The media predictably seems to love President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. The idea behind this $100 million proposal is to use the latest technology and develop new technology to fully map the human brain. Unfortunately, the media cheerleaders have ignored a potential danger here: this technology could be used to make a sick fantasy of pulp writers a destructive reality. Is brainwashing or mind control really about to happen?
Brain Mapping and Brainwashing
The brainwashing and mind-control techniques that have long been a stock plot of spy thrillers, movies, TV shows, and comic books are nothing but science fiction. Unfortunately, the BRAIN initiative could be used to develop the technology that could make such paranoid fantasies a reality.
We need to worry about this because, like any other technology, brain mapping could easily be abused by corrupted or evil individuals. The airplane brought the world closer together; it also gave us the ability to kill large numbers of innocent people through bombing. The rockets that carried men to the moon also power the missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons anywhere on Earth.
History teaches us that it is not a question of whether brain mapping will be abused, but rather when and how it will be abused. Like every other technology, brain mapping will be abused, and a logical use for it seems to be brainwashing.
How Brain Mapping Could Lead to Brainwashing
Those who don’t believe that the BRAIN initiative could lead to brainwashing should take a look at its goals as mentioned in a Psychology Today blog:
- Understand how brain activity leads to perception, decision making, and, ultimately, actions.
- Produce a sophisticated understanding of the brain that will show how individual genes affect behavior.
- Develop new imaging technologies that will enable us to understand how information is stored and processed in neural networks.
Yes, these advances could help us develop new technologies that might lead to better treatments for Alzheimer’s disease or mental illness. Yet it’s also easy to see how these could lead to brainwashing or mind control.
Take the part about perceiving reality. Con artists, advertisers, and politicians already try to manipulate people by providing false impressions of reality. What happens if such individuals could get their hands on a device or a drug that changes a person’s perception of reality? Imagine if a politician could convince innocent people that his voice was the voice of God.
Or the part about learning how the brain makes decisions: it could be used to develop techniques to condition a person to accept behavior he or she would normally think of as immoral, such as killing or torture. Learning how people make decisions could be used to determine how people undertake certain actions, such as voting or buying products.
The bit about learning how the brain stores information is also bothersome because it could be used to develop methods to wipe a mind to eliminate memories. For example, soldiers that saw something the leader didn’t want them to see could have their memories erased. Another danger would be implanting false memories—for example, make someone think of war as a happy time rather than an awful experience.
Some Other Horrors from the BRAIN Initiative
The Psychology Today piece by Christopher Bergland mentions two other supposed “benefits” of Obama’s plan that could lead to serious abuses.
The first is to create technological advances that enable human brains to interface with computers. The frightening thing about this is obvious; it means the human brain could be reprogrammed or manipulated much like a computer is. Software that could control or manipulate human behavior could be created.
The hacker of the future could hack into the human brain and change human behavior much as today’s cyber predator can hack into your computer. Even if this isn’t the goal of the BRAIN initiative, that’s exactly what will happen when the bad guys get their hands on this technology.
The other sounds good on the surface: develop cures or treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries to help wounded veterans. The bothersome thing about this development is that it could mean get the soldier back into shape so he could be returned to the battlefield faster.
A worse development could be a super-soldier: an average man turned into a merciless killing machine that enjoys war and violence. He would be programmed to have no moral compulsions against war and killing, and worse, he’d enjoy combat and want more of it.
Mental Healthcare for Conformity
Even the promise of developing new treatments for mental illness should give us pause. In the past, the concept of mental illness and its treatment has often been abused in order to violate individual rights.
In the former Soviet Union, dissidents were branded mentally ill and shipped to mental hospitals for failing to follow the party line. More recently, some observers have suggested that conservatives are mentally ill or suffering from a brain defect. It isn’t hard to picture a true believer trying to use brain mapping to cure beliefs he or she disagreed with in innocent victims.
The history of mental health treatment in the United States is also bothersome. Until the 1970s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Just this year the APA decided that Asperger’s Syndrome, a widely diagnosed mental illness, isn’t a mental illness at all. Under the present mental health system in the United States, such geniuses as Einstein, Edison, Bill Gates, and Winston Churchill would have been diagnosed as mentally ill and “treated” with drugs. One wonders how well such men would have succeeded if their brains had been destroyed by psychiatric drugs. How will humanity progress if bureaucrats can interfere with the minds of the curious and the creative?
Given this history, it is easy to conceive of a future in which anybody whose behavior is considered abnormal is reprogrammed to behave normally. Anybody that doesn’t fit into somebody’s nice, comfortable standards of middle-class morality could be reprogrammed. Anybody that rejects the cultural mainstream, including Christians, the Amish, hippies, preppers, Orthodox Jews, or devout Muslims, could be reprogrammed to conform.
Mandatory Brain Scanning Could Be Next
We’ve already seen calls to restrict the second amendment rights of the mentally ill. What’s next? Will you need to get a brain scan to buy a gun or get a driver’s license?
Enforced brain scanning could also come about. After all, mental health problems and drug addiction cost society a fortune. Why not use this wonderful technology to identify those people and “treat” them for the good of society? After that, it will be a short step to doing the same to prisoners, the poor, and anybody else that might be a burden on society.
Obviously, there are potential benefits from the BRAIN initiative, but there are some dangers here as well. We’re talking about interfering with the sanctity of the human mind and potentially giving government and others the weapons to commit the greatest assault on individual rights in human history. These issues need to be raised now before large numbers of innocent people have their lives destroyed by this so-called benefit to humanity.