I have never been involved in Scientology. This blog is an attempt to understand why clever, capable people accept its doctrines (which are, in the face of it, bizarre and incoherent) and follow its practices.
One approach that I have taken is to examine Scientology training and assess whether or not this has an influence. It seems to me that Scientology’s nine ‘training routines’ do, beginning with TR0 (AKA Training Routine Zero).
In TR0 two people are requited to sit close together and stare fixedly at each other for prolonged periods of time. Research shows that unchanging sensory input can lead to a form of sensory deprivation, which has strange effects – including a dissociated state (you feel detached from you body) and ‘strange face’ hallucinations.
Scientologists constantly practice their Training Routines, so they are soon able to slip into altered states of consciousness almost at will (the likely reason for the strange, unsettling ‘thousand yard stare’ they apply to protesters).
It has seemed to me that such compelling experiences, interpreted according to Scientology doctrine – for example as evidence of a ‘previous life’ – which could be a powerful incentive towards conversion.
First, I have to reconcile the fact that, during online discussions I am occasionally told by some ex-Scientologists that they had no hallucinatory experiences during the TRs, and by others that had compelling, life-changing experiences.
I think I can do that now, thanks to something I have recently learned about myself.
Francis Galton’s Investigations of Visual Imagery
My revelation is to to with visual imagery. The study of this area began with Sir Francis Galton. He is a prominent figure in the history of psychology who touched on many of its later themes. Some of his ideas (e.g. eugenics) have been decisively rejected by science. Others remain relevant today.
For example, Galton was one of the first to seriously study mental imagery by simply asking people to imagine the scene as they had sat down to breakfast that morning. He made a number of valid conclusions:
- People display a complete range of abilities, ranging from an almost photographic recall to an inability to picture any detail at all.
- Some of Galton’s scientific friends were among those who had little or no ability to form visual images- they had no ‘mind’s eye’.
- Whatever a person’s ability to produce imaginative visual imagery, we all seem to assume that everyone else is the same as us. We are unaware of the actual significant differences.
Scientology and Visual Imagery
People who are exceptionally good at calling up visual images have an advantage as Scientologists.
This is not confined to the ‘Training Routines. The central practice of Scientology is called ‘Auditing’. Under the supervision of an ‘Auditor’ Scientologists are invited (by way of repetitive questions) to explore ‘previous lives’, in which they supposedly suffered multiple traumas.
L Ron Hubbard taught that memories of these past life traumas are suppressed, but still negatively effect our state of mind. This is a wonderfully self-justifying statement. You can’t object that you aren’t aware of past lives – Scientologists will only look pityingly down on you and tell you that you won’t because you are suppressing them.
Scientology teaches that suppressed past life memories must be brought back into consciousness so that they lose their power over us. Anyone who has studied Freudian psychoanalysis will recognise this theory. The only difference is that Scientology practitioners report that their clients remember having been Roman Soldiers, Neolithic hunters or starship captains (serving under the authority of long-dead galactic empires).
The ‘space opera’ aspect of auditing is one of the most controversial aspects of Scientology practice. Scientologists take it seriously because whole process is supposedly validated by use of the e-meter, whose random movements are supposed to detect the ‘mental mass’ of a past traumatic event (Hubbard assures us that thoughts have mass) and their successful resolution when that mass is no longer detected.
If you don’t accept the reality of past lives, it seems that a vivid and powerful visual imagination is not only an asset to a Scientologist (because they can readily imagine the expected phenomenon) but also a means of convincing them that these thing are actually real.
This is backed up by the dissociated state (in which you feel isolated from your body) which the repetitive questions put by the auditor is likely to induce, especially after they have been trained to easily slip into this state by the TRs.
Aphantasia: The Other Extreme
This phenomenon has recently been given a name – Aphantasia – and is being actively studied by an academic from the University of Exeter.
The BBC has a webpage discussing aphantasia, which it describes like this,
Close your eyes and visualise the face of the person you love the most. The colour of their eyes, the texture of their hair, the detail of their skin. Can you imagine it? Philip can’t.
Although Philip, a 42-year old photographer from Toronto, is happily married, he can’t conjure up his wife’s face because he has no images of any kind in his mind’s eye. When he thinks about a face, it comes to him as an idea, as an intellectual concept, rather than a mental picture.
[…] When I close my eyes I see my eyelids. It’s just blank,” he says. “I never realised that people could see images in their mind when they were awake. When they said ‘imagine this’ or ‘count sheep’ I thought they just meant figuratively.”
This certainly confirms Galton’s observation that it simply does not occur to people that their experience of mental imagery might be completely different to that of others. They naturally think that everybody is the same as they are.
A Personal Note
Like him, I tend to lose cars in large car parks, unless I make careful notes about where I left them and have problems navigating in new places.
I don’t remember faces, and can’t place people I haven’t seen for some time until they speak. Like him if I try to call up an image of someone I know well, “it’s just blank”
Crucially, I had never realised that other people had a different experience.
I don’t want to make this an issue – or medicalise it. There are advantages, to aphantasia. You live in the moment, relishing a visual experience because you will never be able to ‘replay’ it. The BBC report also suggests, compensations such as being “good at maths, logic and verbal tasks”and I can’t imagine how people cope with intrusive visual memories of real traumatic events – that’s something I will never be troubled by.
For aphantasic people the revelation of previous lives with visual imagery is just not going to be possible. So many Scientology routines involve forming mental images of things – which not going to happen if you have no ‘mind’s eye’ – unless you ‘fake it until you make it’.
I would also make a terrible Scientologist.
The point is that I’m at one of the extreme ends of human variation, and people with the ability to summon up vivid and complete imagery in their ‘mind’s eye’ are at the other – and I didn’t realise this until recently.
Visual Imagination and Scientology Recruitment
I have described two extremes of visual imagination. Of course, in between there is a normal distribution – people are more or less capable in this area. The fact that some ex-Scientologists report that TR0 produced visions so compelling that their lives were changed, while others found the experience distinctly underwhelming is no longer a mystery.
Those who did not have compelling experiences dismiss the phenomenon because they cannot imagine that others do.
The question now arises, why do those people who found TR0 ‘underwhelming’ continue in Scientology? My answer is that joining an Org exposes members to a whole variety of powerfully manipulative techniques. If one of these does not operate successfully, that’s not a problem – others will come into play – for example, the social-psychological pressures that I believe are applied to Scientologists, and whose power is demonstrated by a variety of classic experiments into social conformity, into obedience to authority and the power of an isolated social situation.
We can now see that, while some Scientologists get very little from TRs, others may have vivid and compelling experiences which persuade them that there is something valid and beneficial to be found in Scientology practice.
This is, of course, a common theme among independent Scientologists – they typically argue that the early practices are, indeed valid and beneficial, but the more ‘advanced’ levels (e.g. the OT levels) have either been corrupted by the Miscavige regime or were a mistake on the part of L Ron Hubbard.
I think It’s a viable theory that some Scientologists may posses an exceptional talent for visual imagery and their experiences in their early practice of Scientology were so compelling that they became convinced that ‘there must be something to it’. Their commitment is motivated by direct subjective experience and this is why it is so resistant to reason.
I would welcome comments from anyone who has experienced the TRs or auditing. Did you experience ‘previous lives’? How vivid and detailed was this? How long did you retain your memory of this? Alternatively, was auditing a disappointment – and how was your inability to conjure up past life experiences ‘handled’ by the org?