Friday, May 29, 2015

Presentism

One of the precepts of TFI was the concept of "The Eternal Now." We were to strive to live in the present and cautioned that it was sinful to dwell on the past or worry about the future. Doing so revealed a "lack of faith" in God to "take care of everything."

What a coincidence that our frontal lobes, the last to develop and the first to decline, are what enable us as humans to plan for the future and envision consequences - forbidden behavior to the loyal TFI member. Reminiscent of the patients who endured Walter Freeman's ice-pick "surgery" during the heyday of lobotomies in the 20th century, we were to do our best to not use that portion of our brain for which it was designed. It was as if we willingly underwent spiritual lobotomies.

This concept of "living in the present" may have entered the COG by way of the counterculture of the late 1960s. At that time, a Harvard professor who had worked with Timothy Leary and experimented with LSD, was ousted from his job, went to India, met a guru, and returned to the US with the mission of sharing his new-found knowledge with the unenlightened. This came in book form, Be Here Now, which became the #3 best seller in the US at the time. 

The book espoused the virtue of not thinking about the future and had a big influence on the young people of the day. The atmosphere at that time was one of rebelling against the "system," protesting the Vietnam War, and seeking a life of "peace and love." Berg was at the right place at the right time.

I can't help but wonder that the effortful turning-off of rational thought required by cult members caused those areas of their brains to weaken, as expressed by the old adage "use it or lose it." I suspect it did for me.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hope

I recently came upon some information that was quite encouraging. A psychologist named Dean Simonton discovered that what had been thought as age-related cognitive decline was not actually a function of age, but rather a function of disciplinary age, in other words, how long a person has been in a specific vocation or area of study. People who change careers or foci are able to rejuvenate their brains. 

Another psychologist, Marian Diamond, confirmed this. Further, in her research on aged rodents, she found that a rich environment made for more synapses, stronger connections, and even more neural growth.


Interestingly, this finding also ties into research on addiction. Rats given two water bottles, one with just water, one with water laced with heroin or cocaine, would generally choose and continue returning to the drugged water. Researcher Bruce Alexander found, though, that addicted rats that were moved to new cages containing toys and tunnels and friends seemed to become "happy" and voluntarily left the drugs, choosing to drink only from the water bottle. Meanwhile, the "unhappy" rats, alone and unstimulated, continued on with their drug use.


In short, he found that lonely, isolated rats turned to drugs; happy, social rats had little interest in them. This overturned the conventional wisdom on addiction.* 

Exercise is also a factor in brain plasticity and growth. According to Carl W. Cotman and Nicole C. Berchtold, "Voluntary exercise can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and other growth factors, stimulate neurogenesis, increase resistance to brain insult and improve learning and mental performance... Thus, exercise could provide a simple means to maintain brain function and promote brain plasticity."**


Of course, I regret all the wasted years in the cult, but I am heartened that all is not lost. My brain has not deteriorated beyond help. By devoting myself to new areas of study, exercising daily in a variety of ways from walking and climbing to swimming and weight training, and opening my mind up to a vast variety of input, I can still make progress and not necessarily become a doddering old fool.


* Addiction:  The View from Rat Park, Bruce K. Alexander, 2010
** Exercise:  a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity, Carl W. Cotman and Nicole C. Berchtold, 2002

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Daydreaming and other Thought Sins

Along the lines of the TFI motto, "A good revolutionary [for Jesus] doesn't ask questions," we were taught that we must be "vigilant" about our thoughts. Unquestionably the worst sin was "doubt," a doubt being any question or contrary opinion. Certainly, we were never to utter any.

Voicing a doubt would cause discord, and "sowing discord among the brethren" was one of the seven abominations to God. (Proverbs 6:19) Clearly, a horrible sin.


There were societal norms at play, as I wrote before in The Bandwagon; no one said anything contrary to what was published in the Mo Letters, or if they did, they were to expect some sort of correction or punishment. This could be in the form of being required to wear headphones all day and listen to recordings of the Bible or the publications, usually accompanied by some sort of work designed to "teach humility." Need I say there was pressure for conformity?

There were other thought crimes as well. Thinking about the past and the future were sins, as was daydreaming, which was likened to permitting unruly behavior in a little child. We were taught that our minds were a battlefield, and we were not to permit any thought other than "godly" thoughts in our minds. 


"Casting down imaginations... and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:5) This was interpreted quite literally, and was just another tool used to keep cult members subordinate. 

In some sad cases, young people who were pronounced guilty of "voicing doubts" by virtue of their natural tendency to question, or, god forbid, were opinionated or even overly gregarious, actually had their mouths taped and/or wore a sign that read "Silence Restriction" as a warning to others not to talk to them (and not to fall prey to their fate).


But what of the young person's parents? Didn't they intervene to prevent this abuse? In far too many cases, the parents did not live with their teenage children. Deemed old enough to live without parents (after all, the children in the group were considered all "our children") they were sent off to large Homes where they lived and were "shepherded" (corralled) in groups by generally pretty harsh taskmasters. They spent their days working: caring for children, cleaning, proselytizing, cooking, etc., with no time for education; the required Mo Letter reading was education enough, or so we were taught.


If their parents did happen to be in the same home, and if they were bold enough to speak up in defense of their child, there was no way their words would be heeded. In fact, their words would be used against them. Labelled as "favoring their children," yet another sin against the principles of the cult, they were watched more carefully from then on for other signs of this "favoring." (Can you guess how I know this?)

I am happy to see that my children today enjoy daydreaming. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that letting the mind wander increases creativity, improves working memory, consolidates memories, and allows the subconscious to bring forth solutions to problems upon which it had been ruminating.

For an interesting article about daydreaming, see "Dreams of Glory."

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Future Blindness

Not that this problem is unique to TFI members, but I feel its ramifications were intensified, as it was elemental to our belief system that we were to "take no thought for the morrow." (Matthew 6:34)

As I wrote before, we, by nature, are not in touch with our future selves. Likewise, I feel that many parents are not cognizant of the fact that their children will, one day soon, become adults. They cannot "see" their future children.

Parents who are harsh, abusive, and who place upon their children unrealistic standards of behavior and personality - perhaps to make themselves look better in the eyes of others - must surely be lacking future vision. The ideas of parenting were heavily covered in TFI publications, and strict standards of behavior were foisted upon the children - especially in the regimented large "school Homes." From these came the worst cases of abuse.

Further exemplifying the present-centric thinking was the naming of babies (some clearly ridiculous - but a name can be changed), and the more serious concept of "Jesus Babies." This was TFI nomenclature for children conceived with outside members in the course of FFing (Flirty Fishing) them. This was extended to children born from the "sharing" (TFI euphemism for having sex) between unmarried adults within the group - often a married person and an unmarried person.

I wonder how these so-called Jesus Babies feel about family photos now that they are adults? Picture the blonde, blue-eyed parents with children from various biological fathers. How will that one brown boy in the family of white people deal with the natural surprise that would arise when people see a picture of his parents? "Were you adopted?" What is the psychological effect of looking so very different because your mother had sex with a stranger to "share God's love"? I sincerely wonder.

As I mentioned before in Loneliness Legacy, many children whose parents were not native English speakers were raised in the all-English environment of TFI Homes. All too often, they were taught in broken English by their parents and teachers, and, why? "Because English is the language of 'the Word'." (Meaning, TFI publications.) Even in my deluded cult mentality I knew that was crazy, and I changed it where I could.

Nevertheless, many many children were raised with subpar educations, many Orientals were raised without knowledge of the intricacies of their language and Chinese characters, and now that they are adults, how are they faring?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Intermittent Reinforcement & Clinging to Hope

Although originally thought to be mainly involved as a function of reward, research by Wolfram Schultz has shown that dopamine more prevalently figures in the anticipation of reward, and further, that it works in forming the impetus behind our determination to do the work we believe will help us to get at our goal.

Curiously, the biggest spike in dopamine comes when the possibility of reward is 50/50. Uncertainty is very alluring to us and redoubles our determination to persist. 

This finding hearkens back to B.F. Skinner and his pigeons, which I wrote about before.

In another of his experiments, he conditioned birds to get their food when they pecked a certain number of times. When they were accustomed to this, he changed his system to dispense the food randomly, not at all what they had been used to. While his control-group of unconditioned pigeons would quit after roughly 300 futile pecks, these expectant birds persevered longer - some would peck over 10,000 times in hopes of reward! It took them a very long time to give up.

This hopeful, pigeon-like behavior is easily seen in gamblers. If they were to receive a consistent rate of return on every bet placed, the excitement would be gone. The chance that maybe their next bet would result in the big win is what is seducing.

I cannot help but see the glaring application to my marriage. During the first 2 months of hormonal rampage we were like love-birds. After that, it was the perseverance of the pigeon hoping for reward - in my case, affection in any form.

It was the rare occasions of reward that kept me hanging on and trying. Never mind that I was completely blinded to the fact that affection towards me was utterly unnatural for him. Filled with anticipation and hope, I kept doing my best to please him in what must have surely been nothing but nauseatingly obsequious behavior. Until finally, like an exhausted pigeon, I gave up after my ten-thousands of times.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Motivational Influences on Perception

Further research into a slightly different aspect of the confirmation bias was carried out by Emily Balcetis and David Dunning of Cornell University.* 

They did numerous experiments to test the hypothesis that people see what they are motivated to see. One such experiment was as follows: Subjects were presented with 2 beverages, one tasty, one disgusting-looking. They were told that the one they would drink depended on whatever image flashed on the computer screen before them for only a fraction of a second. This image was ambiguous, it could be interpreted as either a horse or a seal (or in another experiment, a B or a 13). The subjects were not told what the object they would see would be, but rather were told in general terms that it would be either a farm animal or a sea animal. Different groups were assigned differently, but the results were consistent in this and all their experiments.

The participants' motivations to avoid the disgusting drink and get the desired juice biased their perceptions. In cases where the farm animal meant they would have the juice, the vast majority saw a horse. If the farm animal meant they were to have the disgusting beverage, the vast majority saw a seal.  

This is quite an eye-opening finding for those of us who have been duped by cults, namely, that we saw what we were motivated to see. I surely spent many years giving way to the bias of wishful thinking, which Dunning describes as, "the motivation to think of one’s self and one’s prospects in a favorable way, to believe that one will achieve positive outcomes while being able to avoid aversive ones, and to enhance self-worth and esteem." The implications are wide, and can be thought of in terms of so-called answered prayers, and the concept of faith and the afterlife in general. "God will take care of everything!" we blithely believed.

Not only that, but we, as humans, also tend to be less questioning of messages that we feel are favorable for us. This has obvious implications regarding cult literature. Dunning goes on to say, "Other work in motivated reasoning has shown that information consistent with a favored conclusion is held to a lower standard of scrutiny than information consistent with an unwanted one." In my case, cult literature definitely received very little scrutiny before acceptance. If I had questioned, well, that would be considered the sin of "doubt." I was motivated to believe.

This tendency not only affects information we receive at the time, but it also influences our evaluation of ourselves and our futures, and helps us to make sense of our pasts, providing an internal impetus for the self-serving confabulation and rationalization of our memories.

*See What You Want to See: Motivational Influences on Visual Perception

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Scarcity

In TFI we were required to report our statistics at the end of each month. This meant filling in a 2 page report form that included places for total number of pieces of literature distributed, "souls saved" (meaning the number of people who prayed with us to receive Jesus, no matter how shallow or insincere this was), and in the heyday of Flirty Fishing, girls had to fill out the number of men they had sex with and the number of times. 

Simple psychology dictates that such reporting would breed a sense of competition and a tendency to want to inflate the numbers reported to "look good." Of course, that was commonplace.  

This reporting also added a sense of pressure to life, knowing that we would have to report how we did that month. Add to that the financial pressure - we also had to report our total income, our tithe amount, and the breakdown of where our additional financial gifts were to go each month.

All the while, we were not to take "System" jobs, but to remain "God's dropped out children," put simply, beggars and prostitutes.

The constant struggle for survival, especially in the Third World countries in which we were instructed to live, created a sense of scarcity.

Insight into the psychological effects of this struggle can be found in Cara Feinberg's summary of recent research on scarcity, the depletion of willpower, and the practical use of nudges in creating desirable behavior. When life is made up of a scramble for survival, mental processes are affected. "Scarcity steals mental capacity wherever it occurs—from the hungry, to the lonely, to the time-strapped, to the poor."

So much "mental bandwidth" is used battling for survival - raising funds, meeting all sorts of proselytizing quotas, sticking to the daily schedule - that the mind is compromised. To quote from the article linked above, 

"If the mind is focused on one thing, other abilities and skills—attention, self-control, and long-term planning—often suffer. Like a computer running multiple programs, Mullainathan and Shafir explain, our mental processors begin to slow down. We don’t lose any inherent capacities, just the ability to access the full complement ordinarily available for use."


As I wrote before (Neural Atrophy), people who live in a state of chronic subordination experience a decrease in new brain cell growth. It is as if our minds were attacked from all sides: the struggle for survival, constant subordination to capricious leaders, and the ever-present readings of the Mo Letters. 

I am beginning to see why the idea of leaving the group took so long to appear.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Financial Fleecing

Another aspect to finances in the COG/TFI was that each home was supposed to be completely self-supporting in addition to their required tithing. This wasn't so hard in the early days, when we were relatively unknown and people seemed more trusting of random strangers asking for donations on street corners.

As the years passed, however, TFI had to get more creative. "Flirty Fishing" opened up a new and bigger method of raising funds. We women were instructed to, in effect, give men sex, proselytize them, and receive in return a "donation for our work." This process, religious persuasion aside, can be called nothing if not prostitution - and it paid well.

Naturally, some women found this harder than others. I enjoyed the chance to go out and meet people, have a nice meal, dance, socialize. As for sex, I was completely inexperienced and self-conscious. Perhaps in a subconscious rejection of any mental association with prostitution or the dehumanization of the men I met, I could never refer to them as "fish" or "kings" as they were called in the publications and therefore by group members.

As awkward as this behavior was, the hardest part was dealing with my leaders in the Homes regarding the money brought in. During my early days of Flirty Fishing, I was publicly shamed by the leader for being the one in the Home that brought in the least money for a certain month. I was deeply mortified. 

A few years later, I felt so much pressure from another particularly avaricious leader that just the thought of coming back from a trip abroad where I had gone to meet one of my "friends" without a substantial amount of money filled me with such fear that I actually wrote the man a note after we had parted and left it at the hotel front desk for him. This, after his kindness and generosity to me, as well as his tolerance of my "witnessing." He had even given me money for shopping which I used to buy the items on the list given me by my leaders. (Far be it from me to buy anything for myself.) Gentleman that he was, he found me and gave me more money. That was the last time I ever heard from him.

My fear of facing the leader with whom I lived was greater than the fear of offending my friend. The leader won, and I lost a friend.

For about 8 years I had a another dear friend who was a lawyer. He was very generous in his care for me and his gifts to the group. Among other kindnesses, he would take me grocery shopping for our big Home each week. If, perchance, we bumped into that greedy leader in the store, my friend would offer to pay for his shopping, too. Whereby Mr. Greedy would pick up all kinds of expensive items he normally wouldn't buy as we made our way to the cashier. Yes, that annoyed me, but I was in no position to correct my "elder in the Lord."

Misplaced loyalty, indeed.