Part One: Mind-Control, Thought Implantation, and Telepathy Tech
By Equanimous Rex
Source: Modern Mythology
When technology can be produced that mimics diseases such as schizophrenia, or phenomena such as telepathy, how do we discern fact from fiction? When our memories are fallible, and when people can, over time with great repetition, replace true memories with false — where does this leave us?
One day when I was a child, I enthusiastically told my father that I could “talk, but in my head, where no one can hear me.” When my father replied that what I had described was called “thinking”, and that everyone does it, my heart dropped a bit. It seemed so interesting to me, and so banal to him. The world and my place in it were still mysteries to me, as for all children, and even the most mundane experiences seemed wondrous. I couldn’t blame him for what I saw as his lack of imagination.
I was a book worm and movie enthusiast, science-fiction and fantasy. A few years later, while watching Star Trek: TNG, I realized that mind control and telepathy were a re-occuring theme. There were so many examples of mind altering technology within the series that it reawakened this childhood curiosity, and a fear.
“What if people really could read my thoughts?” I wondered. What if people could control them?
I wasn’t exactly concerned. It was just a childish fancy, something that gets under our skin, but we have already developed the reality testing to maintain it as a hypothetical. A popular trope meant to freak us out. Right? Even before science fiction tried to make mind control tech seem plausible, we spun tales about thoughts and desires altered at a distance, or clandestinely acquired information garnered from supernatural sources. Our inner voice has been a source of anxiety for virtual eons, after all, if someone can control it, how can we trust it?
Just fiction, right? Well, yes and no.
This series will explore some of these connections…
I was mildly religious back in the day, a non-denominational flavor of generic Christian. I should have noticed the similarity between how I felt about fictional mind-control and telepathy, and how I felt about the idea of God watching every thought or move I made. That feeling of having no privacy, of having inner thoughts and opinions weighed out and measured, and judged. Or maybe even manipulated directly. Somehow, I never made a link between the idea of an omniscient deity reading all my thoughts and judging my eternal soul, and telepathy as found in science-fiction and fantasy.
At least, not as a child.
Now I understand the can of worms we are opening. As we will see through the rest of this series, through the fusion of global disinformation, technology that can beam voices into your mind by vibrating the tiny bones in your ear, and the ever-present hum of all ideologies vying for you to attribute those voices to their cause, we’re quickly approaching a semantic apocalypse. This sounds crazy, I know. That’s kind of the point. Imagine you’re hearing a voice in your head that is telling you to kill all the Jews, or that Obama is the Antichrist, and then you open Twitter to find the President is amplifying that paranoia. That’s a hell of force multiplier for mass insanity. Anyone who has watched the news recently should understand how deadly serious this epistemic crisis is.
Let’s begin with “the crazy.” Who hasn’t heard of people wearing “tin-foil hats”? Usually a pejorative allusion to someone who has bought into conspiracy theory, the first recorded idea of a telepathy-blocking device can actually be found in the strange non-fiction book Atomic Consciousness: An Explanation of Ghosts, Spiritualism, Witchcraft, Occult Phenomena and all Supernormal Manifestations written by self-proclaimed seer John Palfrey in 1909, under the name “James Bathurst”. He posited a hypothetical “insulative electrical contrivance encircling the head during thought” for use against “telepathic impactive impingement”.
The first allusion to a “foil-hat” specifically used to block telepathy comes from Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous Huxley, who wrote a short science-fiction story titled “The Tissue-Culture King” (1926), in which a hat made of foil is used to block others from reading the protagonist’s mind.
Philip K. Dick, a popular science fiction writer, was himself beset by strange visions that he assumed were some kind of transmission. Much of his fiction revolves around the dissociation, cognitive dissonance, and paranoia of psychosis, drug-induced or otherwise: forms of invasion, disruption of thought-privacy, and personal autonomy. And the day-to-day experience of living in the techno-authoritarian world we are coming to inhabit.
The tale of Dick’s experience is too long to go into here, and not the focus of the article, but if you’re interested you can find information about it online. There’s even a comic that details the reported experience. I’d like to focus in on a particular quote from Dick’s retelling of the experience. The quote is from a 1979 interview with author and journalist Charles Platt. Dick discusses his confusion about whether he thought the “transmissions” were a supernatural (“God”) or technological (“the Russians”) phenomena.
“On Thursdays and Saturdays I’d think it was God,” he told Platt. “On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I’d think it was extraterrestrials. Some times I’d think it was the Soviet Union Academy of Sciences trying out their psychotronic microwave telepathic transmissions.”
You can find the interview audio (here).
Let’s consider both.
The trope of mind-control or telepathy is not one of modern invention. We can find examples of telepathy, and the various kinds of abuses it would entail, in folklore and mythology spanning centuries.
Readers familiar with Buddhism, particularly Japanese Buddhism, might know the term “satori”, which translates roughly to “comprehension; understanding”. However, there is another “satori”, a folkloric yōkai, a class of spirits or demon. The satori “monster” was said to be able to read people’s minds, and would then speak their thoughts aloud faster than the thinker could think them.
Another example of mind-control can be found in European folklore about witches. The Malleus Malificarum, a 15th century book on witch-hunting written by German inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, lists several ways in which a devil or witch may “enter the Human Body and the Head without doing any Hurt” and “the Method by which Devils through the Operations of Witches sometimes actually possess men.”
From the Malleus Malificarum:
“From this it is concluded that, since devils operates there where they are, therefore when they confuse the fancy and the inner perceptions they are existing in them. Again, although to enter the soul is possible only to God Who created it, yet devils can, with God’s permission, enter our bodies; and they an then make impressions on the inner faculties corresponding to the bodily organs. And by those impressions the organs are affected in proportion as the inner perceptions are affected in the way which has been shown: that the devil can draw out some image retained in a faculty corresponding to one of the senses; as he draws from the memory, which is in the back part of the head, an image of a horse, and locally moves that phantasm to the middle part of the head, where are the cells of imaginative power; and finally to the sense of reason, which is in the front of the head. And he causes such a sudden change and confusion, that such objects are necessarily thought to be actual things seen with the eyes.”
And of course, among countless other examples, there’s also the Abrahamic God with his alleged omniscience:
“12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 4:12–13 New International Version
So whether in science-fiction, religion, or folklore, we can see that humanity has had anxieties about autonomy and privacy of thought for some time. But whether or not you believe in supposed psychic powers and the like, there remains the matter of self-fulfilling prophecies. We find inspiration from fiction, and in the case of weapons and warfare, developing technology specifically to frighten and confuse the targets, in addition to dealing physical harm. This is one of the many ways that fiction is written into reality. Given the role of reality television in politics at this time, we can probably imagine many more.
Where did this begin? There were probably many points of modern origin. But the most well known was MKULTRA was the code name for a now well-known series of declassified CIA experiments involving the use of psychotropic drugs and various techniques to coerce confessions from suspects, and yes, attempted mind-control. More books and articles than I can count have been written on this topic, so I mention it only as a reference point. While the project was ultimately deemed a failure by heavily-involved Sidney Gottlieb (chemist and employee of the CIA at the time of MKULTRA), it provides an example of real-world attempts at harnessing the mythological power of mind-control, a failed experiment that resulted in real casualties.
On November 28, 1953, Frank Olson, a scientist and CIA employee, jumped from a building and killed himself. Years later, the government admitted to his family that he had been covertly given LSD by his supervisor within the CIA just before the suicide. Later, it was uncovered that the CIA was at the time dosing people without their consent to further their MKULTRA experiments. This has been well dramatized on the recent Netflix series Wormwood, but it is only one small piece of the CIA programs that grew out of the cold war conflict, such as Operation Midnight Climax, which by name alone is begging to be turned into another series.
Then there’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Defense responsible for developing emerging technologies to be used by the U.S. Armed Forces. According to WIRED journalist Sharon Weinerberger’s 2007 article, DARPA is trying to develop what they call “hypersound”.
“The goal of the Sonic Projector program is to provide Special Forces with a method of surreptitious audio communication at distances over 1 km. Sonic Projector technology is based on the non-linear interaction of sound in air translating an ultrasonic signal into audible sound. The Sonic Projector will be designed to be a man-deployable system, using high power acoustic transducer technology and signal processing algorithms which result in no, or unintelligible, sound everywhere but at the intended target. The Sonic Projector system could be used to conceal communications for special operations forces and hostage rescue missions, and to disrupt enemy activities.” (Emphasis mine)
The Modern Mythology-adjacent publication Narrative Machines includes some of the details of how and why DARPA is interested in analyzing language and memes in particular.
The interests of organizations seeking to manipulate obviously spans scales and contexts, from global sentiment analysis and manipulation, persona management, and enhancing battlefield awareness. All of these technologies point toward the kind of world we will soon inhabit.
It isn’t only that people are looking for ways to implant thoughts, mind-control, or utilize what amounts to telepathy; we are also starting to realize just how unreliable our memories and perceptions are to begin with — how much of a narrative it is, and a fiction at that. What we consider a closed-off, private space — our minds — actually turns out to be more like a sponge. Porous, an open system with influx and efflux. Liable to fallibility, and exploitation.
There’s a term for when people assume everything they perceive and remember is accurate and accurately depicts the world: naive realism. Its counterpoint is indirect realism, also known as cognitive representationalism.
Indirect realism posits that we cannot have a direct perception of the world, instead we interpret our mental representations of the world. If you doubt cognitive representationalism, simply look at any of the number of “illusion” art pieces on the Internet. (Here are a few examples.)
If naive realism were entirely correct, then there would be no illusions. It’s pretty much that simple. Since there are illusions, we can assume naive realism is somewhat incorrect, even though it is both natural and intuitive for humans to be naive realists. This “intuition” has played a major part in events ranging from the Satanic Panic of the 90’s to reports of individuals under hypnosis “remembering” alien abductions.
Surprisingly, hypnosis has a history of working, though not as intended. A far cry from how it is depicted in fiction — spin the wheel, use the pendulum, get mind-controlled slaves, etc — hypnosis seems to be more applicable as a false-memory implantation technique, or a means of otherwise putting ourselves into a suggestible state.
Dr. Joseph Green, professor of psychology at Ohio State co-authored a study in which people were warned that going under hypnosis could create false memories, or as he calls them “pseudomemories”, found that more than quarter of the participants acquired the false memories anyway.
According to Green, “There’s a cultural expectation that hypnosis will lead to more accurate and earlier memories, but that’s not true.’’
And: “The results suggest that warnings are helpful to some extent in discouraging pseudomemories” […] “Warnings did not prevent pseudomemories and did not reduce the confidence subjects had in those memories.’’ […] “Most research supports the claim that our memories typically begin around age 3 or 4, so it seems quite unlikely that these very early memories actually happened at the stated time. Many people believe that hypnosis can lead to earlier memories, although that has never been shown to be true. People’s expectations about what hypnosis can do will influence what they remember.’’
Elizabeth F. Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory, is known for her work on the “misinformation effect”. She gained notoriety because she suggested that people were capable of accidentally fabricating memories, and for advocating for people convicted of crimes based on eye-witness testimony when such testimony seemed to fall under false-memory syndrome. Her work has been considered both controversial and ground-breaking.
One troubling example is the wrongful conviction of Steve Titus. On October 12, 1980, a teenage girl was raped while hitchhiking. She provided various details on her assailant when she later called the police. The victim later picked Titus out a line-up (both her assailant and he had beards) and his car was the same color as the one the victim described. Titus did not have a three-piece suit (which was one of the details given to police) and his car had several differences to that of the car described by the victim.
Originally only saying that Titus “most resembled” the man who had raped her, the victim eventually declared she was certain it was Titus. This was what led Elizabeth Flotus to get involved in the case upon request, suspicious that this followed the “modus operandi” of false-memory syndrome.
Titus was then convicted of the rape and sent to prison. Eventually, police caught the actual perpetrator, a serial rapist named Edward Lee King, who later confessed to the rape of the hitchhiking teenager while in police custody.
The case of Steve Titus is considered, looking back, an abortion of justice, and wrongful imprisonment. Titus would go on to sue the police department involved in the investigation, but died of a heart attack before the case went to court. The police officer Titus accused of planting evidence — a similar brown folder to that which the victim described in her assailants car was found in Titus’s vehicle, but he denied ever seeing it — died six years later himself of a heart attack.
“Unhappily, Steve Titus is not the only person to be convicted based on somebody’s false memory. In one project in the United States, information has been gathered on 300 innocent people, 300 defendants who were convicted of crimes they didn’t do. They spent 10, 20, 30 years in prison for these crimes, and now DNA testing has proven that they are actually innocent. And when those cases have been analyzed, three quarters of them are due to faulty memory, faulty eyewitness memory.” Loftus said in a TED talk discussion on false-memory.
These various uncertainties about the privacy and ultimate agency of our thoughts are only one part of the epistemic crisis I’ve outlined. A broader view can be found in the unmooring effect of a consumer-tech society itself. Author and philosopher RS Bakker wrote a blog post in 2011 that is showing itself quite prescient, “What Is The Semantic Apocalypse?”, in which he wrote,
The result of this heterogeniety is a society lacking any universal meaning-based imperatives: all the ‘shoulds’ of a meaningful life are either individual or subcultural. As a result, the only universal imperatives that remain are those arising out of our shared biology: our fears and hungers. Thus, consumer society, the efficient organization of humans around the facts of their shared animality.
In biological terms, my fear is that the Semantic Apocalypse is about to happen. Despite the florid diversity of answers to the Question of Meaning, they tend to display a remarkable degree of structural convergence. This is what you would expect, given that we are neurologically wired for meaning, to look at the world in terms of intent, purpose, and propriety. Research in this last, the biology of morality, has found striking convergences in moral thought across what otherwise seem vast cultural chasms.
The million dollar question is really one of what happens once that shared neurophysiology begins to fragment, and sharing imperatives becomes a matter of coincidence. It has to be madness, one that will creep upon us by technological degrees.
Why does it have to be madness? Because we define madness according what our brains normally do. Once we begin personalizing our brains, ‘normally do’ will become less and less meaningful. ‘Insanity’ will simply be what one tribe calls another, and from our antiquated perspective, it will all look like insanity.
James Curcio and I are currently exploring this premise (among other things) in the Fallen Cycle web-comic BLACKOUT. Beginning with the false memories and blank spaces of drug blackouts and half-remembered dreams, where we all agree on the extent of our uncertainty, this can so quickly be expanded to all our seemingly waking and sober states.
Sometimes, people acquire false memories on their own, to be sure. But they are just as likely to be goaded one way or the other, depending on their suggestibility, to remember things inquired about by a well-meaning therapist unconsciously guiding them towards a particular recollection. In fact, there is no reason to suspect that people don’t intentionally try to implant false memories and associations via suggestion into other people. That is, after all, the bread and butter of advertising and politics.
Gas-lighting is a popular topic (and activity) on the Internet. While it’s usage has changed somewhat with popular adoption, gas-lighting refers to a concentrated effort to use psychological manipulation to convince someone their sanity, memories, and perception are inaccurate even though in reality, they are accurate. This is only one of an incredibly large toolkit available for global psychic warfare. When amplified through the reach and precision of targeted social media and media echo chambers alone, the most basic school-yard psychological tactics can be devastatingly effective.
Humanity has concerned about the privacy of their minds for centuries, if not longer. We’re concerned that our minds, or our hearts, as mentioned in the Bible, will be laid bare in front of others (supernatural or mortal) to judge. Or even worse, that we may be invaded, made to do things against our wills, controlled. The scrutiny of the Palantir is only the most recent form of this anxiety.
This anxiety comes from a real place. Despite ideological, religious, or philosophical models that state the contrary, I believe we’ve always known on some level our minds are open-systems. This is indicated by anxieties about mind-control and telepathy spanning centuries, across cultures, found in many instances of folk-lore, religion, and mythology. That, no matter how much we might declare ourselves possessing metaphysical free-will, there is an intuitive understanding that we can be manipulated, that our wills can be forced or coerced without our even knowing. That freedom is fleeting when we can’t actually know ourselves. Being forced to confront our “open” minds leaves some of us aghast in cognitive dissonance, only to double down on faith in metaphysical free-will and total autonomy of thought.
Governments, corporations, in truth any group with suitable funding and desire, have taken these human anxieties, as old as humanity itself, and used them as a blueprint with which to forge a new generation of psycho-weaponry, to use on whomever they like.
Once you’ve weaponized insanity, you kick out the legs of people’s grasp on reality. Nobody is sure anymore whether they are ill or being attacked. Genuine insanity is getting reaffirmed, actualized, even actively funded, while the most sane and sober are paralyzed by self-doubt. The implications of a world with these sorts of technologies being used are far-reaching, and the damage it will do to people’s sense of security in the world, of their perceptions, is likely to cause unintended side-effects.
Much of our response to the development of these technologies will be long-overdue. Will they force us to face ourselves, our fallible minds, and those around us who utilize these cognitive exploits as weapons or means of control?
… Or will we just go off the deep end?
Consider a control situation: ten people in a lifeboat. two armed self-appointed leaders force the other eight to do the rowing while they dispose of the food and water, keeping most of it for themselves an doling out only enough to keep the other eight rowing. The two leaders now need to exercise control to maintain an advantageous position which they could not hold without it. Here the method of control is force — the possession of guns. Decontrol would be accomplished by overpowering the leaders and taking their guns. This effected, it would be advantageous to kill them at once. So once embarked on a policy of control, the leaders must continue the policy as a matter of self-preservation. Who, then, needs to control others but those who protect by such control a position of relative advantage? Why do they need to exercise control? Because they would soon lose this position and advantage and in many cases their lives as well, if they relinquished control. […]
Extending the lifeboat analogy to the Ship of State, few existing governments could withstand a sudden, all-out attack by all their underprivileged citizens, and such an attack might well occur if the intentions of certain existing governments were unequivocally apparent. Suppose the lifeboat leaders had built a barricade and could withstand a concerted attack and kill all eight of the rowers if necessary. They would then have to do the rowing themselves and neither would be safe from the other. Similarly, a modern government armed with heavy weapons and prepared for attack could wipe out ninety-five percent of its citizens. But who would do the work, and who would protect them from the soldiers and technicians needed to make and man the weapons? Successful control means achieving a balance and avoiding a showdown where all-out force would be necessary. This is achieved through various techniques of psychological control, also balanced. The techniques of both force and psychological control are constantly improved and refined, and yet worldwide dissent has never been so widespread or so dangerous to the present controllers. — “The Limits of Control,” William S. Burroughs.