The Battlefield of the Mind
Manipulating the human mind has been field of battle throughout our entire history. In any conflict, the mental battle is just as important, and sometimes more so than the physical one. Even animals instinctively know this: they would much rather engage in displaying and frighten competitors off than resort to actual combat. In the past, this mental warfare was limited to propaganda and displays of superior strength. Recent research into the human brain, however, has opened up new avenues of attack. Rod Flower, a professor of biochemical pharmacology at Queen Mary University of London, was recently quoted in a Royal Society report on neurological weapons as saying: “[…]understanding of the brain and human behavior, coupled with developments in drug delivery, also highlight ways of degrading human performance that could possibly be used in new weapons.”
As research into how to enhance the performance of the human brain and repair damage has lead to new and novel ways to conduct warfare. From man-machine interfaces that allow soldiers to pilot drones with their minds to new systems for delivering debilitating drugs to the enemy, world militaries are beginning to open up to the idea of the brain as a weapon.
As reported before, the military has been interested in brain-to-brain communication, allowing soldiers to hold a conversation without making a sound and giving away their position. New research indicates that soon it could be possible for a soldier in the field to remotely operate a drone aircraft or other robot with an implant in their brain. This raises interesting ethical questions, as Flower postulates: “This idea brings about a bit of a blur in the distinction between mind and machine, which obviously has to be addressed very carefully,” he said. “If we got to the point where we could control a sophisticated machine, and the machine did something … like committing a war crime of some sort, who would be responsible for that, you or the machine?” From my point of view, if you are controlling the machine that commits the war crime, obviously you are responsible. But using technology like this puts another barrier between the soldier and the target – effectively dehumanizing the act of destruction. And while accountability questions may seem straightforward, in reality any court case involving a situation like this would be a legal nightmare, nearly impossible to unravel.
Other research is looking at ways to enhance or disable the brain itself. DARPA is funding research into preventing the effects of sleep deprivation in soldiers. Their aim is to find ways to stimulate the brains of soldiers, enhancing their awareness on the battlefield. Additionally, dealing effectively with stress while in combat is high on their priority list. They plan on using brain scans of recruits to identify those that have high tolerance to stress and to improve upon it both non-medically and biochemically.
Another area of interest mentioned in this report is the science of “brain reading,” although the report admits it is still in its infancy. Mentioned in an earlier article, this technology would allow us to peer inside the mind at a person’s thoughts. Obviously, it would be of great usefulness in a law enforcement or counter terrorism situation. Currently, these devices must be calibrated for the individual, so it’s not likely to be used in the field anytime soon, but simpler devices could be developed sooner that give simple “lie/no lie” responses.
Since the end of the World War Two, militaries around the globe have been taking the threat of mental warfare seriously. Research into purported psychic abilities actually took place during the Cold War, with the Soviet Union claiming to have a woman that could stop and start a frog’s heart with just her mind. The United States had similar projects under the heading “Project Stargate” that researched phenomena like remote viewing. While none of this research bore fruit, with modern advances in neuroscience and computing, we are making these ideas possible. The next war may be fought as much in the mind as in the field.