Victoria NeuroNotes

Into the Gray

Casting a Spell: The Political and Religious Cook Book of Persuasion


A cerebral automatism, related to the learning process, gives people the propensity to line up to majority opinion even when it contradicts evidence.  Here’s an example:

Photo credit: Photo credit: Free Software Foundation, Inc. / Wikipedia Commons

In 1951, Social Psychologist Solomon Asch did an experiment where he seated an individual (subject) in the middle of an assembly set up in a circular arc in front of a screen.  Asch projected two images: the first showed an eight-inch-long line; in the second image, three lines — 6, 10, and 8 inches.  Asch then asked each participant to show him which line of the three was the same length as that in the first image.

No problem, right?

Asch set the experiment up with accomplices. All members of the assembly (the accomplices) deliberately chose the wrong line. In spite of the evidence that was right before the subjects own eyes, 75% of the cases rallied to group opinion, picking the wrong line.


Sheep In Human Clothing

Research at the University of Leeds, U.K., suggests that humans flock like sheep and birds.

Groups of people were asked to walk randomly around a large hall. A select few within the group were informed, with detailed information, where to walk. The informed individuals were not allowed to speak with one another, and instructed to stay within arm’s length of another person.

In all cases, the findings showed that the informed individuals were followed by others and formed a self-organizing, snake-like structure.  Scientists demonstrated that it only took a minority of 5 percent, in crowds of 200 or more, to influence the other 95 percent of people, and without them realizing it.  As the number of people in a crowd increased, the number of informed individuals decreased.

And speaking of self-organizing, snake-like structures — watch this fascinating human experiment.  I’ve queued the video at 15:13.  The Los Vegas experiment (4 minutes) is relevant to this post, but I recommend the full  22 minute video presented by National Geographic, if and/or when you have time.


From the superbly produced documentary, A Question of Miracles, world renowned theologians and neuroscientists address environmental conditions that enable faith healers, clerics, gurus, motivational speakers, politicians and leaders of nations to significantly influence tens and hundreds of thousands (even millions) of unsuspecting people.

The documentary notes one of the most important developments in human evolution:  the enlargement of our frontal lobes which gave us the powers of self control, organization, and the ability to anticipate — to see and plan ahead.

But this brain development came at a cost. We appear to be the only species who can see our inevitable decay and death.   To compensate for the fear (death anxiety) that generally accompanies this realization, the temporal lobes and the limbic system shifted and regrouped which allowed for memory, creativity, emotion and fantasy.   Humans gained hope and strength from believing that their “spirit” or “soul’ lived on in another life after physical death.

Photo credit: Ratomir Wilkowski — Wikipedia Commons

Most religions offer people relief from death anxiety and the belief that something bigger than themselves, such as an all-knowing, omnipresent god or gods, can heal them.   Although there’s been many advances in modern medical science, millions of people still turn to religion for cures.  Examples are worldwide faith healing services, conducted by Christian evangelists, who attract millions of people, year after year, decade after decade.  In the documentary, neuroscientists visually explain what is happening in the minds of followers at each stage of a faith healing event.


“Something physical, something chemical happens to us when we are in a large crowd. Hitler understood that you could say things to a crowd of thousands that were more effective than saying it to a crowd of a hundred.” ~Rabbi Harold S. Hushner
(quote from documentary)


Hitler Salute During a Political Rally

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

In the documentary, Marcel Kinsbourne, a neurologist, cognitive neuroscientist and a professor of psychology, states that Hitler created an environment that induced entrainment (enhancing the power of suggestion) as huge crowds watched and heard soldiers marching in unison:

“The parade, the drums, the chanting, songs, the gesture of salute, the acclaim of the leader”.

“All the elements had the effect of submerging the individuals into the group.  Large numbers of people, all together with a single purpose, performing single acts in lock-step.

They were like one organism.

That is a pitch to which the organizers bring the people — they bring them to persuade them — to do something that they normally might not do.  They charge into battle, risk death to kill the enemy.”

I explain how entrainment is used in religious worship services, here.

 Christian Praise and Worship Service

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Michael A. Persinger, a cognitive neuroscience researcher and university professor with over 200 peer-reviewed publications, states: 

“Effective speakers, people who can manipulate crowds, for good or bad, have similar characteristics.  So when you look at the Bonnke’s, the Hinn’s, the Hitlers, the Nuremberg rallies, the operations are very similar, and they should be because they are human beings influencing other human beings.

The “good” or the “bad” is a function of value judgement and of course historical perspective.”


pressThe Texas Tribune — August 6, 2011 [excerpt]
Thousands of worshipers poured into Reliant Stadium Saturday and staged a boisterous prayer meeting with gospel music and Christian rock, emotional sermons and perhaps a political boost for the man who started it all: likely presidential candidate Rick Perry, the governor of Texas.

Organizers said more than 30,000 showed up for the high-energy event.

Perry took to the stage shortly before noon, sounding like a revivalist preacher as he urged participants to embrace Jesus and pray for help at a time of economic decline and family strife.

Perry said God was the “only hope” for a nation in crisis.

The Response, took on the feel of a mega-church ceremony from the moment it began.  Throughout the ceremony, worshipers sang and wept and waved their arms in a prayerful frenzy, shouting “amen” and calling for divine intervention.

The event, which cost the sponsors over $1 million, was highly orchestrated and choreographed, and organizers were careful to keep the element of surprise.

Emphasis are mine.

Watch a short clip below (under 3 minutes) of the “prayer rally” hosted and orchestrated by Governor Rick Perry, and notice the behavior of the crowd (possibly in a suggestive mental state).


The “waving of arms in a prayerful frenzy” described in the political prayer rally news article is strikingly similar to the waving of arms shown in “A Question of Miracles” documentary, from both political and religious assemblies.
(See minute marker 45:20)


Power of Suggestion & Crowd Manipulation

Dr. Persinger states that when you bring people into a group, where they feel diminutive because of the size of the place, be it a cathedral, a stadium, near a mountain, or open space — people will experience a special kind of psychological arousal — a sense of wholeness.

He further states in the documentary that when music is presented, that rises and falls every four to five seconds, it produces a kind of wave of experience that elevates that special kind of arousal and also releases opiates which scientists know (experimentally) increases the hypnotizing effect, thus increasing suggestibility.

“You have these groups in the kind of ecstatic states, a kind of expectancy state, then you have the individual come out, the speaker who will coordinate all these experiences among the mass of people. This person must be a kind of orchestra leader to maintain his great orchestration of cognitive experiences.  As the speaker begins to give the message, the people are full of emotion — full of imagery.

It’s a feeling of being one with everyone in the group.

These images take on tremendous personal value because of the elevation of the opiates.  Because of the groups state of ecstasy, and within the gathered crowds, you see the features of these opiate releases.  They may cry.  Individuals sway.  You get the smiles, a mild glow, like a mild drunken state.  These experiences are associated with mild electrical changes deep within the brain.”


From Scientific America: ”The Power of Music:  Mind Control by Rhythmic Sound


“Rhythmic sound “not only coordinates the behavior of people in a group, it also coordinates their thinking—the mental processes of individuals in the group become synchronized. This finding extends the well-known power of music to tap into brain circuits controlling emotion and movement, to actually control the brain circuitry of sensory perception.

This discovery helps explain how drums unite tribes in ceremony, why armies march to bugle and drum into battle, why worship and ceremonies are infused by song, why speech is rhythmic, punctuated by rhythms of emphasis on particular syllables and words, and perhaps why we dance. Within a few measures of music your brain waves start to get in synch with the rhythm…]. The EEG recordings showed that the waves of brain activity became synchronized around the auditory rhythm.  Rhythmic sound synchronizes brain waves.”

Guard Your Mind

The point of this post is not to dis humans’ natural inclination to follow; or the desire to belong and assemble.  Understandingly, everybody wants to belong and be a part of something that is bigger than themselves.  But, as I attempted to demonstrate in this post, we can (unknowingly) succumb to the power of crowd manipulation and suggestion, as though under a spell.  It helps explain why many people often vote against their own best interests.


Author: NeuroNotes

Victoria predominately blogs about religion, and the brain's role in religious type experiences.

79 thoughts on “Casting a Spell: The Political and Religious Cook Book of Persuasion

  1. Rick Perry?!? Low blow, V! :0p

    Seriously, though: lock-step and knee-jerk do seem to be our default settings, especially of late. Or so the herd tells me…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Years ago, I saw a documentary of sheep being herded, one by one, through an opening in a wooden fence. A dowel rod had been placed between the two posts of the opening, about a foot off the ground, necessitating that the sheep leap over the dowel in order to pass. After a time, the dowel was removed, but the remainder of the sheep continued to jump.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All fascinating stuff, Victoria. Great article.


  4. Terrific. This is an informative and well supported argument. I love the pic of the Hitler speech followed closely by the religious revival pic. Saluting and arm raising go hand and in hand with group obedience to what people perceive as a “higher power.” Great stuff.


  5. Interesting stuff, as always, Victoria. I always come away thinking about new things in new ways…

    Love you lots!


  6. These are not the droids you’re looking for….

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Damn, Perry even looks like a highfalutin preacher. I’ve been in these crowd. They scared me, and I’d walk away or I’d just make myself invisible. 🙂 I can do that you know.

    Walk away, I mean.

    Isn’t this same technique, same rhythm used by the talking heads of mainstream media, only presented to a larger audience? For example, when CNN claims, poll finds majority of Americans alarmed by ISIS.


  8. “Damn, Perry even looks like a highfalutin preacher.”

    He gives me the hebejebes.

    “Isn’t this same technique, same rhythm used by the talking heads of mainstream media”

    That’s an excellent point Peter.


  9. Ick. I want to wash out my brain now. These quirks eek me out badly. I get the heebie-jeebies watching the videos you posted. It’s important to be reminded though. Of course, there are positive effects but the bad certainly seems to outweigh the good. I was taught long ago, and my brain agrees even when I don’t: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way. Ick.


    • Madalyn, I know what you mean. The biggest problem I have with all this is the deception — knowingly taking full advantage of a human inclination (to follow) that evolved to be beneficial for our species, but has been turned on it’s head by people who should not be in any leadership position. I think it’s great that we have this information available to us. It’s empowering.


      • I think it’s great that we have this information available to us. It’s empowering.
        Not if those who need it most, won’t accept it. It’s like having a measles vaccine, that no one will take.


        • That’s a good point Arch. I do think most people are not aware of it. What’s the point of having a vaccine if it isn’t readily made know to the public. Yes, this information is available at our fingertips when you dig for it, but few people disseminate the research when they do find it.


  10. Excellent post. This really sheds light on so much of what people think of as “the power of God”. Something happens, but it’s literally all in their head.

    This also explains the phenomenon of youth getting saved at church camps. My impression is that a very large proportion of people who convert do so during adolescence (I don’t have stats on that…) at an event (retreat, camp, concert, revival, etc.). I was one of those youth. I held onto my conversion experience as proof of God’s existence. Over the years the thought that it was just a psychological phenomenon occurred to me, but I never let myself really consider that possibility until recently.

    Brain imaging studies are fascinating, and have revealed so many interesting things!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Charles, your comment was spot on. First, there seems to be an understanding among many clerics, especially evangelicals, that if you get ’em while they are young, there’s a greater likelihood of them remaining “faithful” as adults. They know what they are talking about. I’ve even read articles from evangelicals that stress targeting specific age groups.

      The lead heading on their home pages says “God used CEF to reach 15.8 million children”. These people go into our public school systems and parks to recruit them using cult tactics. Quote from a recent article:

      “In past summers, Child Evangelism Fellowship has targeted children in Boston, Denver, Chicago, Little Rock, Salt Lake City, and the Twin Cities for conversion to their brand of biblical fundamentalism. One of their key tools is an after-school program called the Good News Club, which takes place in public grade schools across the country. Good News Clubs mix snacks, games, art projects and stories with upbeat moral lessons and the theology of blood sacrifice.

      Attorney Eric Cernyar participated in Good News Club as a child. He now monitors Child Evangelism Fellowship activities and documents club practices such as deceptive marketing, authoritarian conditioning, diminishing nonbelievers, shame indoctrination, fear indoctrination, attacks on science education, and the cult technique of “mind control”.

      They are targeting specific age groups, and we now know from neuroscience research that there are certain windows in the brain development of children, such as adolescence when certain parts of the brain are most susceptible to particular experiences. If certain synapses and neuronal pathways are not repeatedly activated, they may be discarded (synaptic pruning). If they are repeatedly activated, then they are very likely to strengthen into networks.

      Scroll down to the subheading “Brain Development in Adolescence”

      Here’s an image of synapses in children between the ages of 6 and 14 (usually the age range these fundies are targeting. As noted in the image, this is at a time when they have twice the synaptic density as adults (mostly in the impulsive and emotional limbic system), yet their frontal lobes are not fully developed.

      To touch on your other comment, you wrote: “This really sheds light on so much of what people think of as “the power of God”. Something happens, but it’s literally all in their head.”

      Exactly right. We have the power to make these experiences happen without all the religious baggage, and get all the feel-good endorphins (opiates). No god needed. It’s all in our head, but these experiences can be so wonderful feeling that people (due to indoctrination) automatically think it’s a god experience. Have you seen this? Well worth the watch.

      How To Convert An Atheist

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Such a great post Victoria. Fascinating how people can be controlled and swayed to believing in something they know for a fact doesn’t exist. Then of course there are the ‘pleasers’ who want to do everything to please others and then follow them like sheep and believe everything they say. I hardly believe anything unless I figured it out for myself to be true and then I still question myself. 😆

    Love to read how the brain works and you’re so great at all of this. I think you must come and visit and check out mine. hahahaha
    ♥ Hugs ♥


  12. I’ll be checking out that documentary (A Question of Miracles) probably by the coming weekend.
    I just finished reading up on the Asch conformity experiments. Thank you for providing subject matter that piques my curiosity. As soon as I saw the name (Asch), I HAD to google it to find out what it was all about. What an interesting experiment. How disappointing the results were. We’re not nearly as smart as we think we are.


    • Hi Ashley,

      Thanks for taking the time to check out the links and watch the doc. I’ve gotten feedback from a few people who don’t live in the U.S., and the doc (the YouTube video) wasn’t available in their country. Not sure where you live, but if that happens to you, here’s another link. This one did open for them.

      It’s in 4 parts. Parts 1 and 2 give you a lot of background, and parts 3 and 4 really get into the meat. I wished more people knew about this — how vulnerable they can be in large crowds and among “speakers” whose intent is to manipulate and/or deceive.

      In the first video I posted by National Geographic, “Brain Games: Social Influence”, it talks about why most humans tend to be followers, and it evolved to benefit our species; but as you can see, this propensity to follow can be quite disadvantageous. Humans tend to be gullible and have a strong urge to belong. This is seen as a weakness and used ruthlessly by those who abuse their power. But it is daunting how easily people can give their power away and not apply critical social assessment.


  13. Great post. I have observed this quite often. One person starts to look up for no reason and everyone is busy looking up and each person who comes later does not inquire what is happening. They are all looking up to where the first fellow was.


  14. Victoria, has anyone ever told you that you can be depressing? I know some people are unthinking (aka stupid) but I really don’t like confirmation of that 😦


    • Kate, I spread awareness. I’m a human rights activist. Yes, we activists (you should know) don’t sugarcoat dung.


      • I’m an advocate for sugar coated dung, and I take offense to the insinuation that dung, when sugar coated, isn’t a fine tasting snack food. Sorry. I know this is intruding in a nonsensical sort of way, but, I felt compelled to do it via a voice in my head. No, I’m not crazy, I’m a religious visionary seeking tax exempt status on my home and property. 😀


        • LOL 😀

          The thing is — Kate’s right. I can be depressing at times. I wished I didn’t have to bring awareness about a lot of this stinky stuff. But in all honestly, I don’t see a lot of people willing to wade in the chit. People have a lot on their plate and don’t want to be reminded of the negative. I get that. My blog is not for those who want to stay in la la land 24/7 or who need to decompress from the stench of dung. But for people like you? I take pleasure in slinging dung your way. *evil grin*

          It’s not like I can’t let my hair down. I think you know by now that I can. 😈 *wink wink*


          • Your blog is a breath of fresh air and one that is greatly needed. You’re poking at a hornets nest full of angry hornets who do not want to be told they’re wrong about the perfect, righteous view they have of themselves. I admire you very much. I also admire our mutual pals John Zande and Mak. It is great to know that you folks are out there fighting the good fight. Thanks.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Jeff, I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating; You Rock! I am not tickling your ears. I agree about John and Noel — both have been a great inspiration to me, and they are two people I admire and respect very much. But I also admire and respect you. You bring a lot to the table, and make people think through satire and humor. That’s not easy to do for most. It takes talent to do it effectively. You are not only brilliant in your delivery, but consistently hit it out of the ballpark. Thank you for your encouraging words. 🙂


          • I think we do need to wade in. Having moaned about depressing thoughts!

            I read a really interesting book about feminism and I’ll be posting about that soon. I read another one about racism, which had me vomiting, even worse I used to work with him… But a little bit at a time, questioning, chipping away, without getting in people’s faces, hopefully may get us all somewhere. One day.


      • You are right of course. Just sometimes I feel like we are only ever talking to ourselves.

        But still, if we influence even one person, then that’s a positive 🙂

        And, I’ve had a couple of people say what I’ve written has done that, so yes, continue as you were 🙂 we aren’t aiming at influencing each other are we?

        When I can influence people in tiny ways about feminism and animal rights, I feel my time isn’t wasted. As we’ve said before, we put our ebpnergy where it’s best employed.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Ebpnergy was not well said 😀


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  17. We’re a very interesting species – so malleable. Great post Victoria.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting indeed. I watched a documentary about the brain the other day and it said that 1 in 100 people are psychopaths, but that most were/are not murders or serial killers. They were/are called “white collar” psychopaths.

      According to former FBI agent Gregg McCrary, “They’re intelligent, have great interpersonal skills, powerfully persuasive and able to disguise themselves very well. A psychopath’s approach to life is all about manipulation”

      When they are disguised in religious garb, it then becomes legal to deceive, manipulate, do psychological harm, and rip people off.

      …and thank you. 🙂


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