Cult Conversion, Deprogramming,
and the Triune Brain

Geri-Ann Galanti, Ph.D.
California State University
Los Angeles, California


This article presents a theoretical analysis of cult conversion and deprogramming based on the model of the triune brain. During participant-observation at a Unification Church training camp, the author found, to her surprise, that her intellect was unaffected; the “brainwashing” affected her emotionally (limbic system). Cult life involves much ritual behavior (R-complex) but de-emphasizes intellectual processes (neocortex). Interviews with deprogrammers indicated that their goal is to get the cultist to see contradictions between cult doctrine and practice—in essence, stimulating the neocortex. Thus, cult conversion and deconversion emphasize different parts of the brain.

Several years ago I worked on a project on cult conversion and deprogramming. I spent time talking to deprogrammers and former cult members, and briefly stayed at a Unification Church training camp. Recently, in the process of preparing for a class I teach on the evolution of emotions, I read Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden (1977), which is based upon Paul MacLean's (1973) model of the triune brain. It gave me a new way of understanding what goes on during cult conversion and deprogramming. I would like to share my thoughts on that subject.

Before I begin, one caveat: Much of what I write is speculative and an oversimplification. Certainly, all parts of the brain are involved in most behavior. What I am suggesting is an emphasis on certain portions of the brain during certain types of activities. I do not intend this paper to be a neurological analysis of what occurs during cult conversion and deprogramming, but rather another perspective we can use in examining the phenomena.

The neurological approach may be useful in understanding those aspects of cult conversion and deconversion that do not readily submit to psychological analyses, for example, chanting's sometimes puzzling effects, the development of phobias, and “triggers.” The neurological approach may also help account for the compelling quality of certain intense cult conversion experiences, such as those commonly associated with the Unification Church.

The Triune Brain

For those who are unfamiliar with the triune model, it simply suggests that the brain has three basic components, which evolved phylogenetically. In other words, as new classes and orders of animals evolved, natural selection worked to elaborate upon the form of the existing brain, adding to it, rather than creating a completely new version.

The oldest and most primitive is the R-complex, or reptilian brain. The four basic drives—feeding, fleeing, fighting, and sex—are based in the reptilian brain. It is the site of instinctive as opposed to learned behavior. Sagan suggests that ritualized behavior has its basis in the R-complex. Although in animals, much ritualized behavior is instinctive, learned rituals may also be located in the R-complex. They may be created in the neocortex, but once behaviors become ritualized, conscious thought is suspended. Chanting, for example, shuts off the conscious mind. Perhaps the reptilian brain takes over.

The second component of the triune brain is the limbic system, or mammalian brain. It is the primary site of the emotions. It contains the thalamus (the relay station for all information passed to the cerebral hemispheres), the hypothalamus (which regulates many functions, including hunger, thirst, sleep, heart rate, hormones, and the autonomic nervous system), the amygdala (associated with emotional memories), the pituitary (the master gland), and the hippocampus (which stores spatial memories).

The third component of the triune brain is the neocortex, generally thought of as the “thinking brain,” or the intellect. It contains the frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes. The frontal lobe is involved in decision making and anticipation of the future. The temporal lobes are associated with language, perceptual tasks, hearing, and memory store. The parietal lobes are related to spatial perception. The occipital lobe houses the visual sense.

Sagan (1977) summarizes the relationship between the triune brain and human nature as follows: the ritualistic and hierarchical aspects of our lives are influenced by the reptilian brain; the emotional, religious, and altruistic parts are largely localized in the limbic system; and the intellectual parts of our lives, those concerned with reason, are a function of the neocortex.

Brainwashing/Cult Conversion

Several years ago I wrote a paper on brainwashing based on my experiences at a Unification Church (“Moonie”) training camp (Galanti, 1984). I noted that to my surprise, the “brainwashing” that took place did not affect my intellect. I sat through a total of nine hours of lecture on Unification Church doctrine. As I sat there listening, I naďvely kept monitoring my brain for signs of brainwashing. There were none. With the zeal of a professional graduate student, I was able to silently critique both the content of the lectures and the methods of presentation.

I observed that the leaders began and ended each lecture by having the group sing a moving song. That felt good. It surrounded the whole lecture with an upbeat, positive feeling. (Thus, they began and ended the lectures by stimulating the limbic system.)

I noted that they allowed no questions. We were to “learn” the material, not question it. The lecturers spoke very quickly and wrote a lot on the board. There was no time to think. Everyone was too busy copying down the material. I asked one of the long-term members if she got bored listening to the same lectures over and over. She said no, that she heard something new each time. No wonder. We were given so much information that there was no time to really hear or process anything. Thus, even the part of the training that is ostensibly devoted to neocortical type learning actually involves very little thought.

So, I wasn't brainwashed—if the term refers to our intellectual processes. But the Moonies did get to me. I had arranged to have a friend and former member pick me up from the camp. I remember saying to him afterwards, “I had a great time. Remind me again what's so bad about the Moonies.”

The next day I was interviewing a former member of the Unification Church who had become a deprogrammer. I spent an hour or so asking her about her experiences as a cult member. Then I switched to the topic of deprogramming. I asked how she went about deprogramming someone. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Exactly the way I'm doing with you right now.” I was stunned. I didn't need deprogramming. I didn't believe their doctrine. Yet, I, who had read many accounts of the abuses of the Unification Church, who had heard tales of horror from the mouths of several ex-members, yes, I had to be reminded “what was so bad about the Moonies.”

They had gotten to me, all right. But it wasn't through my intellect. They got to me emotionally. (In other words, through the limbic system, not the neocortex.) And the emotional truth was far stronger than the intellectual one. I liked the people there. I had fun. We sang songs and played games and acted like children. I didn't have to think about anything. They made all the decisions for me. My neocortex got a vacation.

Cults often emphasize ritual chanting, meditation, or prayer. It is well known that repetition induces trancelike altered states of consciousness. It is not clear how such altered states fit into the model of the triune brain, but since they are produced through the use of patterned, ritualized behavior, they appear to involve the reptilian brain more than the neocortex. Many scholars who have studied the process of cult conversion (e.g., Appel 1983; Clark, Langone, Schecter, & Daly, 1981; Conway & Siegelman, 1978) note that the self-induced trances impair neocortical functioning. In other words, trance states stop you from thinking.

The Moonies use a technique called “love bombing,” which certainly affected me on an emotional level. Love bombing basically consists of telling people how wonderful they are. For example, one morning “Jane” said to me, “You know, Geri, you're really one of the most open people I've ever met. You don't put up any defenses. You're really open. I think that's so great.” When she said this, part of my mind went on alert: love bombing, love bombing. But the other part thought, “Well, yes, but it really is true. She probably really means it.” In any case, it made me feel good. Intellectually, I realized what she was doing; emotionally, I bought it.

Jane showed me a letter written to her by one of her church “sisters.” It was very emotional. She told me that the letters that Unification Church members write to each other were much more meaningful than the shallow ones her birth sister writes. Those, she said, tend to be about daily events. Her church sisters write about their feelings. It was clear that in the Unification Church, feelings are more important than anything else. Members are encouraged to feel, not to think.

Margaret Singer (1979) writes about the problems faced by people coming out of cults. Among them is a severe inability to make decisions. This is not surprising. Cult members are not in the habit of making their own decisions: what to eat, when to eat, where to go, what to do, what to believe. All these and other decisions are made for them. Decision making involves the neocortex. Perhaps it is like a muscle that is weakened after disuse and needs exercise to get back into shape.

Many former members commented that they stayed in the cult out of fear. Cult doctrine teaches that the only path to salvation is through the cult. To leave is to risk eternal damnation. They were afraid of what would happen to them if they left. They were afraid of what would happen to their soul. Fear is a powerful emotion based in the R-complex. So, cults hook you and hold you by using the lower brain centers.

Deprogramming/Exit Counseling

I interviewed numerous deprogrammers about the process of deprogramming. The key factor they all mentioned was getting the cultist to see the contradictions in the cult doctrine and cult practices. In other words, deprogramming is largely an intellectual process. Today, exit counseling is distinguished from deprogramming by the lack of coercion. However, originally the term deprogramming referred to the process of countering the cults' “programming,” and did not imply the use of coercion. In exit counseling, which has largely supplanted deprogramming, the emphasis is on information, again in an effort to reactivate the cult member's critical thinking abilities. “Exit counseling is a voluntary, intensive, time-limited, contractual educational process that emphasizes the respectful sharing of information . . .” (Clark, Giambalvo, Giambalvo, Garvey, & Langone, 1993, p. 155).

Steve Dubrow-Eichel (1989) presents a near-transcript of a 5-day deprogramming. The turning point for “Ken,” the Hare Krishna who was being deprogrammed, occurred on the second day. It came when Curt, the deprogrammer, read from the official ISKCON version of the Gita. It stated that the true master's home “is not illuminated by the sun or moon, nor by electricity.” Curt pointed out that electricity did not exist when the Gita was written. This triggered a long-repressed doubt in Ken, who said he had wondered how the saints could have written about electricity centuries before it was discovered. Prabhupada was supposed to be perfect, and here he had made an error. This discovery led Ken to find other inconsistencies in the doctrine. Curt complimented him by saying, “Hey, there you go! You're thinking now, Jackson!” [emphasis mine] (p. 71). Ken replied, “It's something, a thought that I never actually, I never confronted the questions in my mind because that would appear as a blasphemy” (p. 71).

In order to deprogram cultists, the deprogrammers have to get them to think again. Not feel, not react, but think. Using the triune model, the cult conversion process involves de-emphasizing the neocortex in favor of the R-complex and limbic system, while the deconversion process emphasizes the neocortex.


Many scholars have suggested various models of cult conversion, ranging from those that emphasize social-psychological processes (e.g., Cialdini, 1984; Galanti, 1984; Zimbardo, Ebbesen, & Maslach, 1977) to those that focus on information processing (e.g., Edwards 1979; Conway & Siegelman 1978) to those that stress the role of altered states of consciousness (e.g., Clark et al., 1981; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982). What I am suggesting in this brief article is another way of thinking about both the process of conversion and deconversion.

I think much of the power of cult conversion comes from its use of the lower brain centers. Both R-complex learning and emotional learning are closely associated with survival and thus much more powerful than intellectual learning. If I am betrayed by my lover, I may never trust him—or any man—again. However, it may take me several lessons to learn to use a computer. Emotional lessons are learned far more quickly than intellectual ones. I need be bit only once by a dog to be afraid of dogs ever after. Limbic and R-complex learning obviously aren't impossible to unlearn; if they were, psychotherapists would be out of business. Generally, however, it takes longer to unlearn such lessons than it does those of Anthropology 100 or Math 250.

My model focuses on MacLean's concept of the triune brain. Both cult conversion and cult participation emphasize the use of the lower brain centers; in MacLean's terms, the R-complex and the limbic system. Deprogramming, on the other hand, is designed to stimulate the neocortex. However, since the effects of R-complex and limbic system learning are so powerful, longer-term therapy is often needed to undo the emotional damage done during the process of cult conversion. Ideally, the result of deprogramming and counseling is a reintegration of all parts of the brain.


Appel, W. (1983). Cults in America: Programmed for paradise. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: How and why people agree to things. New York: William Morrow.

Clark, D., Giambalvo, C., Giambalvo, N., Garvey, K., Langone, M. (1993). Exit counseling: A practical overview. In M. D. Langone (Ed.), Recovery from cults: Help for victims of spiritual and psychological abuse (pp. 155–180). New York: W. W. Norton.

Clark, J., Langone, M., Schecter, R., & Daly, R. (1981). Destructive cult conversion: Theory, research, and treatment. Weston, MA: American Family Foundation.

Conway, F., & Siegelman, J. (1978). Snapping: America's epidemic of sudden personality change. New York: Dell.

Dubrow-Eichel, S. (1989). Deprogramming: A case study. Cultic Studies Journal 6(2), 1–117.

Edwards, C. (1979). Crazy for God. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PrenticeHall.

Galanti, G. (1984). Brainwashing and the Moonies. Cultic Studies Journal 1(1), 27–36.

Goldberg, L., & Goldberg, W. (1982). Group work with former cultists. Social Work 27, 165–170.

MacLean, P. (1973). A triune concept of the brain and behaviour. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sagan, C. (1977). The Dragons of Eden. New York: Ballantine.

Singer, M. (1979, January). Coming out of the cults. Psychology Today, pp. 72–82.

Zimbardo, P., Ebbesen, E., & Maslach, C. (1977). Influencing attitudes and changing behavior (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Geri-Ann Galanti, Ph.D., is on the faculty at the Department of Anthropology at California State University, Los Angeles, and at the Statewide Nursing Program at California State University, Dominguez Hills. She is the author of Caring for Patients from Different Cultures (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

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