality between the findings and the suspected cause.

Brain Imaging

The data that the study of PTSD demonstrates also validates these findings, and those who seek help after exiting a cult or a high demand or cultic Bible-based religion environment experience a unique post-cult variety of PTSD. SPECT studies (Single Photon Emission Computerized Tomography) has demonstrated many findings that correspond and validate these studies of people emerging from cults as well as the EEG data associated with alerted levels of consiciousness. Dr. Daniel Amen (boarded in both psychiatry and nuclear medicne brain imaging) has written about these findings and how SPECT studies can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of therapy. A personal associate of mine who was examined at an Amen Clinic after a cult exit experience presented with PTSD on a SPECT scan, and I've been able to compare those scans with the SPECT Gallery on the Amen Clinic site. Bessel Van der Kolk and associates at the Trauma Center in Boston have also validated and confirmed these earlier findings of Daniel Amen concerning PTSD and recovery. I cannot even begin to do that topic justice in a single blog post. The data that these new areas of objective science validates so much of what we have already learned about the process of thought reform, and it's been exciting for me to find the neurophysiologic imaging data match the findings of the anti-cult research and literature.

Christianity Must Step Into the 21st Century

These are just the few more obvious things that come to mind when I think of Hank Hanegraaff's opinions about thought reform. I wish that he could take the time to talk with specialists in these areas to learn more about the latest data and findings, evaluating how well his opinions compare to this data as opposed to sticking by the confirmation bias of the Passantinos from 20 years ago. Daniel Amen is a born again Christian and I'm sure he would take the time to talk to Hank about these things. He could visit the Trauma Center in Boston or The Meadows trauma facility in Wickensburg, AZ to interview the specialists there. And Dr. Jerry Boriskin, a PTSD specialist who works in the VA system with our new war veterans and a senior fellow with the Meadows, is located in Northern California. Hanegraaff could make a visit to the Wellspring Retreat and Resources Center in Albany, Ohio to meet with the staff there. All are people who hate trauma, and I know they would be more than willing to meet with the Bible Answer Man to share with him all of the information that they can to help him understand the dilemma of post cult syndrome so that he can encourage others to find healing. They are all quite zealous about teaching professionals and laypersons about the effects of trauma, all we have learned about the neurophysiology of it, and the best ways to go about beating it.

Times have changed, the world of science and study of the phenomenon of cults and PTSD has expanded dramatically in the last two decades. I doubt that Hank Hanegraaff has given any of this data a second thought. He should. He owes it to the Church. Christian apologists should be concerned with giving a rational defense of the Christian faith, but how can Christians do that if they are ignorant of the facts? It is a pity. As Christians, we should not be so heavenly minded that we are no longer of adequate and functional earthly good.