Mind Control and Big Neuro

March 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Cover of BrainwashingThe Brain Supremacy book coverThe recent clutch of Big Neuroscience stories in the media (see my previous post) has raised an old concern in some of the media’s less — shall we say? — scientifically reputable outlets, like Esquire magazine. Could fearsome-sounding neuroscience technologies like nanoscience, optogenetics, deep brain stimulation and so on ever be used for mind control? The idea is frightening — and intriguing.

Some neuroscientists (not all) are instantly dismissive. Sample reaction on Twitter:

Mind control? Neuroscientists WISH this was in the realm of possibilities. More sensationalist BAM b.s. via @noahwg esquire.com/the-side/featu…

— Emilie Reas (@etreas) February 22, 2013

‘Mind control? I wish!’ is an understandable response, but is mocking humour the best response to anxiety? That’s a serious question, and the answer depends on the humourist’s goal. Is it to preserve status and protect neuroscience’s reputation, or is it to ease the concerns of people who take the prospect of imminent brainwashing seriously? The media do sensationalise, but they don’t do so at random; they generally know what works. People fear being manipulated.

Of course some researchers will react dismissively. Who wants their shiny new science tainted by association with the sordid cruelties of early brainwashing research? But before you dismiss the idea, bear in mind that the leading scientists behind the Brain Activity Mapping Project, which US President Obama hopes to back with $3 billion funding, raise the issue of mind control themselves as one of the difficult ethical problems which may arise in the course of their research (their article in Neuron is here).

The Frankenstein stereotype of scientists as seeking to dominate nature remains influential, and in brain research, of course, ‘nature’ means ‘us’. If you don’t know the gritty details which make neuroscience research so painstaking and difficult, it’s easy to imagine the worst.

And the pressure on scientists to hype up the ‘impact’ of their work, stretching steps to advances, advances to breakthroughs, and breakthroughs to exciting challenges, is not helpful either. If one neuroscientist’s press release says he’s used fMRI to decode what somebody’s thinking, is it quite fair for another’s blog to sneer at those poor fools who fear that the government may soon be reading their minds?

To be clear: the issue of mind control may arise. No way can we do it yet, and no researcher knows whether it will be possible or not in the future. The brain’s really hard, but science is littered with people who said ‘never’ and were proved wrong, so the opinions for and against are matters of personality and faith, not secret knowledge. Cynics will sneer, optimists hope, pessimists dread, psychopaths plot, and geeks plough on regardless — and entertaining though this all may be, it’s not science.

Meanwhile, there’s more danger of mind control from watching TV ads too long than from your local neuroscience lab. Even if precision brain control does become a real possibility, my own expression of faith is that you probably have more to fear from your (nonlocal) megacorporations, government and the military than your friendly neighbourhood brain researchers.

Having written books about both brainwashing and the future of neuroscience technologies, I herewith add my tuppenceworth on why we find the topic so enthralling, in the form of a short video about the ancient dream, and modern science, of mind control.

I hope you’ll find it useful.


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