We recently visited my brother and our Auntie Ferret in Chicago. Traveling with two young kids was difficult, but not impossible. N held my hand while we strolled down the sidewalk and we did the five-hour drives to and from the city while she and her brother were sleeping in their car seats.
When we returned to Bloomington, I excitedly regaled staff at the YMCA “play and learn” childcare area with our adventures: we went to Restaurant Depot! A grocery store where you can buy a six-pound tub of chili garlic paste! It was magical!
One woman shuddered slightly: “Chicago? I’m afraid to go there.”
Based on that statement alone, I’d bet large sums of money that she voted for Donald Trump.
Which isn’t such a bad bet. He lost the popular vote, and Bloomington is a liberal isle in the midst of southern Indiana, but… this is southern Indiana, after all. Trump garnered a lot of votes here.
And he campaigned on fear.
It’s not the best emotion, fear. It’s no hope, for instance. I’d say fear is far worse than whatever emotion best characterizes the recent Clinton campaign, even though I’m not quite sure what that emotion is… scorn? Which isn’t good, but I’d swallow my pride and vote for smarmy self-satisfied scorn over fear any day (as in fact I did).
We’re already seeing the awful consequences of fear: an executive order barring immigrants and refugees from a few (poor, Trump-property-less) countries that people here fear. Yes, it looks like children are drowning as families flee the civil war (sparked by climate change from our pollution). But what if those deaths are all part of an evil ploy by ISIS (not Daesh, not ISIL) operatives to infiltrate the United States?
The ban is misguided and heartless, obviously. But it’s hardly the worst that fear can do. Because fear inspires attack.
Which is a fascinating research finding. Terrifying, yes, given our current political situation. But still fascinating. You get it all here: mind control… senseless violence… and… killer mice?
Back in 2005, Comoli et al. found that hunting seemed to activate a pattern of neurons in the amygdala, the brain region responsible for fear in a wide variety of mammals, including humans.
So… what would happen if you suddenly activated those neurons?
Usually, neurons are activated only when we think. Our thoughts are patterns of neuron activations, and they cause further activations, which means we get to keep thinking, on and on as we learn and grow… until we die. Then the activations stop.
Each of these “activations” is a flow of electricity from one of the cell to the other. Neurons are lined by “voltage-gated ion channels,” and these let signals flow. Ions entering through one gate cause nearby gates to open. After a gate opens, though, it takes a while to recharge, which causes the current flow in a single direction.
And that’s how you can create a Manchurian candidate. Instead of hypnosis – conditioning Sinatra to flip when he spots a playing card – you infect neurons with new ion channels that open when you shine laser light on them. Make a recombinant virus, load it into a syringe, and plunge that needle into the brain!
The laser causes your new ion channels to open, and then, once they do, all the others respond, creating a flow of current. The signal becomes indistinguishable from any other thought. Except that whoever holds the laser is in control.
Wenfei Han et al., for the study “Integrated Control of Predatory Hunting by the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala,” took some mice and infected their amygdalas with these light-activated channels… and found that they’d created killing machines. In their words:
When a non-edible item was placed in the cage, laser activation caused the otherwise indifferent mice to immediately assume a ‘capture-like’ body posture and seize the object, which was then held with the forepaws and bitten. Behavior was interrupted immediately upon laser deactivation.
Light on… attack! Light off… whoa, what was I doing?
From Han et al.:
Generally, upon laser activation, mice readily seize, bite, and often ingest, non-edible objects, an effect that was modulated by internal state. Laser activation also abolished natural preferences for edible over non-edible items.
When left to their own devices, mice will hunt crickets (although it’s worth noting that “Consistently, by employing the cricket-hunting paradigm, [laser activation] shortened the time needed for mice to capture and subdue their prey. Captured crickets were immediately eaten.”), but the mind-control lasers cause them to hunt anything.
Well, almost anything.
Activation did not induce attacks on “conspecifics,” that is, their fellow mice. But human psychology seems to allow great flexibility in distinguishing between our own kind and others. When a mouse sees a mouse, it’ll know it’s a mouse. But we are so tribal that when one Homo sapiens sees another, the knowledge of shared humanity is often clouded over. Instead of recognizing a human, we might see a Syrian, or a Muslim, or an “illegal,” or a Republican, or a criminal.
A mouse won’t hunt another mouse, but we humans are great at attacking our own.
Of course, we don’t know for certain that humans would attack so single-mindedly if we activated neurons in the amygdala. We conduct only voluntary research on humans, and it seems unlikely that many people would sign up for an experiment involving the injection of viruses into the brain (which causes the infected neurons to become light-activated), intentional lesions between various brain regions (to isolate activities like hunting and eating – a quick slice lets researchers permanently uncouple those thought patterns), and euthanasia (to dissect the brain at the experiment’s end).
The mice used in these studies – or any other research studies, since mice aren’t even considered “animals” for the purposes of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act – did not fare particularly well. Far worse than the impoverished or imprisoned Homo sapiens whose “voluntary” research participation is induced by the offer of a piddling amount of cash or less mistreatment inside.
But now we know. Inspire sufficient fear, trigger attack. We’ll find an other – edible or not, deserving or not – and try to kill it.
People who felt afraid voted for Trump… and he has been using his social media megaphone to inflame their fears further ever since… and if we don’t calm those fears, war is coming.
Terrorism is scary. But can we get a little more “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” around here?