Propaganda: What We Know from Neuroscience

Until recently propaganda was a matter of throwing mud at a wall to see what sticks. (See Propaganda: A Look Back) It was effective because financial support provided the funds for a lot of propaganda. Now with the research of neuroscientists using fMRI, propaganda has become even more frighteningly effective.

We now know what it takes to change the brain to make it more receptive to propaganda. The propaganda begins by preconditioning people to be in an emotional state of fear or uncertainty. Those targets are often facing economic stress or have a history of cultural prejudice.

When people are preconditioned to be attuned to a propaganda message, the brain produces chemical responses which bypass the logical part of their brain and go directly to the fight-or-flight brain region. Propaganda with dehumanizing messages is particularly effective. That’s why name-calling is particularly effective.

While the propaganda may seem to be nonsensical to most of this, those whose brains have been pre-conditioned to have a sense that the message just feels right to them. The more this propaganda is repeated, the more hardwired the brains become. It becomes almost impossible to reverse the hardwiring.

Conspiracy theories follow the same neurological acceptance pattern. The closer the conspiracy theory is to the propaganda message, the easier it is for it to be accepted.

How do we prevent the hardwiring of brains to such negative messaging? That’s where we don’t yet have answers. It’s easy to talk about becoming good at critical thinking, but those who are receptive to propaganda are unlikely to educate themselves in such areas as critical thinking. In fact, they are drawn to simplistic thinking that sounds rational.

The only thing that we know so far is that disruptive events can bring about new perspectives. There is a phrase from military combat that says: “There are no atheists in foxholes” that conveys how moments of extreme stress can cause minds to become rewired. However, that didn’t seem to be the case with the COVID pandemic, when the propaganda messaging continued the hardwired brains and in fact, may have increased the belief in conspiracies.

Just imagine if we have lost a segment of our population to a new form of addiction: myth formation.

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“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” – Frederick Douglass

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