Sunday, May 08, 2011

UNDERSTANDING THE MORMON BRAIN: Why it’s So Difficult Discussing Mormonism with LDS Members

I wish I had the following information when I was first learning about the errors of Mormonism; for it would have helped me to have more constructive conversations with LDS folks instead of most of the discussions I had dissolving into ego battles filled with heated emotions, inevitable misunderstandings, and defensive attitudes.

The Amygdala hijack:

In the diagram below we see how our brain responds to a perceived threat as the amygdala is “triggered” sending a message to our nervous system igniting the fight or flight response which often clouds rational thinking or at least the ability to think more clearly.

Image source:

Amygdala hijacking explained:

If the above video does not play I recommend going to youtube and searching “amygdala hijack.”

Mormons have been conditioned to interpret an amygdala-hijacking as “evil” and a “sign” to avoid “certain information.” Thus Mormon leaders have used a natural defense mechanism in the brain to keep the membership in line. As a result, LDS members usually refuse to read anything that criticizes the Mormon Church or examines LDS history in an objective scholarly manner. Then they are taught to believe that subjective feelings are the way to know objective truth.

Talking with a true believing Mormon about Joseph Smith putting a seer stone in a hat or how he coerced teenage girls into having sex with him, will immediately “spike” his or her amygdala and they won’t feel good hearing it. They in turn will not be pleased with you for making them feel uncomfortable.

Anything that challenges the idea that Mormonism is the only true religion is labeled “anti-Mormon.” This is a thought-stopping technique that is found in many cults around the world. When the Mormon hears a book or website referred to as “anti-Mormon” they immediately feel an intense aversion to that work. Their minds have been trained to react this way. Mormons are also taught that if reading something about the church makes them uncomfortable, then that’s evidence it’s written by evil “anti-Mormons” and is of the devil. After they feel a sense of anxiety or discomfort while researching information they are then taught to interpret these negative feelings as a “sign” warning them to avoid that information. Once the Mormon has made an association of an author or book with the term “anti-Mormon,” their brain then links the amygdala hijacking experience with that author or book; as a result they develop an aversion to that author or book. Over time, all they have to do is hear the word “anti-Mormon” and they are triggered into feeling anxiety. It’s just like Pavlov’s dog experiment.

Throughout their life a Mormon is trained to associate any book or website that is critical of Mormonism as anti-Mormon. Thus Mormons are trained to develop an aversion to, or phobia of, anything that is critical of their religion. Mormon apologists frequently capitalize on this aversion among Mormons by frequently referring to just about any author or work that challenges the traditional faith promoting view as anti-Mormon. Thus Mormons never even take the time to evaluate the evidence the author puts forth, since that person is “of the devil” and “anti,” so why bother.

When Mormons are constantly reinforced with faith promoting literature and refuse to read the opposing point of view, they inevitably develop tunnel vision and a powerful bias; and remain voluntarily ignorant to all the problems in their religion. It is really genius from a tactical point of view to condition your followers in this way, but it is far from ethical.

As a result of this conditioning many Mormons have no idea about certain aspects of Mormon history, like Smith having sex with teenagers and other men’s wives. They have no idea that Mormons who attended the temple before 1990 swore penal oaths involving pantomiming their own death. The Mormon leaders then keep their members in the dark by omitting such information in official publications. When and if, a Mormon does break outside their fear-conditioned state and read a book or website that tells the truth about Mormonism they are left shocked and disturbed. They often feel lied to for they trusted that their church would provide correct information and a full and accurate picture of LDS history; while they avoided gaining a fuller picture of Mormon origins from non-LDS sources because they were conditioned to fear such literature. After being manipulated for years and subject to a cover up, as their leaders didn't offer them full-disclosure about the true history of Mormonism; many Mormon apologists then have the smug audacity to blame the victim of this set up by criticizing the long term LDS member; saying they should have exposed themselves to the truths that shocked them earlier on; they do this while ignoring the fact that the church trains the membership not to expose themselves to those "truths" calling it all "anti-Mormon."

Mormon apologists then enjoy pulling out obscure references to brief coverage of some of Mormonism's more controversial topics and then exclaim, “see, it’s right there in our own literature.” They do this despite the obscurity and the fact that not every detail is covered. They fail to mention the fact that these obscure references are more of a glitch than the norm. For example, the image of Smith appearing to actually “translate” the plates has been common propaganda for decades and thus an obscure Ensign article that mentions the true method of Smith putting a rock in a hat is lost to the massive volume of misrepresentation in LDS literature for several decades. I have the feeling that Mormon apologists must know the reality of the situation, for in the very wards they attend there are likely lifelong Mormons who have no idea Smith used a magic rock when dictating the Book of Mormon; that he married other men’s wives, and the Egyptian papyrus Smith used for the so-called Book of Abraham is nothing but a funeral text mistranslated by Smith. How is it possible that a Mormon of forty years can be completely ignorant of these facts? These lifelong LDS members are not stupid, they are often intelligent and studious members that have been trained to bury their head in the sand when it comes to so called “deep doctrine.”

This vicious cycle of fear and ignorance followed by shock and disillusionment repeats itself in LDS families all over the world, as new Mormon converts are conditioned to avoid anything “anti-Mormon,” followed by years of consuming "white washed" LDS history that presents a false image of the historical facts. Then after years of indoctrination these members become brave and read something they “ weren't supposed to,” and are then labeled an “anti-Mormon” for learning the “covered up truths” and talking about it when they are not supposed to. They are socially shunned as a result, families sometimes break up, and people may even lose their job if they aren't careful.

Mormon apologists then turn around and try to bandage the wounds inflicted by their employer (The Mormon Corporation) by offering a lot of the information members find in non-Mormon works with an apologetic spin added to it: "Yes, Smith was a polygamist but it was motivated by dynastic desires"; "Yes, Smith used a seer stone, so what, what's wrong with seer stones." These apologists merely perform "damage control" and refuse to hold their leaders accountable and demand they offer a more accurate picture of LDS origins. When asked why their leaders and their church does not offer an honest disclosure of the historical facts; the LDS apologist will make excuses saying things like it is not their leaders job to inform the public and the membership, that the publications presenting false information are the fault of one or two people, like an artist and/or editor and not the church that produces the false information year after year over and over again. And on and on do the excuses continue as they continue to defend the "cover up" and excuse LDS leaders and instead attack those who learn about the truth and seek to inform others. The whole system is maddeningly stupid and destructive.

The Three Brains & Mormonism

What makes the Mormon system so affective is that it programs all three modules of the brain (known as the Three Brain model). See here and here for a brief summary of the theory. Note: some details of this theory are no longer popular in some circles of psychology, however the basic structure of the theory is correct and is at least useful as a metaphor.

The Mormon Corporation takes over the primitive reptilian brain by training the Mormon’s internal fight or flight system to respond with anxiety to any material deemed critical of the LDS Faith. The Mormon system also hijacks the entire Limbic system (the mammalian-brain: the seat of emotion) by programming the Mormon to interpret all pleasant emotions as evidence that Mormonism is true, and all negative emotions about Mormonism as “satanic” or “evil.” Mormons are also kept mostly isolated from outside influences, causing the Limbic system (mammalian brain) to form a tighter bond with fellow LDS group members, to the point that leaving the group feels like losing one’s whole identity as their sense of self becomes merged with the group. Thus Mormons are hijacked emotionally and "nervously." Mormons then form bonds or friendship that are wrapped up in LDS mythology to the point that to doubt the LDS mythos is to sever one’s relationships, which for us human mammals can be quite painful. The most powerful “hold” the LDS system has on most Mormons is through the dogma being tied up with family cohesion. The mental programming in the Mormon head is, “to leave Mormonism is to lose one’s family in the eternities.” This hijacks the natural bond between parent and child which is the ultimate form of manipulation.

Regardless of how a Mormon obtains the level of comfort he or she obtains as a Mormon, once that level of comfort is achieved they don’t want to lose it. Just as people attending a magic show don’t want someone in the audience blurting out, “it’s up his sleeve,” – or pointing out that the smoke and mirrors are distracting us from the trap door on stage – most Mormons don’t want you blurting out the problems with Mormonism and the natural origins of Joseph Smith’s religion. So strong is the pull to avoid anxiety – avoid losing emotional bonds and attachments with fellow members and loved ones – that many Mormons will sever ties with those loved ones who defect in order to maintain the tranquil “high” of being Mormon; and so they can maintain and secure their bonds with LDS members and loved ones. Even an unmarried member will often refuse to hear you out in order to maintain their mental and emotional submersion in the LDS system that provides the comfort of “grazing with the herd.”

The higher brain (neocortex) is the ultimate enemy of Mormonism, for if it is allowed to run its course without impediment, I believe nearly every person exposed to the accumulation of historical facts about Mormonism will reject its central claims outright. I think Mormon leaders and apologists know this deep down. For all their talk about, "it is the spirit that converts," many of them know how the mind works and what will happen if investigators and rank and file members are exposed to all the facts, “warts and all.” So in order to keep the executive brain (the neocortex) in line, Mormons are trained to practice confirmation bias, selective perception, and are indoctrinated into not critically thinking about their religion. See my essay The Mormon Bubble & Tunnel Vision.

The higher brain (neocortex) is also subdued through Mormon style compartmentalizing: putting a concern or doubt up on the mental shelf of one’s mind, up and away from direct consciousness, i.e. “sweeping it under the rug” and out of sight for the time being. This compartmentalizing is actually encouraged in Mormonism with phrases like, “we’ll understand that in heaven,” or “that’s deep doctrine” and "we don’t need to concern ourselves with that while on earth." Mormons learn to compartmentalize their thinking in that they will apply logic and skeptical analysis when buying a car from a used car salesman but will then turn around and switch off their analytical brain and disregard their skills for critical thinking when it comes to Mormonism. They will appeal only to emotions when evaluating Mormonism. Mormons are taught to study and be educated but only information that supports their “testimony.”

Once a person adopts a set of premises they can have intelligent ideas within that “bubble” holding those unverifiable premises. This is why you see very intelligent people having logical discussions about Star Wars, quoting lines from different episodes and forming intelligent hypothesis about aspects of the movie series. The same is true with Mormonism; many very bright people write very intelligent things within the confines of the Mormon bubble, just as bright people write about Star Wars. This is how I view LDS apologists.

If Mormons enter areas where their frontal lobe might be exposed to information and too much thinking about things might result, their fear-conditioning kicks in and their amygdala goes to work firing off false-alarms to "beware of thinking that way.” On top of that if they voice their questions and concerns they will be socially punished with unfriendly looks and body language from fellow members showing disapproval or contempt (thus triggering their mammalian brain and reptilian brain into avoiding disapproval and seeking approval and belonging). Once this occurs they often immediately revert back to their mental programming and assume they aren’t being “worthy,” and they are “sinful” to have such doubts; as a result they seek to avoid the consequences of thinking such thoughts. They seek to reduce the cognitive dissonance by obsessively repeating certain Mormon practices, like bearing their testimony over and over (saying they “know it is all true” until they actually convince themselves), attending church and the temple regularly surrounded by other believers that reinforce the bubble while reading compulsively Mormon literature until the dissonance is reduced. After this they shelve their questions (a form of avoidance) and reject the information in order to return to a state of calm or comfort which they interpret as “feeling the spirit.”

In turn, LDS leaders seek to limit any opportunities for investigators to use their higher brain functions to critically analyze many of the absurd claims of Mormonism, like Smith producing a historical book by staring at a rock in a hat, by manufacturing misleading propaganda and withholding pertinent information from investigators (i.e. "white washing" its history). See my post: The Mormon Church & False Advertising.

Thus, all three brain modules of the Mormon are strongly conditioned to be a loyal Mormon. So much so that to leave the religion takes a lot of courage and hard work to unravel the years of neurological wiring in the brain. They have to unlearn all the false associations like “critical information is evil,” “Gentiles can’t be fully trusted,” and “the outside world is dangerous and scary.” The longer a person has been a Mormon, and whether or not they went on a mission and attended the temple a lot, will determine how difficult it will be and how long it will take to recover from Mormonism. This might be another reason why many former Mormons “can’t leave it alone” and remain in the recovery phase for years after leaving. For it takes time for the brain to “rewire” itself and the concept of Neuroplasticity takes time.

In short, Mormons are conditioned to avoid anxiety by avoiding anything that isn’t “faith promoting” and seek only the comfort of the isolated LDS tribe. This keeps many Mormons from growing up intellectually and "spiritually" in my opinion. Now of course there are exceptions, there are many Mormons who forge ahead and learn the “deep doctrine” as it’s called by some Mormons, they learn to tell the difference between "God telling them to avoid certain information" and avoiding information due to their "mental conditioning and the amygdala." They don’t compartmentalize everything but seriously consider the faults of the Mormon religion from an objective perspective using their higher brain. They are not afraid of losing comfort and growing. But these people are few in number, for they either become N.O.M.s or leave Mormonism and head down the road less traveled, like I did.

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