Age of cults

Keith Raniere NXIVM

Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM

It seems that cults are all over the news these days. What gives? Here is a partial roundup of top cult stories from just the past week:

“How an Irish mother saved her child from the “sex cult” NXIVM” (Sept 21)

“Nicole Kidman: Why She’s Giving Son, 23, His ‘Freedom’ & Not Pressuring Him To Leave Scientology” (Sept 20)

“Trial starts for militant religious sect leader over abuse” (Sept 20) — Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps

“Alleged Sex Cult Mastermind Keith Raniere To Rot In Jail For Months Until Trial” (Sept 19) — NXIVM

“Heaven’s Gate Cult Threatens Legal Action Over Lil Uzi Vert’s “New Patek” Cover” (Sept 19)

“‘I lost my entire family to a cult’: How one woman escaped Grace Road” (Sept 19) — “A South Korean church which believes global famine is imminent has set up base in Fiji, where it’s gained considerable influence but faced growing allegations of abuse.”

“15-Month-Old Girl Was Starved to Death by Dad Connected to Black Supremacist Cult” (Sept 18) — United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors

(I’ll take this opportunity to mention that back in July, Japan executed the former leader and six other members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which carried out the infamous 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. Police were on alert for shenanigans by Aum followers, who remain active.)

We certainly appear to be living through a time of mass hysteria and apocalyptic thinking, at least in the US, which may explain the plethora of cult-related headlines. As social mood continues to darken, the prevalence and popularity of cults may well increase.

Q

No, I don’t mean this guy:

I mean the “QAnon” phenomenon, the open-source investigation into alleged Deep State crimes which is either a deranged conspiracy cult, or a mass awakening to the truth (depending on whether you ask the media or QAnon’s followers, respectively). In a brilliant article, tech entrepreneur Jordan Greenhall analyzes Q in the context of the sweeping cognitive and cultural changes brought about by the internet:

But if I pull up to 40,000 feet, I can start to make sense of what kind of thing this is and what it means in the context of the larger changes discussed above: Q is the most recent and most important example of a widely distributed self-organizing collective intelligence.

We’ve actually seen many precursors. Cicada 3301 is a famous example. Even the I Love Bees ARG for Halo 2. Perhaps Bitcoin is the most important precursor to Q.

These “self-organizing collective intelligences” (SOCI), are a new kind of socio-cultural phenomenon that is beginning to emerge in the niche created by the Internet. They involve attractive generator functions dropped into the hive mind that gather attention, use that attention to build more capacity and then grow into something progressively real and self-sustaining.

The Q SOCI is, for the most part, about sensemaking. It is combing through the billions of threads of “what might be real” and “what might be true” that have been gathered into the Internet and it is slowly trying to weave them into a consistent, coherent and congruent fabric. In the transition from Wonderland, sensemaking is so obviously needed that millions of people are viscerally attracted to the SOCI. The shared desire to wake up from Wonderland and have some firm notion of what is real and true is proving a powerful attractor.

“Wonderland” is Greenhall’s term for the world created by television over the past few generations: “A land of affect, artifice, viscerality, and aphasia. Where it is much more important to ‘look presidential’ than to be presidential.” Wonderland is a product of “broadcast analog” media, most notably TV. The Q phenomenon stems from the transition to a “decentralized digital” medium (the internet), which creates a radically different cognitive landscape: “We are witnessing the birth of an entirely new kind of sensemaking.”

The emergence of this new collective intelligence is of course frightening to the mainstream media, whose traditional role as information gatekeepers and manufacturers of consent is gravely threatened by it, which may help explain the massive blizzard of negative media coverage that greeted QAnon in early August. (By the way, Greenhall’s article does not concern itself with assessing the factual merits or political implications of Q, so if that’s the kind of “take” you’re looking for, go elsewhere.)

For me, Greenhall’s analysis sheds new light on the truly terrible effects of television, which created multiple generations of Americans with diminished cognitive capacity and a tenuous grasp of reality. I think history will look unkindly on the Era of TV. This is not to dismiss the many fine TV shows that exist, but overall, as our primary medium of news and entertainment, the boob tube has been an absolute disaster for the human mind.

That era is manifestly coming to an end, giving way to the internet era, which has spawned Q — and it does seem that Q is, for better or worse, an early application of a radically new type of collective thinking. That’s why attacking Q as a baseless conspiracy theory feels a bit like arguing against a swarm of bees. It’s a category error. Q is the vanguard of the online hive mind. It cannot be stopped, any more than the mass printing of books could be stopped in Renaissance Europe. Things will only get crazier from here on out, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.

“These people are complete narcissists”

Google leadership seminar

Google leadership seminar (source)

I enjoyed this rant against Big Tech, which besides being funny, also contains the kernel of a very interesting idea for how to address the growing crisis around data privacy and ownership:

Bannon also added this gem about Tesla:

I do not have a dog in this fight, but Musk seems increasingly unhinged to me, and the little stunt he pulled with his abandoned buyout plan was undeniably shady. But… are you not entertained?

Peter Thiel interview

Interesting interview with Peter Thiel in a Swiss magazine:

At the moment, Silicon Valley still looks all-powerful.

The big question is: Will the future of the computer age be decentralized or centralized? Back in the 60s, you had this Star Trek idea of an IBM computer running a planet for thousands of years, where people were happy but unfree. Today, again we are thinking that it is going to be centralized: Big companies, big governments, surveillance states like China. When we started Paypal in 1999, it was exactly the opposite: This vision of a libertarian, anarchistic internet. History tells me that the pendulum has swung back and forth. So, today I would bet on decentralization and on more privacy. I don’t think we are at the end of history and it’s just going to end in the world surveillance state. […]

You label yourself a “contrarian”. How did you become one? How does one become a contrarian?

It is a label that has been given to me, not one that I give normally to myself. I don’t think a contrarian per se is the right thing to be. A pure contrarian just attaches a minus sign to whatever the crowd thinks. I don’t think it should be as simple as that. What I think is important for people is to try to think very hard for oneself. But yes, I do deeply mistrust all these kinds of almost hypnotic mass and crowd phenomena and I think they happen to a disturbing degree.

Why do they happen in a supposedly enlightened society?

The advanced technological civilization of the early 21st century is a complicated world where it is not possible for anybody to think through everything for themselves. You cannot be a polymath in quite the way people were in the 18th century enlightenments. You cannot be like Goethe. So there is some need to listen to experts, to defer to other people. And then, there is always the danger of that going too far and people not thinking critically. This happens in spades in Silicon Valley. There is certainly something about it that made it very prone to the dotcom bubble in the nineties or to the cleantech bubble in the last decade.

“Hunting the Con Queen of Hollywood”

Wild story:

For more than a year, some of the most powerful women in entertainment — including Amy Pascal, Kathleen Kennedy, Stacey Snider and a ‘Homeland’ director — have been impersonated by a cunning thief who targets insiders with promises of work, then bilks them out of thousands of dollars. The Hollywood Reporter has obtained exclusive audio recordings of the savvy imposter as victims come forward and a global investigation heats up.

He was a freelance documentary photographer, 27 and eager, but not inexperienced. He’d worked in conflict zones for several prestige newspapers and magazines and shot ad campaigns for corporate clients. One day in late 2017, he opened his email to find an unusual message. The first thing he noticed was the sender’s name: Amy Pascal, the former co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment. That kind of thing didn’t happen every day. […]

Six months and $65,000 later, the photographer, who has requested anonymity out of concern for his safety, has come to understand that he was duped by one of the most elaborate scams to ever hit Hollywood. The woman he’d spoken to several times a day for weeks on end wasn’t Pascal, but a sophisticated imposter who took him for a colossal financial and emotional ride.

[Facepalm]

For the past two and a half years, hundreds of unwitting victims around the world have been ensnared by a small but cunning criminal organization whose contours are only beginning to be understood. […]

At the center of the organization is the impersonator — a woman whose sophisti­cated research, skill with accents and deft psychological and emotional manipulation have earned her the begrudging respect of her victims and trackers. […]

In addition to the tens of thousands of dollars he forfeited, the photographer struggles to wrap his head around the fact that she toyed with him so aggressively long after his funds were depleted, after she had gotten everything she would ever get, when it was simply a game she appeared to enjoy. “At what point does a crazy evil genius say, ‘I’ve got enough out of this person, let’s move on to someone else?'”

What we have here, is a Grade A psychopath.

Listen to those audio recordings, they are really spooky. It will be interesting to find out who this woman is, if we ever do. I wonder if it bothers her that she will never be a celebrity unless she gets caught.

Voice confrontation

Glad to learn there is a term and an interesting explanation for something I have most definitely experienced:

Most of us have shuddered on hearing the sound of our own voice. In fact, not liking the sound of your own voice is so common that there’s a term for it: voice confrontation.

But why is voice confrontation so frequent, while barely a thought is given to the voices of others?

A common explanation often found in popular media is that because we normally hear our own voice while talking, we receive both sound transferred to our ears externally by air conduction and sound transferred internally through our bones. This bone conduction of sound delivers rich low frequencies that are not included in air-conducted vocal sound. So when you hear your recorded voice without these frequencies, it sounds higher – and different. Basically, the reasoning is that because our recorded voice does not sound how we expect it to, we don’t like it. […]

Through their experiments, the late psychologists Phil Holzemann and Clyde Rousey concluded in 1966 that voice confrontation arises not only from a difference in expected frequency, but also a striking revelation that occurs upon the realisation of all that your voice conveys. Not only does it sound different than you expect; through what are called “extra-linguistic cues”, it reveals aspects of your personality that you can only fully perceive upon hearing it from a recording. These include aspects such as your anxiety level, indecision, sadness, anger, and so on.

To quote them, “The disruption and defensive experience are a response to a sudden confrontation with expressive qualities in the voice which the subject had not intended to express and which, until that moment, [s]he was not aware [s]he had expressed.”

Now, is there such a thing as face confrontation?

A dubious honor

Washington DC psychopaths

Crawling with psychos

Perhaps not surprisingly, the nation’s capital is the most sociopathic place in the US. And Connecticut is number two!

Ryan Murphy, an economist at Southern Methodist University, recently published a working paper in which he ranked each of the states by the predominance of—there’s no nice way to put it—psychopaths. The winner? Washington in a walk. In fact, the capital scored higher on Murphy’s scale than the next two runners-up combined.

“I had previously written on politicians and psychopathy, but I had no expectation D.C. would stand out as much as it does,” Murphy wrote in an email.

When Murphy matched up the “constellation of disinhibition, boldness and meanness” that marks psychopathy with a previously existing map of the states’ predominant personality traits, he found that dense, coastal areas scored highest by far—with Washington dominant among them. “The District of Columbia is measured to be far more psychopathic than any individual state in the country,” Murphy writes in the paper. The runner-up, Connecticut, registered only 1.89 on Murphy’s scale, compared with the overwhelming 3.48 clocked by the District.

According to Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door, sociopaths make up four percent of the US population. Assuming “psychopath” roughly corresponds to “sociopath,” based on DC’s population of about 694,000, we can estimate that there are well over 27,760 psychos in the capital — possibly in the region of 50,000 or more?

Differently wired

An intriguing overview of the differences between the brain activity of introverts and extroverts. Summary:

Whereas extroverts are linked with the dopamine/adrenaline, energy-spending, sympathetic nervous system, introverts are connected with the acetylcholine, energy-conserving, parasympathetic nervous system.

Introverts’ and extroverts’ blood travels along different brain pathways, and each pathway is activated by a different neurotransmitter: dopamine in the case of extroverts, and acetylcholine in the case of introverts. Excepts are from this book.

Creatures of habit

Cool study showing that my predilection for spending time in the same set of venues over and over again may not be as far removed from the mainstream of human experience as some critics of my lifestyle would have it:

At any given time, people regularly return to a maximum of 25 places.

This is the finding of a scientific study that reveals entirely new aspects of human behaviour.

The study, titled ‘Evidence for a conserved quantity in human mobility’ is published in Nature Human Behaviour is based on analyses of 40,000 people’s mobile traces collected in four different datasets. […]

“We first analysed the traces of about 1000 university students. The dataset showed that the students returned to a limited number of places, even though the places changed over time. I expected to see a difference in the behaviour of students and a wide section of the population. But that was not the case. The result was the same when we scaled up the project to 40,000 people of different habits and gender from all over the world. It was not expected in advance. It came as a surprise,” says Dr Alessandretti.

As people start frequenting a new place, one of their existing haunts gets dropped from the list.

“People are constantly balancing their curiosity and laziness. We want to explore new places but also want to exploit old ones that we like. Think of a restaurant or a gym. In doing so we adopt and abandon places all the time. We found that this dynamics yields an unexpected result: We visit a constant, fixed number of places—and it’s not due to lack of time. We found evidence that this may be connected to other limits to our life, such as the number of active social interactions we can maintain in our life, but more research is in order to clarify this point,” says Dr Baronchelli.

Here’s how they define a “place”: “For the purposes of these studies, a familiar location is any you return to at least twice in a given week for 10 minutes or more at a time.” By this definition, although I don’t have an exact count, my number is significantly less than 25 and probably somewhere between 15 and 20.

“People are constantly balancing their curiosity and laziness”… Actually, if you had to boil all of human life down to eight words, that would be a pretty good summary.

Can confirm

…Or can I?

Journalists’ brains show a lower-than-average level of executive functioning, according to a new study, which means they have a below-average ability to regulate their emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and show creative and flexible thinking.

The study, led by Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, analysed 40 journalists from newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online platforms over seven months. The participants took part in tests related to their lifestyle, health, and behaviour.

It was launched in association with the London Press Club, and the objective was to determine how journalists can thrive under stress. It is not yet peer reviewed, and the sample size is small, so the results should not be taken necessarily as fact.

Each subject completed a blood test, wore a heart-rate monitor for three days, kept a food and drink diary for a week, and completed a brain profile questionnaire.

The results showed that journalists’ brains were operating at a lower level than the average population, particularly because of dehydration and the tendency of journalists to self-medicate with alcohol, caffeine, and high-sugar foods.

😃😂

Compared with bankers, traders, or salespeople, journalists showed that they were more able to cope with pressure.

I found this curious, so I read the linked study for more detail. In fact, the study does not say this at all.

The results, however, showed that the journalists were on average no more physically stressed than the average person. The blood tests showed that their levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — were mostly normal.

“The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this,” the study says.

Every occupation has its pros and cons…

Also of interest from the study (emphasis mine):

Silencing the Mind.

This behaviour refers to purposeful sessions to enhance focus and/or to allow thoughts without reacting, thereby preventing worrying about the future or regretting the past (i.e. the practice of mindfulness). Mindfulness promotes a relaxed physiological state at the level of the hypothalamus and amygdala and enhances the ability to focus and sustain attention at the level of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It promotes brain cell formation in the hippocampus and reduces the sensitivity of the amygdala, calming it down and promoting clarity of mind.

Low scores for silencing the mind indicates a lack of mindfulness practice amongst the surveyed population. This can manifest itself in reduced executive functioning, which corresponds to the result above. Studies have shown that just 12 minutes of mindfulness a day or 30 minutes of mindfulness 3 times a week thickens the folds of the pre-frontal cortex enhancing executive function.