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TED2009

Diane Benscoter: How cults rewire the brain

February 6, 2009

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.

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

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
My journey to coming here today
00:18
started in 1974.
00:22
That's me with the funny gloves.
00:24
I was 17 and going on a peace walk.
00:27
What I didn't know though, was most of those people, standing there
00:30
with me, were Moonies.
00:33
(Laughter)
00:35
And within a week
00:39
I had come to believe
00:41
that the second coming of Christ had occurred,
00:43
that it was Sun Myung Moon,
00:46
and that I had been specially chosen and prepared by God
00:48
to be his disciple.
00:52
Now as cool as that sounds,
00:54
my family was not that thrilled with this.
00:56
(Laughter)
00:58
And they tried everything they could to get me out of there.
01:00
There was an underground railroad of sorts
01:02
that was going on during those years. Maybe some of you remember it.
01:04
They were called deprogrammers.
01:07
And after about five long years
01:10
my family had me deprogrammed.
01:16
And I then became a deprogrammer.
01:18
I started going out on cases.
01:23
And after about five years of doing this,
01:25
I was arrested for kidnapping.
01:29
Most of the cases I went out on
01:33
were called involuntary.
01:35
What happened was that the family
01:37
had to get their loved ones some safe place somehow.
01:39
And so they took them to some safe place.
01:42
And we would come in and talk to them, usually for about a week.
01:46
And so after this happened,
01:49
I decided it was a good time to turn my back on this work.
01:53
And about 20 years went by.
01:57
There was a burning question though that would not leave me.
02:02
And that was, "How did this happen to me?"
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And in fact, what did happen to my brain?
02:08
Because something did.
02:11
And so I decided to write a book, a memoir,
02:14
about this decade of my life.
02:16
And toward the end of writing that book
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there was a documentary that came out.
02:21
It was on Jonestown.
02:23
And it had a chilling effect on me.
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These are the dead in Jonestown.
02:30
About 900 people died that day,
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most of them taking their own lives.
02:35
Women gave poison to their babies,
02:38
and watched foam come from their mouths as they died.
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The top picture is a group of Moonies
02:47
that have been blessed by their messiah.
02:50
Their mates were chosen for them.
02:53
The bottom picture is Hitler youth.
02:56
This is the leg of a suicide bomber.
03:00
The thing I had to admit to myself,
03:04
with great repulsion,
03:06
was that I get it.
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I understand how this could happen.
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I understand how someone's brain,
03:14
how someone's mind can come to the place
03:17
where it makes sense --
03:20
in fact it would be wrong, when your brain is working like that --
03:22
not to try to save the world through genocide.
03:25
And so what is this? How does this work?
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And how I've come to view what happened to me
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is a viral, memetic infection.
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For those of you who aren't familiar with memetics,
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a meme has been defined as
03:43
an idea that replicates in the human brain
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and moves from brain to brain like a virus,
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much like a virus. The way a virus works is --
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it can infect and do the most damage to someone
03:55
who has a compromised immune system.
04:00
In 1974, I was young, I was naive,
04:04
and I was pretty lost in my world.
04:08
I was really idealistic.
04:10
These easy ideas to complex questions are very appealing
04:13
when you are emotionally vulnerable.
04:17
What happens is that
04:20
circular logic takes over.
04:23
"Moon is one with God.
04:25
God is going to fix all the problems in the world.
04:27
All I have to do is humbly follow.
04:31
Because God is going to stop war and hunger --
04:33
all these things I wanted to do --
04:35
all I have to do is humbly follow.
04:37
Because after all, God is [working through] the messiah. He's going to fix all this."
04:39
It becomes impenetrable.
04:42
And the most dangerous part of this
04:45
is that is creates "us" and "them,"
04:48
"right" and "wrong,"
04:51
"good" and "evil."
04:53
And it makes anything possible,
04:57
makes anything rationalizable.
05:01
And the thing is, though,
05:08
if you looked at my brain
05:10
during those years in the Moonies --
05:12
neuroscience is expanding exponentially,
05:14
as Ray Kurzweil said yesterday. Science is expanding.
05:17
We're beginning to look inside the brain.
05:19
And so if you looked at my brain, or any brain that's infected with
05:22
a viral memetic infection like this,
05:24
and compared it to anyone in this room,
05:27
or anyone who uses critical thinking on a regular basis,
05:29
I am convinced it would look very, very different.
05:31
And that, strange as it may sound,
05:36
gives me hope.
05:39
And the reason that gives me hope
05:41
is that the first thing is to admit
05:43
that we have a problem.
05:46
But it's a human problem. It's a scientific problem, if you will.
05:49
It happens in the human brain. There is no evil force out there to get us.
05:52
And so this is something that, through research and education,
05:56
I believe that we can solve.
06:00
And so the first step is to realize
06:03
that we can do this together,
06:11
and that there is no "us" and "them."
06:13
Thank you very much. (Applause)
06:16

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

Why you should listen

At 17, Diane Benscoter joined The Unification Church -- the religious cult whose members are commonly known as “Moonies.” After five long years, her distressed family arranged to have her deprogrammed. Benscoter then left The Unification Church, and was so affected by her experience that she became a deprogrammer herself. She devoted her time to extracting others from cults, until she was arrested for kidnapping. The shock of her arrest caused her to abandon her efforts for almost 20 years.

Now, after decades of research and study, Diane has begun to speak about her experiences. She recently completed a memoir describing her years as a member of The Unification Church and as a deprogrammer.

Furthermore, she has embarked on a new project to define “extremist viral memetic infections”. She believes that defining extremism as a memetic infection, from a cognitive neurological perspective, might allow us to develop better memes that would inoculate against the memes of extremist thought. These inoculating memes could prevent the spread of extremist viral memetic infections and their inherent dangers.

The original video is available on TED.com
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