You might think that plugging a VR headset into your PS4 is cool (and it is) but imagine when that VR headset is also reading your brainwaves, and allowing you to control games with your mind. Yeah, that's cool. And as Joe Sparrow learns, this tech is so close to reality, if you think about it really hard, it might just appear...
Mind the gap
Mind Control has been comprehensively mined as a topic for good entertainment, including a slew of classic science fiction: Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Brave New World both feature mind-control’s sinister possibilities, and Star Wars planted the idea of mind tricks squarely into popular culture.
There’s also, of course, some extremely enthusiastic and hot-under-the-collar online communities, such as the Erotic Mind-Control Story Archive (You'll have to Google it yourself), which hosts literally tens of thousands of amateur stories devoted to the adventures of sadly-ignored geeky men who suddenly discover an ability to control the minds of the women who have been doing all the ignoring.
You can guess what happens next.
Actually, maybe you can’t - the community seems to have developed a language of codewords-within-codewords; thus the text below could be the premise of an erotic story, but could also be the plot of a Brontë novel which has been run through Google Translate a few times.
“While hunting a shapeshifter, a misanthropic thief and a hypnotist with a penchant for bimbofication clash with sultry fey—and encounter a strangely weak-willed young woman.”
Whatever it all means, one thing is for sure.
The allure of mind control is strong. It consumes our thoughts. It’s as if we can’t think about anything else.
It’s safe to assume that the main tropes of mind control – the corny magic potions/mysterious crystals combo of erotic fiction or the benevolent governmental drugs ‘n’ hypnosis hypothesis of sci-fi – is not going to come to pass any time soon.
But what about technology? It’s a given today that tech can do seemingly impossible things, like allow bit-players in trashy reality TV shows become global superstars - so could tech also make mind control a reality?
Don't mind if I do
At this point it’s worth pausing to address the elephant in the room: it’s hard to talk about mind control without sounding like you’ve taken a spot in the upper strata of conspiracy theorists.
And there is a rich, deep pool of theories to dive into, ranging from the plausible (1950s government-sponsored programmes) via the shrug-inducing (chemtrails, always chemtrails), to the eyebrow-raising (your electrical appliances are out to get you) - all of which are guaranteed to gobble up hours of your time.
However, the art of controlling minds using technology isn’t actually all that conspiratorial, or even that new. Maybe the first important distinction to make is between technology which is mind controlling and that which is mind controlled.
You might think that the latter is the most plausible use of technology - after all, the brain is a truly mysterious grey blob – but the use of technology to “control” minds is actually decades old.
If we can agree that the intended outcome of mind control is to alter how a person thinks and acts, then Electroconvulsive therapy fulfils this criteria, and has been used to treat patients for nearly 80 years.
Whilst zapping brains sounds brutal (and it is) and controversial (it’s this too), it’s measurably effective: for the people suffering the most, whose symptoms resist other treatments, ECT is effective 50% of the time.
Some people with disorders linked directly to the brain, like Parkinson's Disease, are already controlling their minds, and as a result, their bodies. The most well-known Parkinsonian symptom - uncontrollable shaking - can, in some people, reach an awful, unmanageable stage of constant motion that medicine alone can’t halt.
At this point, a deep brain implant is a scary-sounding but incredibly effective option. A Neurostimulator is implanted into the thalamus, subthalamic nucleus, or the globus pallidus, and electrical signals coax the brain into stopping the spasms.
The resulting impact is like some sort of astonishing magic:
When you consider that the main non-physical side effect of Parkinson’s disease is also depression, it feels reasonable to consider both ECT and Deep-Brain Stimulation forms of non-benevolent mind control.
With this in mind – geddit?! – you may now be able to sense how close and yet how far away we are from actively controlling minds at a functional level. Neuroscience has learnt that zapping grey matter definitely does something, but there’s a long way to go before we have the fuller understanding of how the brain works needed to apply those electrical signals in a carefully targeted way.
Think of it this way: assuming you have no idea how a computer works, if you poked around the circuit board for long enough and tested different chips with different electrical currents, eventually you’d reverse-engineer an understanding of how it works, and could make it do what you want.
But it’d take a long time, a lot of experiments, and a lot of broken components along the way. And with brains, you can’t replace parts you’ve fried with too many volts.
However, the less immediately risky area of Mind Control is the reverse: using the mind to control other things. No electrodes needed. No frazzled frontal lobes.
Anyone who has gnashed their teeth in frustration at not being able to type as fast as they can think, or struggled to write quickly enough on a tiny phone screen (and while we’re on this topic, let’s pour one out for that most misunderstood and effective of homies, the Blackberry keyboard) has wondered, “What if I could just think, and have all these words appear on the screen?”
Good news, of sorts, for you awaits: Facebook has an eyebrow-raising 60 engineers working on creating a brain-computer interface to allow exactly that, via a non-invasive interface (which means that Facebook won’t need to drill a hole in your skull; this is a good thing.)
If we rewind to today, a time before we accidentally post our deepest idle thoughts to the timeline, mind control is already helping people in a profound way - such as allowing people to control their prosthetic arm by thought alone. You know, just like a real arm.
Of course, a major driver for any new technology is the enthusiasm of two discerning groups of people: sex toy aesthetes and video game buffs. Actually, they’re probably just one group of people.
Anyway - yes, of course hackers have made mind-controlled toys a thing and who wouldn’t want to play a game called Throw Trucks With Your Mind - but the reality is that these technologies will be best used to bring joy back to the lives of elderly or less able people.
Certain video games improve mental cognition, and when the controls become the brain itself, playing games becomes even more directly useful.
Where is my mind???
And here, finally, is where we reach a state of meta-mind-control: technology that we control with our minds to enable us to control our minds. Essentially, the Emotiv Muse headset is a $300 gizmo that lets you know when you’ve achieved a calm, meditative state by making chirruping bird noises at you via a connected app.
And yet, anyone who has stumbled through the agonisingly slow fail-fail-fail-momentary-success!-fail process of learning to meditate would take pause to consider the usefulness of a headset that helps you become more mindful.
Perhaps the story of mind control technology doesn’t deliver the salacious ending you might secretly hope for - you won’t be using your iPhone to turn people into pliant slaves any time soon - but it does offer hope of a near future where the mind can be hacked, tweaked and soothed to help those who need it most.
OK, that’s boring, I know. Here’s a mind-controlled drone. Wheeeeeee!