Imagine – a new Osama Bin Laden-like terrorist has secured an atom bomb. The world is shivering in fear – when, where will he or she strike? Which city will be devastated at the whim of a madman?
Then, impossibly, the terrorist plot is foiled – one of his most trusted lieutenants was captured and “reprogrammed”, given an irresistible unconscious mental urge to betray the location of their leader, to the waiting special forces team.
Sounds like the plot of a bad science fiction movie? Think again. For better or worse, we are rapidly entering an age where humans can be “reprogrammed”.
The Guardian recently reported that racially and gender biased responses were modified by playing sounds during deep sleep.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the overlords use “sleep teaching” to condition children to submit to their sinister moral values. Now scientists have found a more noble purpose for the technique in a study that suggests deep-rooted biases about race and gender could be “unlearnt” during a short nap.
The findings appear to confirm the idea that sleeping provides a unique window for accessing and altering fundamental beliefs – even prejudices that we don’t know we have.
Simply playing auditory cues while people slept partially undid racial and gender bias, the study found, and the effects were still evident at least a week later.
Who could argue with a racial or gender bias being erased? Of course, such technology could conceivably be extended to eradicating distressing tendencies to vote for politicians who oppose big government, or biases against supporting rent seeking climate scientists.
Another experiment reported last November, paints an even more disturbing picture of how malleable the brain is, to the right stimuli. Scientists planted a powerful false memory into the minds of mice.
They prepared the mouse, injecting the biochemical cocktail into the dentate gyrus. Next, they put the mouse in a box without shocking it. As the animal spent 12 minutes exploring, a memory of this benign experience was encoded as an engram.
The following day, the mouse was placed in a different box, where its memory of the first (safe) box was triggered by shooting the laser into the dentate gyrus. At that exact moment, the mouse received a foot shock. On the third day, the mouse was returned to the safe box—and immediately froze in fear. It had never received a foot shock there, but its false memory, created by the researchers in another box, caused it to behave as if it had.
There was no chance that the mouse could have mistaken one box for another: They were different shapes and colors and had different scents. Ramirez and Liu also used multiple control groups—ruling out the possibility that the flash of the laser itself and not the engram activation caused the fear reaction the next day, for example. They had indeed created a memory.
“Because the proof of principle is there that we can artificially reactivate memories and create false memories in animals,” Ramirez says, “the only leap left between there and humans is just technological innovation.
Nobody knows how such a false memory would be experienced by a human who had been manipulated. It could simply be an inchoate, inexplicable need, like Mel Gibson’s character in the movie “Conspiracy Theory”, and his regular need to buy the book “The Catcher in the Rye”. Or the manipulated brain might synthesise additional false memories, to try to rationalise the implanted false memory into a coherent narrative.
Nothing can stop this technology being developed. The military applications – reprogramming terrorists to betray their networks, creating Manchurian candidate style assassins. The civilian applications – curing otherwise untreatable mental illness, preventing recidivism. Helping students find the motivation to complete their studies. Kitty training the pets. Truly immersive multiplayer games, where you actually experience being that world of warcraft character, with every sense.
And of course their is a much darker side. Black market versions of this technology could be used to create next generation date rape drugs – drugs or other stimuli which cause the victims to think they are willing participants. Gay people could could be forcibly reoriented to be straight – though of course, the same technology could make a straight person gay. Politicians and marketers will use improved brain maps to craft increasingly irresistible messages.
The big question is, how do we prevent this technology from being abused?
I suspect its too early to know the answer to that question – it really depends how difficult or easy the technology is to deploy. I suspect the technology will become horribly easy to use – there has been a lot of work on fields such as deep brain stimulation, using minimally invasive techniques such as magnetic fields and injected nanoparticles. As Ramirez says, its only a matter of time before technological innovation bridges any need.
There is one factor which I think which will help to keep humanity safe. Nations which fail to protect citizens against abuse of mind subversion technologies will almost certainly suffer a substantial economic disadvantage. Slaves don’t make good innovators – they are too busy doing what they are told. If there is one thing which is certain, in the information age, head count and obedience is not the productive advantage it used to be.
Nations of people who are free to innovate will, more than ever, have the advantage when competing against nations of subjugated slaves.