On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

After William Burroughs experienced how pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control. 

His own brain had been upended.  Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate.  If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick.  Agony would keep him focused.

If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways?  In Queer, the protagonist speculates:

“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I have experienced it myself.  I have no interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody.  What interests me is, how can I use it?

“In South America at the headwaters of the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity.  Medicine men use it in their work.  A Colombian scientist, whose name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine.  I read all this in a magazine article.

“Later I see another article: the Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor.  It seems they want to induce states of automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’  The basic con.  No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move in on someone’s psyche and give orders.

“I have a theory that the Mayan priests developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the work.  The deal is certain to backfire eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup of sender and receiver at all.”

As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control.  But there are other ways.  A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.

Because repeated behaviors give rise to our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.  Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a distance. 

You could be made other.

The more common form of mind control practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced.  Rather than using a magnetic pulse to stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative control.

Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served.  If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation.  This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning.  You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.

Humans can be similarly conditioned.  Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone.  The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement.  Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.

In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits.  If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.

But those are little stories.  A few stray details added to the narrative of your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update!  More threatening is the prospect of mind control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative.  Take a person’s memories and supplant them.

In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:

“While in general I avoid the use of torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it.  And torture can be employed to advantage as a penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept punishment as deserved.”

In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality. 

A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).

And it works.  Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things.  With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.

Your stories can be wrested from you.

Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control.  Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.

Predictably, the prosecutor often wins.  Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials.  So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories.  They plead guilty.  After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.

Of course, you might not walk out today.  Even if you were told that you would.  In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest.  The other is not.

And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.

Featured image: neural pathways in the brain taken using diffusion tensor. Image by Thomas Schultz.

On sexuality: dolphins.

On sexuality: dolphins.

Dolphins, like humans, fool around throughout the year.  But dolphins, unlike humans, can conceive only during certain seasons.

(After writing the preceding sentence, I wanted to mention which seasons.  I typed “when can dolphins conceive” into my search bar.  The top hit was a website called Can Male Dolphins Get Pregnant, with the blurb “There will be nothing you can do about it but pray.”  I clicked the link.  The page instantly re-directed to a website called Trusted Health Tips featuring a “new groundbreaking online video that reveals how to get pregnant,” alongside the disclaimer that “pharmaceutical and fertility companies have requested the government to ban” the video, since it would clearly destroy their businesses.  Our generation is the first to have all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips!  We are like gods, are we not?)


Dolphins, like humans, are attracted to a wide range of sexual partners.  Pairs or trios of males form long-term strategic alliances, and they will engage in “psuedo-sexual” behavior with their allies.  Presumably one or both of the participants finds these activities pleasurable.  They’ll tumble with females, and males, and humans, too.

As best we know, dolphins hold no negative stereotypes against those who pursue consensual pleasure, no matter what form it takes.

I’ve felt surprised, when discussing sexuality in jail, that so many men who’ve spent time in prison still use starkly binary terminology.  I’ve never heard anyone use the word “bisexual” in jail.  Instead I’ve heard things like, “I’ve got nothing against people who want to be gay.  It’s not for me, but I’ve got nothing against it.  What gets me is when people who I know are gay, who I saw be gay inside, they get out and want me to back up their lies that they’re not.  I’m like, excuse me, I know you’re gay, so how can you ask me to tell somebody that you’re not?”

Grande_Ludovisi_Altemps_Inv8574.jpgAt another class, we discussed human sexuality throughout history.  Physical affection was encouraged among the troops of ancient Rome, with the idea that a soldier might fight more fervently to protect his lover than his country.  Japanese samurai were considered unrefined if they didn’t savor the occasional dalliance with another male.  (I refrain from describing the samurai’s encounters as “sexual,” because many were not consensual by contemporary standards – the objects of their desire were often too young.)

In many cultures, if someone was so persnickety that he had sex exclusively with women, despite spending long periods of time surrounded only by other men, he’d be seen as deviant.

One of the guys interjected, “Yeah, but what they were doing wasn’t, you know, cause I heard you’re only gay if your testicles touch.”

This was immediately disputed.  “No way – there’s positions with two guys and a girl where your testicles touch, and I know for a fact that don’t make you gay.”

My co-teacher and I sighed.  We’re both long-haired, relatively effeminate men, typically dressed in some measure of women’s clothing – every pair of pants I own comes from either the Indiana University dumpsters or the women’s department of Goodwill, and the same is true of most of my co-teacher’s jackets.

But my co-teacher and I live in a world where ambiguity is safer.  The way we punish people in this country carves away the nuances of people’s personalities – immersed in violence, they’ll need friends, but people are shuffled so often that there’s little time to build friendships.  They make do with communal identity instead.

When people were talking over a young black man as he read a poem, they were shushed by a convicted murderer covered in Aryan Brotherhood tattoos.  The tattooed man never seemed particularly racist.  He was very well read, and often mentioned things he’d learned from reading The Quran or Confucius.  But he was socially a white supremacist.  A pragmatic choice for a dude who’d spent eighteen years in prison.  At cafeterias under AB control, he’d get to eat.

Likewise, no matter who men fool around with, most choose to identify as socially heterosexual while they’re inside.

Morgan-Freeman(A lovely quote from Morgan Freeman that I first saw as an epigram in CAConrad’s While Standing in Line for Death: “I hate the word homophobia.  It’s not a phobia.  You are not scared.  You are an asshole.”)

Our world didn’t have to turn out this way.

In the poem “Gilgamesh,” Spencer Reece documents the slow crumbling of an affair – the poet fell in love with a man who desires only the young.  As Spencer ages, the romance fades.  This man wants only to recapture the love that was denied to him in youth.

This instability is tragically common – Spencer’s paramour was raised in a culture that considered all sexual desire to be sinful, and homosexual desire especially so.  Even outside prison walls, we consider certain ambiguities too fraught to tolerate:

          Fragments, clay cylinders, tablets, parchment –

to write Genesis, they say, the writers

searched their neighborhood,

found all kinds of things, including

the epic about Gilgamesh, much of it damaged,

regarding the man who saw into the deep.


          Somehow, the part

about Gilgamesh and Enkidu

in love

got lost.

What a different world we’d have if our sacred books taught that love was love was love.  People could comfortably be all of themselves.

41tsPGUSiCL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In his poem “Dolphin” from An Aquarium, Jeffrey Yang writes that

The Greeks thought dolphins

were once men.  The Chinese

river dolphin was a goddess.

Scientists tell us that if we

rearrange a few of our genes,

we’d become dolphins.  Wouldn’t

that be real progress!


On racism and the empathy gap (while sneakily building toward the idea that teaching kids to root for your favorite sports team might be kinda evil).

There is an unfortunately compelling evolutionary model to explain why humans are so predisposed to racism.  The rotten treatment of presumed outsiders may well be a corollary of our genetic inducements toward altruism.  Which is grimly ironic, the idea that the same evolutionary narrative could explain both the best & worst sides of human nature.

In brief: self-sacrificing altruism will be favored by natural selection if such behavior improves the outlook of a group of genetically-similar individuals.

Photo by Justin Lindsay (Flickr).
Vampire bat.  Portrait by Justin Lindsay (Flickr).

But there’s a problem.  Taking advantage of the goodwill of others without contributing anything in return is even more effective.  All the benefits of altruism (having others be nice to you) with none of the costs (having to be nice to others)!  Like choosing to live in a country with good roads, a functional education system, reasonable protections for property rights, etc., but then declining to pay taxes.  Or being willing, as a vampire bat, to scarf some donated blood from others on your bad days, but not returning the favor if a neighbor comes up dry on a night you scored.  Or partaking of scavenged feasts as a protohuman, but never volunteering to charge forward with arms flung wide and attempt to scare off the lions (which is apparently less suicidal than it sounds; there’s a modern re-enactment of this on BBC Earth’s Human Planet).

Which means that, for genes that nudge their bearers toward altruism to flourish, there needed to be a mechanism for defectors to be detected and excluded.

One component of this is good — it’s been proposed that our innate sense of justice resulted from the need to ensure cooperation in societies.  Even very young humans are likely to intercede when they observe unfair behavior.

But, ah!  That tricky word, “observe.”  We have to trust that our compatriots will act ethically even when we can’t see them.  And, sadly, numerous studies have revealed that people will, on average, behave more ethically when exposed to eye imagery.  As with any social psychology finding, there’s large interpersonal variation… these studies almost all have wide error bars.  This result is clearly not that you are worse when you think no one is watching, but that the average individual is inclined to be.

The All-Seeing Eyes by Caneles on Flickr.  CC 2.0 license.
The All-Seeing Eyes. By Caneles (Flickr).

The protohumans to whom we owe our genetic heritage didn’t think to plaster eye imagery all over their environs (not in a literal sense, anyway — it’s been postulated that belief in an all-seeing deity has a similar effect on people’s behavior, and that such beliefs were integral to the growth of large communities).  And, unlike us oh-so-clever modern humans, our ancestors also failed to install privacy-obliterating surveillance cameras throughout their campgrounds and hunting ranges.  There were numerous opportunities to lie or cheat or steal or otherwise defect from cooperative behavior without the risk of being caught.

The genes that nudge people toward altruistic behavior had to be selected for in an environment with large quantities of hidden information.  And altruism is only a good evolutionary strategy if you can be pretty sure that, when you help someone, it’s most likely another altruist you’re helping.

This may be why our brains are so good at dividing the world into us and them.  By reserving altruism for a small group of allies, our ancestors may have increased the odds that the recipients of their aid were genetically similar to themselves.  And then, because our mental architecture is so flexible, we can adapt this wiring to use a wide variety of cues to distinguish between self and other.  Species, skin color, political affiliation, clothing style, whether someone is presumed to over- or under-estimate the number of dots on a screen ...

Once the world is divided into us and them, it seems that we may be less altruistic to those outside our own group because we don’t even perceive them as needing help.  There’s been a lot of research done on the “empathy gap,” the way we discount the suffering of those we presume to be unlike ourselves.  I really like the paragraph in Paul Gazda’s article “I Was an Animal Experimenter” that reads,

See the NYT article here.

“One day, while programming an experiment, I accidentally touched the electrodes and got a jolting shock that numbed my entire arm.  I was amazed that, according to my professor, the shock level was the correct one to use for pigeons.  I told myself that pigeons must not feel pain as much as I did.”

Similarly, people often seem able to convince themselves that other humans with differing levels of melanin in their epidermis also feel less pain: observing someone who resembles us get hurt triggers an empathetic response, as though we were feeling the pain ourselves.  This empathetic mirroring is diminished when the individual in pain is one of them, however.

So far, this essay has just been a bleak recounting of information about humans & our failings.  And I could go on.  Really, our genetic heritage is ill suited to the way I think we ought to live.  But I’m not sure what the benefit of listing all our foibles would be if there were no findings relevant to how we might make the world a better place … like, yeah, sometimes I learn things just because I love feeling depressed, but it’s nice to stumble across a glimmer of hope every now and then.

Let’s look for some hope now, shall we?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading Jeneen Interlandi’s article “The Brain’s Empathy Gap.”  There is a section in her article where she discusses research conducted with Israeli and Arabic subjects who underwent magnetic resonance imaging while reading about the Middle East. Capture

[The researcher] had noticed that a common sticking point in regional dialogues was that each side found the other ignorant or irrational or both.  [He] wanted to see if those perceptions could be traced to a specific part of the theory-of-mind network.

For the most part, the results were as expected.  Israeli subjects were more likely to harbor anti-Arab biases and to rate Arab perspectives as unreasonable, and vice versa.  And in both groups, a small region of the brain, the medial precuneus, which may be associated with the theory-of-mind network, responded more strongly when the subject was written by members of the other group.  But for three subjects, the psychological and neurological tests contradicted each other.  The psychological and neurological tests contradicted each other.  The psychological tests indicated that they held the same types of anti-Arab biases as the other Israeli subjects, but their brain scans, and their reasonableness ratings, indicated that they were able to identify with the Arab perspective nonetheless.  All three of these outliers, it turned out, were Israeli peace activists.

Clearly there are people who treat presumed outsiders more kindly than the prevailing norm.  Not everyone, it seems, discounts the suffering of others equally.  And, lo and behold, there are numerous findings that indicate psychological correlates of that discounting.  From the abstract of Masten et al.’s “Children’s intergroup empathic processing,”

“… those with a stronger ingroup identity displayed more empathy bias favoring their ingroup.”

To eliminate that reflexive, neurological discounting of the suffering of others, it may be necessary to identify less strongly with our own exclusionary groups.  To not think of ourselves as members of a species (which isn’t a hard and fast distinction anyway), or an ethnicity, or nationality, or members of a particular fraternity, or fans of a particular sports team…

The 2009 US Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Superbowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., Feb. 2.  (RELEASED)
Superbowl XLIII.

Not all of these have implications for social justice — I’ve seen no research, for instance, suggesting that fans of the White Sox are systematically oppressed — the issue is that the human mind is malleable and performs best at those tasks which it’s been trained on.  I suppose it would be reasonable to speculate whether sports fandom could provide a replacement outlet for exclusionary reflexes — the idea that someone could drain him- or herself of racist attitudes by channeling that into dislike of a favorite team’s competitors — but, sadly, that seems not to be what happens.  I think the Eric Simons article “What science can tell us about why we love sports” has some perspicacious analysis:

In a more collective way, we also know from psychology that people divided into groups behave differently toward, and even unconsciously think differently about, in-group and out-group; sports provide an easy and arbitrary group division.  It does not follow, though, that sport is sublimated war — even though one of the most popular narratives about fans is that they’re merely channeling that same my-people aggression, in a (slightly) more constructive manner.  Humans are competitive and oriented toward thinking about the world in groups, but there’s no evidence that sports are a way for us to slake our warlike natures.

Personally, I think there is a stronger conclusion that can be drawn (although, let’s face it, my conclusion won’t include a phrase as beautiful as “slake our warlike natures”).  I’d wager that exclusionary pride in one context trains the mind to be more exclusionary in other contexts as well.

I know there are people who really benefit from the thought that they are part of something larger than themselves… but if our goal is to create a less racist society, it might be counterproductive to expend so much energy trying to instill school pride in children, for instance.  My high school had numerous pride rallies throughout the year, and every university seems to raise a fair bit of money through the sale of pride sweatshirts and the like… and wouldn’t it be ironic if we were training students’ minds to be worse as adults?


p.s.  Quite possibly the above findings do not apply to you.  Maybe you read this and thought, “Hey, wait a second, I’m a huge sports fan, I’ve got loyalty to my team, and *I* am not a racist jerk!”

Image by Neil Owen.
Image by Neil Owen.

And, look, I agree.  You’re not a jerk, dear reader!  (Unless you are, in which case you’re both a jerk *and* a liar, but let’s not consider that possibility)

The thing about all these social psychology results is, there are huge interpersonal variations… often the variation from person to person is larger than the observed effects.  If you want to see for yourself, really, go ahead, pull up almost any of the papers I cited above and take a gander at the error bars… they’re huge!

I’ve seen several articles cite Avenanti et al.’s study showing that white subjects feel less empathy when black people’s hands are poked with needles, for instance.  Earlier in this post I also included a link to their paper implying that this is what they saw.  But what they really observed is a small shift in the average response amongst thirty-two young people in Italy.  Their actual data isn’t available in the supplemental material for the paper but judging from their bar graphs it seems pretty likely that a few of their thirty participants empathized just as much no matter the melanin content of the hand being poked.

Quite probably they would have had one more non-racist data point if they’d included you.

But, then again… if they included too many people like you, then their paper couldn’t have been published.  Because nobody wants to read a paper saying “humans feel empathy when they see another human being poked with a needle.”  Or, no, that’s not true.  I’d be pretty happy to see some results like that.  But most journals wouldn’t publish it.  That result isn’t interesting.  And so studies like all the ones I linked to above are enriched for jerkish participants, because otherwise the papers wouldn’t exist for me to link to.  Kind of a conundrum, inn’t it?

So, carry on… as long as you’re being nice, go ahead and root for your favorite sports team.  Celebrate your Native American or Irish or Taiwanese or mixed or unknown heritage.  Buy yourself one of those decalcomaniaed license-plate holders from your alma mater.  The results from all those papers might be totally bunk.

It’s just that, if they aren’t, it’s quite possible that, for the statistically-averaged hordes, that type of behavior makes our world worse.  If all these findings are meaningful, then the cheering and the school pride and all the rest of it might make subconscious racism more prevalent.