LGATs (Large Group Awareness Trainings) bill themselves as transformational multi-day workshops. You often feel pressured to attend, perhaps by your corporation or a family member or friend, and you are deliberately not told what will happen there. These workshops often utilize eight to twelve-hour marathon sessions to wear down a person’s identity. According to research by South African Dr. John Hunter, they artificially create bipolar states in participants.
John Hunter, PhD, offers a fresh and unique analytical framework to explain the highs people experience at the end of a “training.” He is a researcher and lecturer based in Johannesburg. His interest in Large Group Awareness Trainings – and their impact on mood and psychosis – is grounded in his personal experience of bipolar disorder and his participation in an LGAT in 2010. In 2017, he completed a PhD in psychology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, proposing a neurobiological explanation for the relationship between LGAT conditions and results. More specifically, Dr. Hunter put forward the Dopaminergic-Defense Hypothesis, which offers insights into both (i) the “transformational” experiences associated with LGAT participation and (ii) the common claims of psychological harm and problematic behavior associated with LGAT participation. In 2022, he published an article summarizing the mechanism behind the dopaminergic defense in the Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion (Hunter, 2022). In July 2023, he presented this work remotely at the ICSA conference in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 2003, Dr. Hunter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a highly destructive mood disorder characterized by intermittent depression and mania. As he studied the condition, he took note of various triggers for a manic state: psychological stress, sleep deprivation, and goal attainment. In 2010, he was asked to participate in a personal development seminar as part of his role at a corporate job. When he tried to investigate the process, he was repeatedly met with the same refusal. It was standard operating procedure to keep information about how the program worked from new participants to preserve the experience. He recognized this as a sign of high control, as I did while hearing the story. Groups that restrict information, especially information you might need to understand what you’re signing up for, are bad news.
Still, he ended up going. The attitude inside the seminar was much the same. People were encouraged not to trust their thinking, disregard questions, and be open to the process. Survivors of Bible cults will recognize this “lean not on your own understanding” tactic to keep people from exercising critical thinking. The days were brutally long. When breaks were given, you couldn’t sit next to the same person when you returned. No social support was found during the workshop’s first few days. People were shouted at. They performed regression exercises where participants would visualize themselves as children, supposedly to tap into the roots of their issues. Their homework involved listing things they were doing wrong in their lives and contacting people who’ve had a negative influence to avoid broken relationships (and invite more people to the graduation ceremony). All this struck Dr. Hunter as incredibly suspect. All the triggers were there; it was as if the organizers were trying to induce mania in their students. When I heard this story, all I could think of was the first Moonie workshop I participated in. It was a similar disorienting, overloading group process.
The graduation solidified Dr. Hunter’s distrust and reminded me even more of the love bombing the Moonie recruiters performed on me. Suddenly, the organizers were hugging participants and telling them they were beautiful. The emotional whiplash was dizzying. When he left and began researching LGATs, Dr. Hunter found precisely what he had feared: people leaving these programs behaved as if they were in a manic state. They made impulsive decisions like divorcing spouses who refused to be part of another program or spending vast amounts of money. Euphoria and overconfidence were everywhere. The organizers responded in a characteristically defensive manner, using careful language. Graduates weren’t impulsive or risk-taking; they were decisive and confident. In classic cult form, promoters and organizers disavowed responsibility for negative aftereffects because graduates should hold themselves accountable, they say. It seems everybody is responsible for themselves except those running the LGATs.
Dr. Hunter wanted to understand why this was happening. His answer is emotional and neurological imbalance. Early psychoanalytic theory proposed that people suffering from shame, inadequacy, and worthlessness often swing to the other end of the pendulum to make up for it. In modern neuropsychiatric circles, the explanation is more technical. Bipolar disorder is theorized to result from an instability in the amount of dopamine in a person’s brain. Too much dopamine produces positive effects like heightened creativity and sociability but also excessive energy that might cause a person to stay awake for days, overconfidence, and even psychosis. Too little dopamine, and you drop into depression. This imbalance is chronic in people with the disorder. The pendulum is always swinging.
LGATs were inducing dopaminergic dysregulation in their participants. After multiple days of being sleep-deprived and emotionally beaten down, the sudden high of graduation could hardly fail to catapult you outside a safe range of euphoria. The relief was immense, like the endorphins a person in pain feels. Numerous kinds of cults operate this way. The leader of a cult of personality might degrade his followers as unworthy of his attention for periods and then suddenly act as if he loves them like family, hoping to make them more malleable. Members of the clergy in religious cults might put people through exhausting revival meetings to prod them into an ecstatic experience and then call that proof from God. It is, like many cult tactics, an abusive relationship writ large.
Looking forward, Dr. Hunter is interested in finding out what can be done legally to limit harm. He also wants to know how we can maximize the effectiveness of additional research. It’s another red flag, we agreed, that sending people into LGATs to observe their behavior compared to a control group wouldn’t pass muster with an ethics board. In the meantime, he wants his research spread far and wide. He is, to me, an excellent example of a distinguished graduate of an LGAT: intelligent, successful, and able to see what was wrong in what he went through. He wishes to help others and advance scientific understanding.
Dr. John Hunter’s website
Hunter, J. (2022). SEEKING God’s Presence: The Dopaminergic-Defense Hypothesis. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 8.1. https://doi.org/10.1558/JCSR.22411