Why Cults Are Harmful Neurobiological Speculations

ICSA Today, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2014, 2-5 

Why Cults Are Harmful: Neurobiological Speculations on Interpersonal Trauma

Doni Whitsett

During the early years of psychotherapy, psychodynamic models were useful in understanding and treating psychological problems. However, like the proverbial hammer that only sees nails, these models were sometimes applied inappropriately. Forty years ago, for example, battered women were often said to have an unconscious, masochistic motivation to be punished. Today, however, it is widely recognized that social-psychological factors in the current environment can better explain such puzzling toleration of pain.But even social-psychological models seem to fail as explanations of certain behaviors associated with trauma, including the traumatic reactions professionals sometimes observe among former cult members and battered women. Ever since Bowlby’s landmark studies of attachment (Bowlby, 1969, 1973), increasing numbers of mental-health professionals have looked to biological concepts to help them understand trauma.

When a doctor’s hammer taps our knee and causes our leg to jump, we don’t infer that we unconsciously wanted to move our leg. We realize that certain behaviors have biologically autonomous causes that have little, if anything, to do with psychological states, whether conscious or unconscious. So it may be with certain aspects of trauma.

In this speculative paper, I attempt to describe some of the neurobiological concepts that have been proposed to improve our understanding and treatment of trauma victims. Let me acknowledge at the outset that, at least to some extent, I am sometimes using neurobiological concepts metaphorically; ergo, the use of quotation marks around the first instance of some terms (e.g., “emotional brain”). I believe, however, that such neurobiological speculation is worthwhile because it reinforces the growing tendency among mental-health professionals to look toward biological explanations of the maladaptive behaviors associated with trauma, thereby reducing the tendency to blame traumatized clients for unconsciously wanting the misery that they experience. Even if our biological models are wanting, which they undoubtedly are, attempting to think biologically will, at minimum, make therapists less likely to impose motivational psychodynamic models on phenomena that may have biological underpinnings.

Interpersonal Neurobiology

Dr. Daniel Siegel (Fosha, Siegel, Solomon, 2009), a psychiatrist in California and founding editor of The Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, has proposed the following equation:

Linkages + Differentiation = Integration = Harmony

Siegel argues that a psychologically healthy person is both linked to other human beings and differentiated from them. When linkage and differentiation occur, integration may be achieved, and individuals are in harmony with themselves, their family, and their social world. Siegel analogizes this process to a choir in which individual members are singing different notes, but all are singing the same song in harmony.

High-demand, cultic groups insist on linkages but prohibit differentiation. Such situations may have an appearance of harmony, but this is not the harmony to which Siegel refers. Individual members within the group lack psychological integration within themselves as the result of certain cult dogmas and practices—e.g., us vs. them, good vs. bad. Consequently, they view themselves and others as part objects, which lack a whole self and object constancy. The illusion of harmony may arise when these “person-objects” unanimously comply with external directives.

Siegel’s equation has been related to a growing body of neurobiological research (see Applegate & Shapiro, 2005; Cozolino, 2010; Fosha et al., 2009; Schore, 2003; van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996). This research, which is still preliminary from a neuroscience perspective, attempts to identify biological changes in the brain and the body that account for the stubborn irrationality that therapists often encounter, and that has traditionally been accounted for through psychological theories of unconscious processes.

These theoretical proposals focus first on vertical integration of the brain, top-down and bottom-up. The more robust these vertical connections are, the more integrated are our thoughts, reasoning, judgments, and perceptions on the one hand, and our feelings, emotions, and instincts (to fight/flee/freeze) on the other. If the brain is not well integrated, persons may be cut off from their feelings. We may say that they “live in their head,” as in the case of people with alexithymia, or, the opposite, that they are constantly flooded with affect. If the latter, they can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or regulate their affect. Neither situation makes for a sense of well-being. From this perspective, we can view all clinical symptoms as disorders of affect regulation.

Horizontal integration also is thought to be essential for a healthy brain/mind. The brain is lateralized, meaning that specialized mental processes seem to be related to different brain hemispheres. For example, the limbic system, sometimes dubbed the “emotional brain” (although the limbic system involves much more than emotion), is sometimes expanded in the right brain. The left brain, which is usually the dominant hemisphere for language, puts the feelings of the right brain into words. Integration between the two hemispheres is vital for two reasons: (a) putting feelings into words immediately brings down their emotional charge, and (b) words serve as bridges that link one human to another.

Therapists have intuitively known that it is important for clients to articulate what they have experienced, that somehow such expression leads to healing; but we have not really understood how or why that works. There are now indications that without some kind of integration between the left and right brains, traumatic experiences get stuck, if you will, in the limbic system and lead to the hyperarousal of such disorders as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The phrase “name it to tame it” has been used to refer to this integration process. According to the researchers, this kind of reduction in hyperarousal is visible on PET scans. What this lack of integration means, then, is that current stimuli can trigger traumatic memories, and the person feels as though the trauma is happening in the present, rather than in the past. Such reactions may be due more to biological changes, whatever the specific nature of these changes, than to motivated, unconscious processes, as has sometimes been hypothesized in the past.

Thus, it is possible that cult practices change the brain. Because critical thinking is discouraged, even punished, in the cult environment, both vertical and horizontal connections are most likely not robust, are pruned back, and, in the case of children born in a cult, might not develop at all because such development would not be adaptive in that particular environment.

Modern Attachment Theory

Modern attachment theory applies findings from neuroscience to concepts John Bowlby (1969, 1973) put forth; thus, the term modern. Bowlby proposed that the mind has “internal working models of attachment” (IWMs), and he speculated that these attachment templates constitute some kind of neural network.

Among these templates are

Secure. The needs of securely attached children have been responded to in a timely and contingent fashion so they see themselves as lovable and worthy of attention/affection. They perceive others as friendly and expect that their needs will be responded to empathically. Therefore, they feel optimistic about their future because they perceive the world as a good and just place. Their internalized cognitive schema—self, others/world, future—is a positive one.

Insecure. In contrast, the needs of insecurely attached children have been unnoticed, ignored, or intermittently met, causing the child to feel unlovable, unworthy, and often ashamed of having normal dependency needs. These children see the world as a cold, withholding, and sometimes dangerous place, populated by neglectful and/or abusive people.

In addition, these IWMs have other properties that shape the child’s personality. The securely attached child learns, and comes to expect that, if he gets too emotionally aroused (scared, angry, etc.), others are available to help shift him out of these negative affect states. Thus, emotional states are rarely disorganizing, and children feel safe to move out of their comfort zone and explore the environment.

In contrast, insecurely attached children learn, and come to expect, that they will have to stay in negative affect states indefinitely; they can’t be certain that anyone will help them move out of such states. Thus, exploration is dangerous because it means stepping out of the comfort zone and becoming stressed and disorganized.

Research supports the notion that internal working models are “experience expectant.” Studies show that by the time children get into kindergarten, insecurely attached children have a harder time relating to peers as well as teachers. Their social development is already compromised because their style of interaction is predicated on distorted internal models. They often feel they have to fight to get their needs met, or they defensively withdraw so as not to feel rejected (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Waldinger & Toth, 2001).

Some researchers have speculated that these templates—secure and insecure—are hardwired into the brain as neural networks. Shore (1994, 2012) contends that maturation of the right brain is dependent upon the interactions with the mother, and he describes this process as “right brain to right brain” communication; that is, the baby is attuned to the right brain of the mother and experiences mother’s affect states as if they were her own. The mother and child are in “limbic resonance.” These experiences contribute, then, to either a secure or an insecure attachment. If mother is stressed, angry, or frightened, her emotions will be reflected in her facial expressions. As the baby views the negative face of the mother, the baby’s body is flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone. Alternately, if mother is relaxed and happy, the baby will see the smiling face of the mother and endorphins will be released in the baby’s body, just as they are in the mother’s. This kind of visceral communication is said to occur via the early evolutionary limbic circuits (Dapretto, M. et. al, 2006). Then, to put the process in simple terms, the stimulus or entity known as mother, and the child’s relationship with her, will get associated with either cortisol and the child will feel bad, or with endorphins and the child will feel good. It is speculated that such biological states underlie the psychological states of secure and insecure attachment in a process referred to as “neurons that fire together wire together.”

Cult parents are hard pressed to provide the secure attachment necessary to develop a positive IWM. They are so overwhelmed with cult responsibilities—proselytizing, recruiting, homework, meditating, Bible study, and so on—that their children often are neglected. The parents may be physically present but psychologically absent in what Boss calls “ambiguous loss” (Boss, 2007). Additionally, these parents are often frustrated and angry, constantly trying to meet the impossible standards of the cult, which change at the whim of the leader. They are continuously thrown off balance, unintegrated. Their suppressed feelings often are displaced onto their children. Their normal stress response becomes hyperactive, resulting in an inability to regulate their affect. Additionally, it may be that the part of the brain that modulates emotions has been weakened through cultic practices that punish critical thinking.

In cults, the attachment process is purposely interfered with in a myriad of ways. Since the cult leader cannot afford for parents to get too attached to their children because that would dilute his control, children are often sent far away for education at very young ages, or are often raised in group homes away from their parents. There are numerous other ways in which obstacles are put in the way of the attachment bond. I worked with a Bible-based group in Santa Ana, California, for example, in which the cult leader kicked a toddler away from its mother as he screamed and held onto her skirt, ostensibly to teach the baby not to be a “momma’s boy.” Another client of mine, who had been in an Eastern-based cult, lamented the fact that her 5-year-old son had been sent to school in India. In addition, the loyalty of the parent is often tested by how well she will carry out the orders of the leader. Thus, children are at risk for abuse. I have heard of a child’s hand being submerged in scalding hot water to make him obey. These parents would never have allowed such events to occur if they were in “their right minds,” which means if they were in an integrated state.

Lifton and Siegel’s Equation

Most of us who have studied cults are familiar with Lifton’s eight criteria of totalistic environments. I’d like to draw upon a few of these criteria to show how linkages are reinforced and differentiation prohibited in the brain. First, the characteristic Lifton identified as dispensing of existence means that the group decides who is worthy of living forever and who should die. We are good, they are bad. This kind of splitting fosters dissociation and lack of integration. Doctrine over person, another criterion, refers to the fact that the mission and goals of the group take priority over those of any individual member. Thus, we see people giving up their own goals of going to college and having careers. More established people have been known to give up lucrative practices and walk away from families and entire lifestyles. If they resist, they are labeled selfish. Individual birthdays, except at times the leader’s, are not celebrated in many groups. Here we see differentiation prohibited.

The elimination of individual boundaries is perhaps best seen in the characteristics known as the demand for purity and confession, in which members are expected to expose all their doubts about the group/leader/rhetoric, and then they are attacked for having such thoughts. To disagree implies that one is a separate, differentiated person, with one’s own, individual ideas; and this is unacceptable. The demand for purity also puts cult members into a double bind. If they expose their doubts, they are shamed. If they don’t reveal them, they feel terribly guilty. Thus, the person’s link to himself, his relationship to himself, is broken. Another Lifton theme, called loading the language, results in noncontingent communication. A right-brain comment is often given a left-brain response. For example, if a noncult parent expresses her emotional (right-brain) fear about the group, the cult-involved child might begin quoting Bible verses or repeating mantras (left-brain phenomena).

Cult Recovery

So how can neuroscience help us help cult survivors? To answer this question, I would like to relate Judith Herman’s (Herman, 1992) model of trauma recovery to some of the neurobiological concepts I have discussed.

Herman identifies three phases of trauma recovery. The first phase, from unpredictable danger to safety, implores the clinician to provide an environment of safety in which cult survivors can tell their stories, at their own pace, while being assured of understanding and empathy. Neurobiologically, such an environment might encompass the following:

Right-brain-to-right-brain communication. This means that the therapist must speak in right-brain language to the client, the language of a mother soothing her child. The therapist should speak soothingly and empathically, avoiding long sentences and heady interpretations, the language of the left brain. If trauma is somehow stored in the limbic system, the therapist’s tone of voice and facial expressions that hint of criticism, disgust, or shaming may trigger traumatic memories by stimulating right-brain processes.

Attunement. Similarly to the above, the therapist must be in attunement with the client, meaning that the therapist resonates with the internal affect state of the client and responds congruently with that state.

Affect regulation. The client must feel safe to express her feelings. This means she must feel confident that if she becomes too emotionally aroused, the therapist will be able to calm her down so she doesn’t get disorganized. In other words, the therapist must act as the psychobiological regulator of attachment. It’s important, then, for the therapist to regulate his own affect. If the client picks up that the therapist can’t tolerate hearing what happened to her, she will go back into her shell.

Bearing Witness. The therapist must watch his own tendency to dissociate because the material is too painful to hear. What all this means is that his right brain better be in good shape, integrated.

Believing. Too many clients have had their experiences invalidated because the therapist didn’t want to believe that human beings could do such terrible things to one another; thus, the therapist saw the clients as paranoid or exaggerating.

Herman’s second phase of recovery, from dissociation to remembering (lack of integration to integration), requires that split-off memories be integrated. Here we focus on vertical and horizontal integration.

Vertical Integration. The therapist can stimulate critical thinking by, for example, encouraging disagreement or asking for the client’s opinion.

Horizontal Integration. As the therapist, put left-brain words on right-brain experiences. If, as some have suggested, the hippocampus and Broca’s areas do not work properly during trauma, clients may need help in finding words to attach to their experience (Cozolino, 2010; van der Kolk, 1996). If an event is not encoded in words, it cannot be retrieved in words, so the therapist must be careful not to blame the client for being resistant—i.e., not talking (Siegel, 2002).

The third phase of Herman’s recovery model is from stigmatized isolation to social connection. One hallmark of PTSD is social isolation. People are afraid to trust anyone for fear of having their trust betrayed once again. Helping clients to reconnect with family and friends will help link them to the outside world again, or for the first time. Education and skills training will strengthen the cortical regions and also provide linkages to the larger society.

In sum, to quote Cozolino (2010), “We now assume that when psychotherapy results in symptom reduction, the brain has, in some way, been integrated and rewired” (p. 13). I hope this paper has shed light on some of the processes that cause the lack of integration in destructive cults and on some strategies for reintegration.


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The author wishes to thank Dr. Michael Langone for his extensive revisions and support, without which this article would not have been published. The author also thanks Dr. Tara Stewart for her thoughtful comments and critique of the original manuscript.

About the Author

Doni Whitsett, PhD, LCSW, is a Clinical Professor of Social Work at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. Dr. Whitsett teaches various courses in practice, behavior, and mental health. She has been working with cult-involved clients and their families for 20 years and gives lectures to students and professionals in this area. She has presented at national and international conferences in Madrid, Poland, Canada, and in Australia, where she helped organize two conferences in Brisbane. Her talks have included The Psychobiology of Trauma and Child Maltreatment (2005, Madrid) and Why Cults Are Harmful: A Neurobiological View of Interpersonal Trauma (2012, Montreal). Her publications include "The Psychobiology of Trauma and Child Maltreatment" (Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2006), “A Self Psychological Approach to the Cult Phenomenon” (Journal of Social Work, 1992), and “Cults and Families” (Families in Society, Vol. 84, No. 4, 2003), which she coauthored with Dr. Stephen Kent.