Diane Benscoter

How cults rewire the brain

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My journey to coming here today started in 1974. That's me with the funny gloves. I was 17 and going on a peace walk. What I didn't know though, was most of those people, standing there with me, were Moonies. (Laughter) And within a week I had come to believe that the second coming of Christ had occurred, that it was Sun Myung Moon, and that I had been specially chosen and prepared by God to be his disciple.


Now as cool as that sounds, my family was not that thrilled with this. (Laughter) And they tried everything they could to get me out of there. There was an underground railroad of sorts that was going on during those years. Maybe some of you remember it. They were called deprogrammers. And after about five long years my family had me deprogrammed. And I then became a deprogrammer. I started going out on cases. And after about five years of doing this, I was arrested for kidnapping. Most of the cases I went out on were called involuntary. What happened was that the family had to get their loved ones some safe place somehow. And so they took them to some safe place. And we would come in and talk to them, usually for about a week. And so after this happened, I decided it was a good time to turn my back on this work.


And about 20 years went by. There was a burning question though that would not leave me. And that was, "How did this happen to me?" And in fact, what did happen to my brain? Because something did. And so I decided to write a book, a memoir, about this decade of my life.


And toward the end of writing that book there was a documentary that came out. It was on Jonestown. And it had a chilling effect on me. These are the dead in Jonestown. About 900 people died that day, most of them taking their own lives. Women gave poison to their babies, and watched foam come from their mouths as they died.


The top picture is a group of Moonies that have been blessed by their messiah. Their mates were chosen for them. The bottom picture is Hitler youth. This is the leg of a suicide bomber. The thing I had to admit to myself, with great repulsion, was that I get it. I understand how this could happen. I understand how someone's brain, how someone's mind can come to the place where it makes sense — in fact it would be wrong, when your brain is working like that — not to try to save the world through genocide.


And so what is this? How does this work? And how I've come to view what happened to me is a viral, memetic infection. For those of you who aren't familiar with memetics, a meme has been defined as an idea that replicates in the human brain and moves from brain to brain like a virus, much like a virus. The way a virus works is — it can infect and do the most damage to someone who has a compromised immune system.


In 1974, I was young, I was naive, and I was pretty lost in my world. I was really idealistic. These easy ideas to complex questions are very appealing when you are emotionally vulnerable. What happens is that circular logic takes over. "Moon is one with God. God is going to fix all the problems in the world. All I have to do is humbly follow. Because God is going to stop war and hunger — all these things I wanted to do — all I have to do is humbly follow. Because after all, God is [working through] the messiah. He's going to fix all this." It becomes impenetrable. And the most dangerous part of this is that is creates "us" and "them," "right" and "wrong," "good" and "evil." And it makes anything possible, makes anything rationalizable.


And the thing is, though, if you looked at my brain during those years in the Moonies — neuroscience is expanding exponentially, as Ray Kurzweil said yesterday. Science is expanding. We're beginning to look inside the brain. And so if you looked at my brain, or any brain that's infected with a viral memetic infection like this, and compared it to anyone in this room, or anyone who uses critical thinking on a regular basis, I am convinced it would look very, very different.


And that, strange as it may sound, gives me hope. And the reason that gives me hope is that the first thing is to admit that we have a problem. But it's a human problem. It's a scientific problem, if you will. It happens in the human brain. There is no evil force out there to get us. And so this is something that, through research and education, I believe that we can solve. And so the first step is to realize that we can do this together, and that there is no "us" and "them." Thank you very much. (Applause)

Diane Benscoter spent five years as a "Moonie." She shares an insider's perspective on the mind of a cult member, and proposes a new way to think about today's most troubling conflicts and extremist movements.

About the speaker
Diane Benscoter · Deprogrammer

Diane Benscoter, an ex-Moonie, is now invested in finding ways to battle extremist mentalities and their potentially deadly consequences.

Diane Benscoter, an ex-Moonie, is now invested in finding ways to battle extremist mentalities and their potentially deadly consequences.