There is a strange phenomenon that I have noticed over the years and I want to try to spell it out here in words that make sense. I hope I can get some feedback from readers that will help me to put it together.
I was recently handed a small booklet written by Arverd Wiggers, dealing with the issue of emotional or mental illness. I haven’t read the book through, but I saw something near the beginning of it that caught my attention. I do not know Mr. Wiggers and I am not necessarily making a commentary on what he has written, except for one thing. He tells how in his CPS experience in WW2 he worked in a mental hospital. He found himself very intrigued by the mental patients and wondering about the issue of mental illness. On page 10 he makes the statement that “I was in search of something that was eluding me or I was just curious by nature about those things that controlled human behavior.”
On page 11 he says this; “I was discovering human problems that were searching for solution in the field of medical and social science. Furthermore, I could see where the Church has its problems and seemingly could not find the answers for many emotional situations. Unwittingly, my faith in God and the Church was eroding. I did not want it to be that way. I would not admit to myself that this was so. But looking back, it had to be this way. There are no anchors for an enrichment of faith in God in the Social and Medical sciences. Yet it seemed there must be an answer somewhere. This caused me to search for some truths that seemed to be eluding the Church. There appeared to be a need to bring this together.
Little do I wish to say except that this is a dangerous and painful road with many thorns and brambles. There were times when I felt like God was playing cat and mouse with me. The Word does not permit such an explanation. We know the devil makes his attacks upon Christians. Whatever the case may be, I believe an understanding has come about in my heart that more clearly separates for me the differences between the natural man and the spiritual man.”
He continues on page 14; “In my youthful years I believed that the Church had the answers to problems that were of a spiritual nature or affected us spiritually. In the Mental Hospital environment, the training I was receiving, the further studies I was engaged in, robbed me of that faith. The question would arise in my mind, if the Church is wrong in some of these things, would it not also be wrong in some other areas? (italics mine) Surely there must be an answer somewhere! The search for that answer unwittingly led me away from God. This was not so apparent in outward things. Yet in some way the meditations of my heart affected the message of my life and how it was expressed. Not being aware of all this myself, many others no doubt weren’t either and if they were they would not have understood what I was experiencing.
Twice in my life the Lord came to my rescue. These were painful experiences. Had I understood it fully the first time, the second and most painful application may not have been necessary but then maybe I would not have learned what the Lord wanted to teach me. There are generally some precipitating factors that bring these hidden attitudes and beliefs to our attention. this was true in my life and much cleansing needed to be done.
The darkness that came upon me is beyond my ability to express. (emphasis mine) As I look back upon it now, I realize that I had offended our Lord and Savior. God is a jealous God who loves His Only Son dearly. He had given His beloved Son for us. He would cover our sins with His Blood and give us eternal life. He would even do more than this. He would be our burden bearer……..Without realizing it, I had rejected the Stone to be the complete answer for a Christian and had wanted to supplement some medical and social science where it did not belong.
I am addressing the comment he made about the darkness that came upon him. This strikes me because it is a comment I have heard many times in my life. A person begins to question the church, or the church begins to question a person, and suddenly a darkness that is beyond the ability to express descends upon one. I do not want to read more into Mr. Wiggers’ comment here than is reasonable, but it appears to me that he is saying that when he began to doubt the church, he came into unbearable darkness.
Why would this be so? It is a testimony that I have heard so many times that I do believe it bears serious consideration. First of all, let us consider the fact that a person can wander far into sin without experiencing this type of darkness. The question I am asking myself and my readers is “where does this darkness come from?” God does not beat us over the head when we disobey him. In many ways, the consequences of sin are built in. Dive deeply into sin and the sin itself will have consequences that will weigh heavily upon the heart of the sinner. Commit adultery, and your marriage may fall apart and you may lose everything. Steal something and you may wind up in jail. These things are easy to see. But what about the business of questioning the church and suddenly the most unbearable darkness imaginable descends upon you?
I have heard people say that they were being called in for visits with the ministers and this caused such an unbearable darkness and heaviness that they found it intolerable. There are two solutions to this problem. One is to agree to be interviewed and grilled, and to submit to the ministry, and the burden lifts. This could be explained as one being under conviction for doubting the church and the ministry, and when one gives in, the conviction is lifted and sweet peace floods one’s soul.
However, did you know that the same result can be obtained by choosing not to visit, and deciding that you will follow God no matter the cost, even if it means losing church membership? Yes, the same peace can follow after this decision. This would appear to make no sense. If the heaviness is the result of God bringing conviction to your heart for doubting the church, then it would seem that the heaviness would increase when you dismiss the ministers and their incessant interviewing. Of course there are those who would then claim that you have blasphemed the Holy Ghost and the peace that you feel is a false peace which comes when you decide to take your own way. None of it makes a lot of sense, really.
Let me now bring another idea into the discussion. The social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has spent a great deal of time in his life studying human behavior and how people behave in groups. In his book The Lucifer Effect, he tells of various experiments that have been carried out as people have tried to determine the ways that individuals will behave in certain situations. Zimbardo tells of the following experiment:
In chapter twelve of his book The Lucifer Effect, on page 263 he tells the story of Asch’s Conformity Research. The Experiment is described this way: “You are recruited for a study of visual perception that begins with judging the relative size of lines. You are shown cards with three lines of differing lengths and asked to state out loud which of the three is the same length as a comparison line on another card. One is shorter, one is longer, and one is exactly the same length as the comparison line. The task is a piece of cake for you. You make few mistakes, just like most others (less than 1% of the time). But you are you are not alone in this study: you are flanked by a bunch of peers, seven of them, and you are number eight. At first, your answers are like theirs- all right on. But then unusual things start to happen. On some trials, each of them in turn reports seeing the long line as the same length as the medium line or the short line as same as the medium one. (Unknown to you, the other seven are members of Asch’s research team who have been instructed to give incorrect answers unanimously on specific “critical” trials.) When it is your turn, they all look at you as you look at the card with the three lines. You are clearly seeing something different than they are, but do you say so? Do you stick to your guns and say what you know is right, or do you go along with what everyone else says is right? You face that same group pressure on twelve of the total eighteen trials where the group gives answers that are wrong, but they are accurate on the other six trials interspersed into the mix.
If you are like most of the 123 actual participants in Asch’s study, you would yield to the group about 70 percent of the time on some of those critical wrong-judgment trials. Thirty percent of the original subjects conformed on the majority of trials, and only a quarter of them were able to maintain their independence throughout the testing. Some reported being aware of the differences between what they saw and the group consensus, but they felt it was easier to go along with the others. For others the discrepancy created a conflict that was resolved by coming to believe that the group was right and their perception was wrong! All those who yielded underestimated how much they had conformed, recalling yielding much less to the group pressure than had actually been the case. They remained independent–in their minds, but not in their actions.
Follow up studies showed that, when pitted against just one person giving an incorrect judgment, a participant exhibits some uneasiness, but maintains independence. However, with a majority of three people opposed to him, errors rose to 32 percent. On a more optimistic note, however, Asch found one powerful way to promote independence. By giving the subject a partner whose views were in line with his, the power of the majority was greatly diminished. Peer support decreased errors to one fourth of what they had been when there was no partner and this resistance effect endured even after the partner left.
One of the valuable additions to our understanding of why people conform comes from the research that highlights two of the basic mechanisms that contribute to group conformity. We conform first out of informational needs: other people often have ideas, views, perspecives, and knowledge that helps us to better navigate our world, especially through foreign shores and new ports. The second mechanism involves normative needs: other people are more likely to accept us when we agree with them than when we disagree, so we yield to their view of the world, driven by a powerful need to belong, to replace differences with similarities.
Conformity and Independence Light Up the Brain Differently
New technology, not available in Asch’s day, offers intriguing insights into the role of the brain in social conformity. When people conform, are they rationally deciding to go along with the group out of normative needs, or are they actually changing their perceptions and accepting the validity of the new though erroneous information provided by the group? A recent study utilized advanced brain-scanning technology to answer this question. Researchers can now peer into the active brain as a person engages in various tasks by using a scanning device that detects which specific brain regions are energized as they carry out various mental tasks. The process is known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). Understanding what mental functions various brain regions control tells us what it means when they are activated by any given experimental task.
Here’s how the study worked. Imagine that you are one of the thirty two volunteers recruited for a study of perception. You have to mentally rotate images of three-dimensional objects to determine of the objects are the same as or different from a standard object. In the waiting room, you meet four other volunteers, with whom you begin to bond by practicing games on laptop computers, taking photos of one another, and chatting. (They are really actors…”confederates,” as they are called in psychology..who will soon be faking their answers on the test trials so that they are in agreement with one another but not with the correct responses that you generate.) You are selected as the one to go into the scanner while the others outside look at the objects first as a group and then decide if they are the same or different. As in Asch’s experiment, the actors unanimously give wrong answers on some trials, correct answers on others, with occasional mixed group answers thrown in to make the test more believable. On each round, when it is your turn at bat, you are shown the answers given by the others. You have to decide if the objects are the same or different…as the group assessed them, or as you saw them?
As in Asch’s experiments, you (as the typical subject) would cave in to group pressure, on average giving the groups wrong answers 41 percent of the time. When you yield to the group’s erroneous judgment, your conformity would be seen in the brain scan as changes in selected regions of the brain’s cortex related to vision and spatial awareness (specifically, activity increases in the right intraparietal sulcus.) Surprisingly, there would be no changes in areas of the forebrain that deal with monitoring conflicts, planning and other high-order mental activities. On the other hand, if you make independent judgments that go against the group, your brain would light up in the areas that are associated with emotional salience (the right amygdala and right caudate nucleus regions.) This means that resistance creates an emotional burden for those who maintain their independence. Autonomy comes at a psychic cost.
The lead author of this research, the neuro-scientist Gregory Berns, concluded that “We like to think that seeing is believing, but the studies findings show that seeing is believing what the group tells you to believe.” This means that other people’s views, when crystallized into a group consensus, can actually affect how we perceive important aspects of the external world, thus calling into question the nature of truth itself. It is only by becoming aware of our vulnerability to social pressure that we can begin to build resistance to conformity when it is not in our best interest to yield to the mentality of the herd.
Well! This is very interesting! This tells us something very important. We will revise our perception of truth and reality if it is outside of the normative view. If our peers and all of those in our cultural and social circle are telling us that black is white, we may very well begin to believe it. When we resist this pressure, it actually causes an “emotional burden” as we struggle to maintain our independence; thus the sense of peace when we give up that struggle to be independent. When we “lay it all down” and conform to the ideas and assessments of reality as presented by the group, we feel a wonderful relief from the struggle to stand alone. Autonomy comes at a psychic cost!
I hope you can see how this all pertains to the things I wrote in the beginning of this post. The experiments that were described have nothing to do with our spirits. They are simply experiments that had to do with our mental processes. Add to this mix the highly spiritual nature of some of the conflicts we come into as members of the church. The psychic cost of autonomy is elevated even higher. Think about what Arverd Wiggers says happened to him when the simple question entered his mind, “If the church is wrong about this, could they be wrong about other things?” He says that the darkness that came upon was beyond his ability to express. Now be realistic about this. Should a simple question such as this bring about such an unbearable darkness? No, the processes of his mind should have been clear and calm. God walks us through our questions with clarity and with wisdom and understanding when we ask him for help. When we are plunged into the black despair that he mentions, we should immediately recognize that something is wrong. Questions do not bring this kind of black despair. Giving up our questions should not bring such overwhelming peace. Deep and dire sin brings despair and blackness. Repentance brings deliverance from the clutches of Satan. Agreeing or not agreeing with a certain stand taken by a certain group is not enough to cause this type of dark night of the soul. Friends, be aware that there is something more sinister at work in these situations. God is a loving and gentle God. He does not plunge us into darkness when we begin to question. He lovingly leads and guides us. Satan is cruel and filled with wrath. He loves to bring us into darkness and despair and to make us doubt our own perceptions. I think I have said enough on this subject. Let your mind expand upon it. I am sure many instances will come to mind of when you have heard or felt yourself, this sentiment. (the darkness I felt was beyond my ability to express.) Ask God to give you wisdom and peace.