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Common Sense about “Mind Control.”
Do you think current research in neurotheology and magnetic stimulation may have some political consequences. In other words, may they become, in the hands or sects, malignant gurus or dictators, an instrument of propaganda or brain control ? Or, on the contrary, ways to escape some kind of control?
First of all, there are already many kinds of “mind control” in existence. Psychiatric medications allow the control of emotions. There are compounds called nootropics that can enhance intelligence, memory, and even creativity. Meditation has helped many people to control the overall activity of their minds. It can make it less busy. In fact, some meditation traditions refer to the “monkey mind”, and teach that their techniques can help to overcome it. In prisons, solitary confinement is used as a punishment for breaking prison rules, but in fact, it can often be a tool for breaking a prisoner’s sense of independence. As for whether magnetic brain stimulation can be used to control a person’s mind, I think the answer is no.
Dr. Michael A. Persinger, together with his colleague Laura Baker, has published studies describing their success in using magnetic stimulation for patients who became depressed following traumatic brain injury. The technology was quite successful for that, and given that the direction of a person’s thoughts changes when they become depressed, it can be said to have controlled their minds. But this is not much different from the effects of antidepressant medications. Certainly it was more effective in that the patients did not have to have sessions several times a day, the way they have to take antidepressants. But is this mind control? Perhaps. It depends on what you think of mind control is. If mind control is considered to be a way of doing propaganda, then the answer is absolutely no.
The idea with mind control when used for propaganda purposes is to change the way a person thinks. To change their opinions. So far, there is no medication, or neural stimulation technique that can add or remove an idea or opinion from a person’s mind. Revolutionaries and fanatics are often very high-energy people, but if you give them a medication that makes them depressed and lethargic, they will still hold the same opinions. Instead of being an excited fanatic, out in the streets, waving flags and shouting slogans, you will have a depressed fanatic who will only hold a flag, and may not much feel like waving it around.
You may wonder how close neuroscience is to be able to add a thought to a person’s mind. The answer is that even if you wanted to do that, you would still have a long way to go from where the research has taken us up to the present. The closest any experiments have come to injecting a thought into a person’s mind was one done by Dr. Michael A. Persinger. In this experiment, he was not trying to brainwash anybody. Rather, he was investigating a specific psychic phenomenon – the transmission of thoughts between two people. In this experiment, two people who were intimate with one another (such as romantic partners, or parents and children), came into the laboratory together. One of them sat in one room, and looked at a series of pictures. The other sat in an acoustic chamber and received magnetic stimulation. The chamber was dark, and the subject wore a blindfold, so that they were in complete darkness and total silence. When the signal, a modulated 40 Hz magnetic field, was applied, the subject in the chamber experienced imagery that was similar in its theme to the pictures the other subject was looking at in a room a few meters away.
Booth, J. N., J. C. Charette, and M. A. Persinger. “Ranking of stimuli that evoked memories in significant others after exposure to circumcerebral magnetic fields: Correlations with ambient geomagnetic activity.” Perceptual and motor skills 95.2 (2002): 555-558.
It needs to be understood that the subjects in this experiment had close emotional bonds, and these relationships are very different from those that appear between prisoners and their captors. In addition, it required a special chamber, and the subjects were not in any special state of fear or apprehension. They had no reason to “resist” the procedure. Most importantly, it was the theme of the picture that got through, not its exact imagery. Of course, there is a great deal of difference between a visual image and a verbal thought. It may be possible to expose a person to a thought or an idea using this technique, but that wouldn’t make anybody agree with it. I am, like almost everyone else, opposed to the use of car bombs as an instrument of political persuasion. If you took me, put me in the acoustic chamber, exposed me to the modulated 40 Hz magnetic signal, and got my mother to sit in another room and think about terrorist bombings, I might find that I also had a thought on the same subject. But I would still be against terrorism.
If you had my mother read the words “There is no God but God, and Mohammad is his prophet”, I might start thinking about Islam, but that would never make me convert. I have my own opinions about Islam, and I would probably think about it from my own perspective. Of course, my mother would never participate in any attempts to brainwash me. If you want to change a person’s ideas or opinions using magnetic stimulation, you have to develop techniques so that an interrogator, to whom I would probably be hostile, can stand in the place of my mother. Now, I am very fond of my mother. You would also have to find a way for me to have a positive response to the idea that I’m being exposed to that the same time as the modulated 40 Hz magnetic signal. As things stand now, an ugly or frightening idea, like becoming a suicide bomber, will still be ugly or frightening, no matter how I am exposed to the idea. Existing technology and experimental technique are still very, very far from being able to propagandize me into believing something I do not believe. They are so far from it that I doubt such techniques will ever exist in my lifetime. I’m not sure it will ever exist at all. To understand why it’s so far from the possible, let’s take a look at what happens when we engage an emotionally charged thought.
First of all, the thought, especially if it’s a political one, will be expressed in words. That will activate language structures on the left side of the brain. Then, the emotional tone of the thought will appear. That will activate certain structures in the limbic system. Each thought, even if it’s expressed in words, will have connotations that have nothing to do with its actual meaning. Many of these will not be easily expressed in words. That means that in addition to language centers on the left side of the brain, areas on the right side of the brain, where nonverbal information is processed, will also be activated. If the political thought has anything to do with the future (as in “come the revolution, we will all be free”), then the frontal lobes will also be involved. There are limbic structures that match our bodies state of tension or relaxation to our emotional states, and these structures will be involved as well. Further, we will have memories that relate to the content of any thought. Still other areas in the limbic system are involved in memory retrieval, and these are activated by our thoughts, too. In order for someone to change my thoughts, they would have to make changes in many, many parts of the brain. Not just parts of the brain, either.
Each structure in the brain, like the ones I just mentioned, is made of millions of neurons. Many of these would have to change as well. It is beyond the power of magnetic stimulation, or any other brain stimulation technologies, to make the very exacting changes needed to turn an idea I disagree with into one I accept. Escaping the effects of mind control will be easier in principle, but so far, it hasn’t happened. The reason why removing mind control will be easier than putting it in place using magnetic stimulation is that, all other conditions being equal, its easier to disturb inhibitory synaptic connections than excitory ones.
Dr. Michael A. Persinger discovered this after studying the effects of closed head injuries, but the principle applies to issues of brainwashing. The political control of a mind will mean forcing the mind to agree with something, even if it’s not true at all. Laboratory studies with people with depression have found that depression can be relieved using magnetic stimulation, and people with depression often come to believe things that simply are not true. They may believe themselves to be inherently inferior, or that they are “cursed”. When depression lifts, these ideas fall away. They are delusions, just like the idea that God will reward a true believer with eternity in paradise for killing himself, and a crowd of people along with him, to draw attention to the fact that Israel exists on land to which the Arabs have a claim.
About 25 years ago, there was a sect that followed “The Guru Maharaj Ji”. Initiation into their group involved having the sides of their eyeballs pressed lightly. This was offered as the Guru’s Touch, and when the initiates found that their eyes began to produce phosphenes, they were easily convinced that this was “the light of God”. In principle, it might be possible for an unethical guru to use magnetic stimulation to facilitate altered states of consciousness without the disciple knowing that it was being used. Magnetic stimulation has a very good track record for producing some very desirable altered states of consciousness, and a guru could lie and say that he was the source. But the same thing could also be done using psychoactive substances. Assassins were once recruited by such means. Hashish was given to disciples in large doses, and the resulting euphoria and visions were offered as samples of the bliss they would find in heaven after they had completed their assassinations.
Magnetic stimulation has been used in laboratory settings to produce a wide range of experiences, some of them quite dramatic. For an article on the neurobiology of religious terrorism, click HERE. Whether or not these devices can be used for mind control depends in part on how you define the word mind. The word is used in some very loose ways. Sometimes it refers to consciousness. Sometimes it refers to the sense of self. Sometimes it refers to our ability to hold specific ideas and opinions. Sometimes it refers to our emotional responses to things. I’m discussing mind control here in its common meaning. The ability to control specific ideas and opinions. Perhaps new possibilities for mind control may appear in the future, and so I believe that even though it may not exist now, it would still be wise for citizens to oppose its use by their governments, so that the intellectual freedom people have now will not be compromised.
Even people who really need to control their minds, such as those with mental disorders, should have the right to choose how they do it. The right of the schizophrenic to refuse medications that have unpleasant side effects for them is not much different from the right of people to follow their private religious choices. If a mind cannot exist in freedom, then nothing can.
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