by Jon Atack
Feel the Spirit?
Awe and fervor are the missing elements in understanding attachment to cults, predators and irrational beliefs. Fervor induction comes about due to an experience of awe that has transformed into zeal or fervor.
We are Vulnerable to Our Emotions
Often, membership in a destructive group comes about due to an experience of awe that has transformed into zeal or fervor.
We are vulnerable to new ideas at times of transition, when we are dislocated from our family or friends, in a new school or job, or a new environment. In normal circumstances, we adapt to the change, but if we are approached by a seducer or a recruiter and given a taste of awe, we can move into a new set of beliefs and feelings.
Awe is the emotion underlying peak experience, a feeling of elevation and euphoria. People who are not used to the effects of meditation or hypnosis often experience awe when first introduced to these techniques.
Awe can be induced through an encounter with vastness, competence, beauty, celebrity, or something that seems miraculous. Predators often concentrate on inducing a sense of the miraculous, relying upon the novelty of an experience to bring about awe.
Friendly Flattery Can Be a Trigger
Most conversions include an awe-infused peak experience that results in radical personal transformation. In a predatory group, the convert is attracted by flattery, offered some free gift to urge reciprocation, welcomed into a friendly group, and then given an experience of awe – usually an intense feeling of euphoria, achieved through repetition, fixation, mimicry or confusion, or a combination of these elements.
Religious conversions are usually experiences of awe, but manipulated conversions are easy to achieve. For instance, if people have never fixed their gaze, they will be unaware of the Ganzfeld effect, where visual perception is distorted as the brain tries to make sense of the lack of change (called “filling in” by neuroscientists). Any perceptual fixation can result in euphoria, which can be framed as a “sign” or somehow miraculous, and this is easily exploited by predators.
The source of the technique is immediately perceived as an authority, and usually as an authority on subjects beyond what brought about the experience of awe. The experience may be seen as a miracle, and the new authority figure as a miracle worker, whose opinions about all subjects are considered authoritative.
When the awe experience is accepted as solid proof of a worldview espoused by some person or text, and the person learns ways to induce further awe experiences, a feedback loop is established, maintaining the person in a state of fervor.
Tricked by the Brain
It is likely that awe experiences release “reward” chemicals in the brain, leading to a form of addiction. In this state, believers will bond strongly with the predator, and reject any evidence that disagrees with the predator. They will be eager to explore other techniques in the attempt to induce more awe experiences. Some people become “cult junkies” in their quest for bliss states. They will abandon worthwhile work and even neglect their family, just as drug, alcohol, sex and gambling addicts do.
Even in the grip of fervor, people are still capable of intelligent decisions, except where those decisions are in conflict with a domineering partner or leader. Destructive cults include members with high academic qualifications, including astrophysicists, surgeons, lawyers and scientists. Scientific understanding is not a defense against recruitment through awe.
The Benefits of Fervor
Fervor is not necessarily bad: most campaigners for good causes experience fervor, which is a proper reward for their virtuous activity. However, fervor controlled by a predator is fundamentally harmful.
Predators use manipulative techniques to maintain fervor, while isolating followers from contradicting information and critical former believers. The manipulation of awe experiences and the induction of fervor is an essential aspect of cult membership.