Mind Control

Robotic prosthetic limbs are truly amazing. These devices allow those who have suffered catastrophic, life-altering illnesses and injuries to regain lost mobility or dexterity and to experience aspects of life that were once inaccessible. In addition to improving the quality of life for millions of people, robotic prostheses have also inspired us to imagine new, exciting ways that the technology could be used.

While modern electronics continue to offer more immersive and intuitive interfaces, these inventions are still bound by the limitation of physical interaction. Touchscreens, mice and keyboards are very useful devices, but they still require us to translate our thoughts into actions before accepting input. This might lead us to wonder, “wouldn’t it be great if we could control devices with our minds?”

Although telepathic communication is often depicted as a lightning-quick, visceral technology in science fiction, there’s actually no convincing evidence that it would increase the speed or ease of communication, and the details of such interfaces appear anything but simple and intuitive. Let’s find out why this is the case.

Most of us believe that we can think faster than we can move or speak. This is based on the false assumption that the physical body merely limits the conscious mind. In actuality, the truth is often the opposite.

Our bodies not only optimize our cognitive abilities by sending important data to the brain, prioritizing things that require our immediate attention, they also carry out critical, complex tasks without conscious direction, often without our knowledge or consent, which frees our minds to spend attention in other ways. Examples include everything from walking and talking to biking and typing. By restricting our interface to only accept conscious thought, we are actually forcing ourselves to take control of automated systems, which impedes our mental capacity. It forces us to think about every individual instruction rather than the function as a whole. Imagine trying to think out a sentence one word or even one character at a time.

Another problem is that we don’t actually know how fast our brains can think. We also don’t know how fast they think whatever type of thoughts a telepathic device would accept. What we do know is that a comfortable rate of speech is about 150 words per minute and that skilled typists can reach upward of 120 words per minute. It’s likely that an improved keyboard configuration would allow for even faster speeds, so the disparity between speech and typing is actually very small. We also know that the average person reads at about 250 words per minute, which is about as fast as an auctioneer speaks. Using speed reading techniques, it’s possible to achieve a pace exceeding 500 words per minute. While comprehension at these rates usually falls between 60 and 70 per cent, these figures reveal that our brains can actually accept data far faster than they can generate it.

Of course, it’s possible that our rates of comprehension and speech are limited by our senses, so we we might accept and transmit data faster if we removed our mouth, fingers, ears, eyes and other body parts from the equation. But as it stands, the average person can type and speak at a rate similar to how they read and listen, which means that the bottleneck that telepathy would supposedly overcome has not yet been observed.

If we take a look at how modern robotic prostheses work, we observe yet another hurdle. Robotic limbs pick up signals sent from the brain, but they do not sense them within the brain. They merely intercept instructions in the nervous system on the way to the muscles. The difference is a significant because the type of thought that moves a limb is very different from other thoughts that occur in the brain. And this is precisely the problem: there are many different types of thoughts.

Our brains carry out a variety tasks, both conscious and otherwise. They are constantly sending and receiving signals to and from various locations in the body, monitoring and controlling our cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, muscular, respiratory, lymphatic, urinary, excretory, reproductive, digestive and immune systems. Our brains are also remembering the past, perceiving the present and predicting the future, and they’re usually doing more than one of these at any given moment.

The thought protocol for each functions is unique and must be distinguished if we plan to implement telepathic technology, for even the way we ponder a simple idea can vary significantly. We don’t just think in complete, coherent sentences, like mind-readers would have us believe. Our brains process emotions, sensations, opinions, images, music and ideas, and we’re thinking all these things while both consciously and unconsciously controlling our bodies. To illustrate the variation in thought, let’s examine all of the ways that we can think about a dog.

First of all, thinking the word dog is different from thinking about the word dog. It’s different from saying the word dog, thinking about saying the word dog and reading the word dog. It’s also different from thinking about a dog, some dogs or dogs in general, and it’s different from imagining or remembering a dog. It’s different from wanting a dog, missing a dog and loving or hating a dog. It’s different from looking at a dog, looking at a picture of dog, imagining a picture of a dog, and it’s different from imagining a picture of the word dog. It’s different from thinking about what it’s like to be a dog, from wanting to be a dog, and it’s different from actually being a dog. And thinking the word dog is different than thinking about thinking the word dog, and it’s different from considering thinking the word dog. Of course, considering thinking about the word dog is impossible, which brings us to our next point.

There’s a big difference between thinking something and doing or saying it, but if devices are controlled by thoughts directly from the brain, how would they know the difference? If someone with a prosthetic arm imagines punching another person in the face, the arm doesn’t do it, because it is merely sensing signals in the nervous system. But if we were controlling a device purely through thoughts in the brain, how would it distinguish which thoughts to obey and which to ignore?

If we consider taking an action, our body does not execute that action until we have made the decision to send the signal to our muscles. But in the brain there is no such confirmation through action. If we were to try and write an e-mail using a telepathically-controlled computer, how would we separate the words we wanted to send from the words we were considering? And how would we control punctuation, spacing, format and other details? Would we have to construct each sentence using individual words, or would we simply send raw thoughts, ideas or emotions? Would we be able to mute incoming signals or control their priority or storage? Would we be able to transmit images, music and other media? How about emotions? How would our brain receive emotional signals? And how would we deal with distractions and multitasking?

One possible solution to a few of these issues could be to use the nervous system to communicate. This would involve training our minds to control imaginary limbs that we pretend are part of our bodies. The instructions could then be translated into other signals that could be interpreted by a device. We can prove that this is possible by simply imagining that we have another set of arms beneath our normal arms and then imagining moving them around. This produces an eerie sensation that is likely similar to phantom limb syndrome.

Another less efficient option would be to confirm thoughts by thinking the words out loud (or speaking internally). It’s much harder to articulate how this type of thought works, but it’s probably best described as strongly imagining saying a word. Unfortunately, this solution would mean that we could only transmit words and only do so one at a time.

One of the more serious problems with telepathic technology would be deciding exactly what would be transmitted. Thoughts would have to converted into electrical signals, but our thoughts are usually very abstract, and the brain hides the complexities of most of its functions from our consciousness. In addition, the brain also prioritizes, categorizes and filters incoming information, so sending mere words would not only be incredibly difficult, but also incredibly incomplete when compared to the advanced level of thought that normally occurs in the mind.

In addition to all these barriers, there is also the issue that our brains, while absolutely amazing, are quite terrible. We are constantly overlooking, misinterpreting and forgetting things, and we get distracted easily and often. Just stop and think about your thoughts for a moment. Are they ordered, logical, focused and useful? Are they even coherent? The brain is a complex, damaged, dysfunctional machine, so if we want mind control, we must control our minds and do so in a much different way than we do now.

There’s also the serious and inescapable problem of connecting a human brain, which both controls our bodies and defines who we are, to a electronic device that can be forged, faulty or even compromised. That’s right, hackers could potentially gain access to our minds and monitor, steal, copy, corrupt or destroy our thoughts and memories. They could also take control our bodies, forcing us to obey their instructions, or even tell our hearts to stop beating.

Finally, though this is more of an indirect and ethical issue, it is interesting to note that even as society is beginning to recognize and prioritize the importance of regular physical activity, technology continues to alleviates us from physical duties. Standing desks, for example, have recently become a trendy way to improve our health. But with telepathically-controlled devices, we certainly don’t need a desk, and we may not even need to get out of bed. In fact, we may not need to wake up or even have bodies.

Thoughts aren’t what you thought. Think about it.

Logical Link Control

While humans are much smarter than other creatures, our intelligence varies greatly from person to person. Some of us are geniuses, most are average and some are living with a mental disability. While most of us identify academic or general intelligence as the primary indicator of mental aptitude, there are other ways we can be smart. According to developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, there are actually nine ways of measuring intelligence:

  1. Musical
  2. Visual
  3. Verbal
  4. Logical
  5. Bodily
  6. Interpersonal
  7. Intrapersonal
  8. Naturalistic
  9. Existential

Of course, expanding the term to include these categories is highly subjective, and it erodes the traditional understanding of intelligence as the capacity for reasoning and understanding. And if intelligence can be narrowed to such specific abilities as music or physical ability, then why not include additional classifications for programmers, powerlifters, comedians, cashiers, magicians, memorizers, sharpshooters and competitive eaters? Just as redefining art makes everyone an artist, a more inclusive understanding of intelligence means everyone is highly intelligent. This would also mean that many animals, and even machines, are more intelligent than humans, which is something that we know isn’t true. While general intelligence may be difficult to define, opening the door to alternate meaning only weakens its meaning.

One of the abilities associated with general intelligence is logical comprehension, which is the ability to analyze, comprehend, abstract and navigate the layers of a causal system. A wonderful example of this occurs in the classic 1987 film The Princess Bride, when the then-masked Westley challenges a Sicilian named Vizzini to a battle of wits. In a lively and captivating back-and-forth between the two men, Vizzini attempts to discover, by pure reason, which of two goblets of wine has been poisoned by Westley with a fictitious toxin known as iocane powder. Let’s see if we can follow the layers of reasoning.

  1. The first line of reasoning is easy to comprehend. In it, Vizzini he asserts that “only a fool would drink reach for what he was given.”
  2. He then claims that Westley must know that he isn’t a fool, stating that he “can clearly not choose the wine in front of [Westley].”
  3. Vizzini goes on to accuse his opponent of knowing that he isn’t a fool, which means that he shouldn’t drink his own wine.
  4. He then deduces that because the poison originates in Australia, a land “entirely populated by criminals,” which implies that Westley would anticipate not being trusted, meaning that Vizzini should not drink the wine in front of Westley.
  5. Aware that Westley must have predicted his ability to determine the poison’s origin, Vizzini reverses his position again.
  6. Vizzini then accuses his opponent of poisoning his own goblet and planning to trust his physical strength to withstand the poison.
  7. He then points to Westley’s education, and therefore knowledge of his own mortality, as the reason why Westley would “put the poison as far from [himself] as possible.”
  8. In a final attempt to dupe his enemy, Vizzini distracts Westley and switches the goblets before both men drink.

While this depth of reasoning is impressive, the layers don’t actually require placement in a precise order. After all, Vizzini could have pointed to the poison’s Australian origin at the beginning, and arrived at the same conclusion. Logical comprehension isn’t just about understanding complexities, but also following a path of thought. Here’s a more structured example that becomes increasingly complex as layers are added. With each statement, a negation is added, inverting the meaning of the sentence.

  1. I will be going to the party.
  2. I won’t be going to the party.
  3. I won’t be not going to the party.
  4. It’s a lie that I won’t be not going to the party.
  5. It’s not a lie that I won’t be not going to the party.
  6. It’s false that it’s a not a lie that I won’t be not going to the party.
  7. It’s not false that it’s not a lie that I won’t be not going to the party.

Most people lose the ability to comprehend the meaning of these sentences somewhere between levels 2 and 4. However, many realize that it’s not necessary to understand the entire sentence at all. If we merely count the number of negatives, we can determine that the person will be attending the party if number is even, and they won’t be attending if the number is odd. Now let’s consider another example that illustrates a more complex logical thought process.

Imagine you’re engaging in a game of rock-paper-scissors with someone. But before you begin, your opponent tells you that he will choose rock. Is he telling the truth? How would you deduce what to choose next? Well you might think something like this (see how many layers you can follow):

  1. I know that he won’t actually choose rock, like he said, so I’ll choose scissors to cut his paper or tie with his scissors.
  2. He knows that I know he won’t choose rock, so he’ll choose rock to crush my scissors, since he knows that scissors are best counter to someone not choosing rock.
  3. I know that he knows that I know he won’t choose rock, so I’ll choose paper to cover the rock he chose to crush the scissors I chose in response to his rockless strategy.
  4. He knows that I know that he knows that I know he won’t choose rock, so he’ll choose scissors to cut the paper I chose to cover the rock he chose to counter my scissors, which are perfect against an opponent without a rock.
  5. I know that he knows that I know that he knows that I know he won’t choose rock, so I’ll choose rock to crush the scissors he chose to cut the paper I chose to cover the rock he chose to counter the scissors I used against his non-rock.
  6. He knows that I know that he knows that I know that he knows that I know he won’t choose rock, so he’ll choose paper…

At this point the cycle would continue indefinitely. assuming that either of us could actually fathom such strategies. It is possible, however, to simply count the occurrences of the word know in order to formulate the solution (just as we do with multiple negatives), but again, this circumvents actual understanding. Let’s take a look at an example without a pattern that can easily explain its meaning.

Imagine a sprinter who only changes speed in increments of 1 m/s. After completing each one-second interval, he will travel a distance equal to his velocity at the last interval, and his velocity will increase by his acceleration at the previous interval. Let’s also imagine that our sprinter continues to accelerate his acceleration during the experiment.

Time 00:00 00:01 00:02 00:03 00:04 00:05 00:06 00:07 00:08 00:09 00:10
Position (m)  0  0 1 3 7 14 26 46 79 133 220
Velocity (m/s)  0 1 2 4 7 12 20 33 54 87 137
Acceleration (m/s^2)  1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 33 50 73
m/s^3  0  1 1 2 3 5 8 12 17 23 30
m/s^4  0 0 1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
m/s^5  0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

It’s a little difficult to determine what’s happening here, but our sprinter is basically adding another layer of acceleration after each interval. Let’s describe each of the characteristics of the sprinter.

  1. Velocity (m/s) : change in position per second
  2. Acceleration (m/s^2): change in velocity per second
  3. m/s^3: change in the rate of acceleration per second or changing how fast we accelerate
  4. m/s^4: change in the speed of the rate of acceleration per second or changing how fast we’re changing our acceleration
  5. m/s^5: change in degree of the speed of the rate of acceleration per second or changing how fast we’re changing the rate at which we change our acceleration

If it isn’t already clear by now, things tend to get complicated really quickly after the third step. Part of the problem is that our brains are less able to recognize patterns among similar symbols. But even when we vary the terminology, the process is extremely difficult to follow. Here are four more examples of logical processes that can be hard to follow:

  1. Nested loops
  2. Layered arguments
  3. Recursion
  4. Paradoxes

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact issue, but it seems to be related to the limits of our mind’s working memory described by cognitive psychologist and Mad Max director, George Miller. Miller observed that humans can only keep track of 3 to 7 things at once. It seems that keeping track of a logical process is more difficult than independent parts. The difference here is that layers seem to compound the complexities as they’re added. Let’s imagine a system for using our working memory to keep track of both independent and layered thoughts. Here’s how it might work:

  1. We start with 3 to 7 memory units to spend on thoughts.
  2. Each independent thought costs 1 unit.
  3. Each layered thought after the first costs 2 units.

If our first layered thought counts as an independent thought, with a cost of 1, and each following thought costs 2, then our results confirm what we observed:

  1. We can track 3 to 7 independent thoughts.
  2. We can track 2 to 4 layered thoughts.

So what can we learn from all of this? For starters, we can confirm that measuring intelligence should be done in terms of reasoning and comprehension, not words or emotions. We also know that the complexities of some processes can be circumvented by simply counting the occurrence of a word or phrase. In addition, we know that tracking a logical process has roughly twice the mental cost of tracking independent thoughts. So next time you encounter a logical process, do the following:

  1. See how many layers deep you can go.

Washing Brains

Films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Hook and The Matrix portray various brainwashing techniques from electronic implants and hypnosis to captivity and coercion. The story of Beauty and the Beast might also appear to be a case of brainwashing, but the transformation of the Beast from coarse and unrefined to sweet and almost kind is merely Belle succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome. No, there’s nothing there that wasn’t there before.

What’s interesting about the concept of brainwashing, besides its use as an intriguing plot mechanism, is that the term wash usually implies a cleansing action – the removal of filth and injection of clarity.

When we wash the dishes, we remove stains and film, restoring the ceramic and glass to its shimmering glory. Brainwashing is almost always presented as a sinister act inflicted on unwilling, innocent victims for some malevolent purpose. These corrupt conspirators intend to murk and mire minds, not clean them – putrefy, not purify. Washing something returns it to its original, untarnished and uninhibited state. Brainwashing is the exact opposite of washing a brain. The term should be used to describe the process of freeing a mind from the grime of what is now called brainwashing.

brainwashing. [breyn-wosh-ing] -noun.

1. the process of restoring beliefs or attitudes to their unadulterated state. Wonderful news, Peter’s been brainwashed! Now we have the old Peter back.

2. a method of cleaning brains for surgery or display purposes, often using a toothbrush and soapy water.

Unfortunately, by redefining brainwashing we have created a vocabulary vacuum. A new term must now be crafted to accurately define the mind-meddling procedure formerly known as brainwashing. It is difficult to imagine what this word would be, but it should certainly describe the impurity and obscurity to which the brain is subjected.