Hacking the brain and mind
Technology for exploring (and exploiting?) inner space
by Brian Scott Pauls, written using ChatGPT
Science fiction has featured mind control technology as a popular trope for decades. Techniques and devices include hypnotism, drugs, brain implants, and more. These tools can serve many purposes, including education, therapy, interrogation, and even enslavement.
Real-world researchers have pursued some similar aims. Often, they seek to treat mental illness and physical brain disease. Biofeedback, video games, chatbots, deep brain stimulation, and surgery have all proven effective tools.
Science fiction has become a way to think about the unethical use of these technologies.
Mind Control in Science Fiction
Here are a few examples of different forms of mind control in sf:
An early 20th century selection is We. Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin published this dystopian novel in 1924. The One State, a world-wide communist society, pioneers the “Great Operation”. It “removes the imagination and emotions by targeting parts of the brain with X-rays”.
A Clockwork Orange is another dystopian novel, published by Anthony Burgess in 1962. It tells the story of Alex, a convicted murderer subjected to the “Ludovico Technique”. This procedure is a form of aversion therapy involving "nausea-inducing drugs” and "graphically violent films”. Its purpose is to condition Alex against using violence himself.
Philip K. Dick’s novelette We Can Remember It For You Wholesale became a movie (twice!) named Total Recall. In the short story version, Douglas Quail elects to have artificial memories of a trip to Mars implanted in his mind. It doesn’t work out exactly as expected.
Cyteen, by C.J. Cherryh, portrays psychological programming delivered via “tape”. The technique can implant artificial skills, memories, and neuroses in human subjects.
In the Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer, an association of brain science and psychological researchers known as “Gordians” have become so adept at reading body language, they can tell what another person is thinking by the way they react during conversation. In-depth knowledge of human cognition allows them to create propaganda so effective they can accurately forecast how different population groups will respond.
As you can see, science fiction often explores the darker aspects of mind control technology. These stories question the nature of free will and autonomy, and examine the ethics of controlling others without their consent (or knowledge!)
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Mind Control in the Real World
Existing techniques to control the brain and mind haven’t advanced to the level of those found in sf. Still, medical science has made significant strides over the past century. These approaches, like their fictional counterparts, can be both helpful and harmful.
Biofeedback monitors physiological processes, such as heart rate, muscle tone, and brain activity. Individuals learn how to control these processes, improving their physical and mental health.
One of the most common uses of biofeedback is in the treatment of stress and anxiety disorders. These conditions can increase heart rate, muscle tension, and sweating. Biofeedback helps individuals recognize and control such symptoms. In turn, this can reduce the severity and frequency of the anxiety itself.
Impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity often characterize attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Biofeedback can help patients with ADHD control these symptoms by improving concentration.
Recent studies have shown that video games can treat a variety of mental health conditions.
A common case is anxiety. Studies have found that action games, such as "Call of Duty" and "Halo," can help reduce anxiety symptoms. Problem-solving and decision-making games can help develop coping skills for dealing with anxiety in real-life situations.
Video games have been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), helping players cope with traumatic experiences.
They’ve also shown promise in treating ADHD, schizophrenia, and autism.
In some limited cases, therapeutic chatbots are taking the place of human counselors in mental health treatment.
One example is "Woebot”. It uses cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques to help people manage their mental health. The software assists users with identifying and challenging negative thoughts, providing “videos and other useful tools”. A study has found Woebot effective in reducing depression and anxiety in college students.
Deep Brain Stimulation
In deep brain stimulation (DBS), electrical impulses stimulate specific areas of the brain. DBS can help treat movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease. It has also shown promise in the treatment of certain mental health conditions.
Spanish neuroscientist José Delgado made significant contributions to DBS in the mid-20th century. He’s best known for his controversial work on the use of DBS to alter behavior. In 1970, Delgado published Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society.
Delgado believed DBS could treat a variety of conditions, ranging from mental illness to aggressive behavior. He implanted electrodes in the brains of both animals and humans, then used a generator to send electrical impulses to the electrodes. This effort was an attempt to control behavior through electrical stimulation.
One of Delgado's most famous experiments involved a bull. First, he implanted electrodes in the bull's brain. Then, he used a remote control to turn the stimulation on and off. When the stimulation was on, the bull would stop charging and become docile. When the stimulation was off, the bull would resume charging. While the experiment showed the potential of DBS to control behavior, it also raised ethical questions about applying the technique to humans.
Despite these concerns, Delgado's work helped develop DBS as a useful medical procedure.
Today, DBS is an established treatment option for Parkinson's disease. It shows promise in the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD). In some cases, it may also be effective in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, PTSD, and addiction.
Electrodes in the brain can help identify the physical source of epileptic seizures. Doctors can then surgically implant a device to help control them, or use a laser to remove the brain tissue responsible. This is a boon for epilepsy patients whose condition doesn’t respond well to drugs.
Issues to Explore
Technological advancements related to the mind and brain keep mind control themes ever-relevant in science fiction. Consider the following scenarios:
World militaries are using sophisticated video games to train soldiers in combat skills. This training has developed to the point where certain reflexive techniques are beyond the users' conscious control. What happens when these soldiers re-enter society, perhaps suffering from PTSD?
Certain states in the U.S. approve the use of DBS to control compulsive criminal behavior. The consent of the guilty party is not required.
The medical field widely adopts the use of DBS to treat OCD, schizophrenia, PTSD, and addiction. Then someone discovers it can also be used to actually cause these same conditions.
Malware infects the servers running the most popular therapeutic chatbot in the U.S. It changes the algorithm to illicit a violent response from some users.
The human mind is one of the most mysterious phenomena in our universe. What unintended consequences might accompany a concerted effort to understand its secrets? Science fiction is uniquely situated to help us prepare for what might lie ahead.
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