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Conspiracy of the Heart

In light of the pandemic and attitudes towards vaccines, I've been thinking a lot about conspiracy theories.

As a child I remember being amused looking at instances of the 'National Enquirer' on the news rack as I trailed behind my mother in line to pay for our groceries. The front page seemed so innocent, a picture of a celebrity freshly returned from an alien spaceship, or, perhaps a celebrity hiding her two headed baby from the public, only to have her secret splashed on the cover of the rag by a clever paparazzi. These stories had an innocence because they seemed as farfetched as the weekend cartoons, and I had the wisdom even at a young age, to realize that consumers of such stuff were, well, daffy.

These days, consumers of wild theories may be daffy, but they are also numerous, are a strong voting block, and are easily manipulated by powerful people, usually people seeking power with a self interest.

My job as a psychiatrist and therapist is in part to be an influencer, an influencer without a particular agenda other than wanting to promote mental health and flexibility. The views of conspiracy theorists (CTs) are hardened like crystal. The question is why, and what to do about it.

I have an Internet friend, a woman I personally met during a brief time when she lived locally, she has taught me a lot. At the time we met she was teaching Russian and photography. She was bright, a creative artist, and was a bold and determined personality. She was a purist, careful in what she ate, attentive to holistic self care, disciplined to the point of being able to fast for extended periods as part of her regimen dietary regimen. In short, she was a person who wanted firm control of her life.

When we met she was newly married, a second marriage I later learned which had been preceded by the sudden death of her first husband. Now pregnant she was on the verge of starting a new family. This new stage in her life led her to leave the hustle and bustle of America and seek greener pastures, pastures that aligned with her strong values around the pursuit of health and control of her life. She ended up half way across the world. The distance led her to become an Internet acquaintance.

In the midst of the Pandemic I was surprised to see a change in her Facebook posts. I was accustomed to seeing happy news of her family, and images of her photographic work. Posts began to shift in the direction of her protesting against the public health measures in her country which was attempting to deal with Covid. I was surprised to see her endorse wild theories on infectious agents. I learned she does not believe that HIV is caused by a virus, and that she viewed the Covid epidemic as essentially a hoax. She claimed the Covid virus had never been isolated, and attributed the myth of the virus to big pharma and other powerful entities exploiting the pandemic in order to launch profitable vaccines. Given my interest in CTs, I was grateful for the chance to converse with this woman.

A few months back I wrote a brief summary of my thoughts on CTs in a blog. In the essay I took the position that conspiracy theories are in essence the representation of the normal psychological capacity of humans for religious belief going wrong. My essay was accompanied by an image, a caricature of aliens. Without realizing it, the image revealed my disdain for conspiracy theories, and those who hold them. Hardly an attitude hat should be held by someone wanting to influence others.

While not disavowing my earlier essay, conversations with my Internet friend have expanded my point of view in what I think are constructive directions, directions that make me believe that it might be possible to soften the positions of people with extreme views.

My friend, whom I will call Chere, gave me a hint of her psychology when she said the constraints of the pandemic were offensive. Chere had always been attentive to her personal and family health. She had strict codes on what to eat and how to manage her health and that of her family. These values were a part of her identity, loaded with so much psychic energy that she worked extremely hard to find a place in the world where she could realize them.

When I personally knew her as a teacher she impressed me as being exuberantly self confident almost to the point of being a narcissist. She was touchy around challenges to the armer that surrounded her most inner self. I have studied and thought a lot about the developmental aspects of narcissism, highlighting the idea that narcissism is a part of normal development. We adults all have a residue of our infantile narcissism, a psychological core that to a large extent involves identity. This psychological core is largely non negotiable with others and the outside world. In healthy development our core identity shrinks to a manageable size as it buffets over time against the world. As we mature we develop a flexibility that allows us to weather challenges to our esteem. We learn to surrender to a degree aspects of our identity in order to fit into the society at large. My conversations with Chere helped me realize that somehow conspiracy beliefs attach themselves in a parasitic way to a person's psychological core and hence harnesses a great deal of energy as well as lack of flexibility.

To hold a belief that is wildly deviant, such as the belief that there is no virus behind the pandemic, is to feel that one has special knowledge, this sense of specialness nourishes the inner core of vulnerable individuals. Such special knowledge pits the struggle of the individual onto a grand stage where his beliefs clash with the conventional world. Sharing these beliefs with other like minded persons engenders a sense of community and belonging which further feeds ones sense of self.

If we assume that CTs are parasitically attached to a person's identity, how can we converse constructively with such individuals? We all know that the simple exchange if differing opinions is not likely to be helpful.

There was a special moment in my conversations with Chere which seemed to offer a window. It was a moment of the heart, not the intellect. Chere was telling me how painful it was to live under the restrictions of the pandemic. She comment that she had worked so hard to find a place where she could feel secure and have a sense of control over the things that matter to her. All this was dashed as the society at large attempted to deal with the demands of the pandemic. Chere complained that it felt as if her new home had morphed into a police state. The pain in her voice was palpable. At this moment, I felt a sense of compassion and respect for the long journey she had taken, a journey beginning with the death of her husband, a journey that took her to a place where she believed she had found peace. I felt a sense of connection with her and shared my compassion. Inwardly I silently appreciated the degree of her vulnerability. She responded to my comments in a genuine way and warm way. I felt that we had touched one another.

People will die before relinquishing core belief such as their dignity or religious beliefs. The realm which fuels a person's attachment to a CT is that person's psychological core, their sense of identity. Exposing that core to another is to be vulnerable and is allowed when trust and respect is established. So perhaps the art of influencing others with hardened opinions begins with finding a way to another's heart, pulse to pulse connection so to speak. Once such a connection is established, dealing with the false believe is somewhat like a surgical extraction of where the the tumor is surrounded by very delicate tissue. Conspiracy believers will only relinquish their beliefs if they feels safe and are assured that their identify will be respected and left intact by the influencer. It's the heart to heart connection between two people that allows for this to happen.

A friend recently commented that we humans fool ourselves if we think we can solve all problems with our heads. Using logic can be like beating against steel to get into a safe. I can't touch such people with logic. I am hopeful that I can make progress by gently spinning the tumbler of the safe guarding their hearts.

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