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 humor (and bad medical advice).

On humor (and bad medical advice).

Back when she lived in town with us, Auntie Ferret would often accompany me to the public library to work.  We would sit in the linoleum tiled area near the magazines.  I would type.  She would draw.

Of course, the process of creating artwork, at least in every field I know about, seems to involve several-fold more time spent taking in new information, researching, appreciating at other people’s work, etc., than time actually spent creating.  In my case, the timing usually breaks down to about two hours per day spent typing, six hours spent reading.  Auntie Ferret, because hers is a more time-intensive craft, probably spends equal time drawing and reading.

All well and good.  The problem, from the perspective of someone sitting near her to work, is that Auntie Ferret is a very effulgent reader.  Which can be distracting.  She occasionally saunters to the magazine rack to scoop up another armful of bodybuilding magazines, then chortles with gusto as she read them.  And then, of course, she reads the passage aloud.

CaptureA typical conversation between us:

FC: Huh.  Yeah.  That’s pretty horrible.  But I should get back to work.

AF: Okay, okay… but wait!  Wait, listen to this.  On ViperPRO, I was so vasculated I thought I’d EXPLODE!

An hour might pass and I’d get nothing done.  Whereas the time qualified as research for her.  Her webcomic features a hearty dose of meat-head satire.

Eventually I learned my lesson.  No, not to sit somewhere else, although I imagine that’s what a more timid ferretwrangler might do.  Instead I realized that I should incorporate her research into my own work.

***********************

THIS SHIT SAVED MY LOVE LIFE

There’s lots of dating advice out there.  Tips on what stereo system to buy, which records to play, what wine to drink, which celebrity cologne smells like you.  Lifting guides for omnivores and for vegans and for the gluten-free, for those who augment their training stacks with GHB and those who wanna stick with anabolic steroids alone.  And detailed instructions for how to act — secret secrets of the world’s best pickup artists! — although until they invent a hieroglyphic language that women can’t read, publication inevitably weakens those once-secret strategies.

I read the guides.  Seemed like a lot of common sense.  Maintain eye contact.  Ply her with drinks.  Initiate unwanted touching.  Belittle her relentlessly.  Act like the abusive ex-boyfriend you’d someday like to be.  But, let’s face it, some of us are sensitive dudes.  When there’s an opportunity for a killer neg, we compliment our interlocutor on her witty banter.  Then wreck the moment when we ask before lunging in for a snog.

Does this sound like you?  Striking out cause you don’t have that flirtatious take-no-prisoners attitude?  Are you thinking to yourself, sensitive dudes would enjoy the occasional sexual encounter, too?

Well, I am here for you, man.  I was in that situation.  But I fixed it.  This shit worked for me, and I swear it can work for you.

You need to eat more cat feces.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stalkerr/134280257Not for the fun of it, mind you.  You need to eat cat feces to increase your exposure to Toxoplasma gondii.  It’s a microscopic parasite that evolved to control mammalian behavior.

Maybe that sounds bad.  Parasitic mind control?  That’s some freaky shit, right?  But, let me ask you: do you wanna get laid, or not?

See, there’s mind control like Frank Sinatra zonked by a playing card and realizing it’s time to blow somebody’s brains out, and then there’s mind control like toxo.  What’s it do?  It makes you bolder.  More confident.  It boosts testosterone.  Makes you happier, by helping you synthesize dopamine.  Ever wonder why those gel-heads always duck to the back and snort coke before they make a move?  Dopamine.  But with toxo, you won’t need blow.

Dudes with toxoplasmosis are taller that dudes without.  They’re consistently rated more attractive on Tinder-style image-only surveys.  Ingest enough of this parasite to get cysts throughout your brain and you’ll be a handsome, aggressive, risk-taking sex machine.  And, get this: toxo makes you smarter, too!

(Note: to date, intellectual enhancement has been observed only in females infected with Toxoplasma gondii.  In males, the opposite effect is seen.  Toxo invariably makes males into slower, dumber studmuffins.  But, you’re still with me, right?  What good is your brain if you’re sitting up alone at night, staring at a computer screen, not getting laid?)

Of course, not every cat has toxo.  If you adopt a dud, you’re wasting your time.  Masticating those slimy colon-prints for nothing.  Which, right, here’s something else you should know: cranberry juice.  Nothing else washes out the taste.  Even cranberry juice doesn’t work that well.

Eat a few scoops of feces from some defective no-parasite cat, let me tell you, you’re gonna be pissed.

That’s why my little brother and I are starting this company where we’ll ship you fresh excrement from known toxoplasma-bearing felines.  Each turd guaranteed >100 cyst-forming-units or your money back!, that’s what the packaging will say.  We’re not open for business yet — FDA approval is such a bitch that we might give up on it altogether and market our product as a nutritional supplement — but we’ve already registered the domain name www.toxrocks.com.

Check us out.  Like our shit on Facebook.  And if you can’t wait till our little operation is up and running, go find yourself a parasite-riddled cat and start gobbling that shit up.  Which is advice I’m willing to give gratis, cause I care about my fellow man.

*************

Doling out terrible medical advice isn’t necessarily funny… what if people actually follow your advice?  But my thinking is, the world’s full of medical advice a good deal more harmful than this.  And that’s all given sincerely.  At the playground one day, a mother nodded approvingly at my daughter’s bare feet and told me, “It’s good you’re letting her get rid of some of those excess electrons.”

I was puzzled.  Later I found out that some people believe that wearing shoes all the time makes them build up an appreciable electric charge.

Or the bodybuilding magazines.

Capture

Interspersed with articles like a dude recounting the time he tackled his brown-skinned buddy on New Year’s because the buddy was counting down in a foreign language and so dude thought he was a terrorist (hilarious, bro!) are advertisements for all variety of untested chemicals.  Or there’s the self-generated schemes, like the claim, “I’ve got a pitbull and he’s f___in’ ripped.  And I figured, he looks like that on dogfood?  So that’s all I eat now, too.”

Um, I’m gonna go stand over there now, thank you.

Plus, I think it makes a difference whom bad advice is targeted toward.  I’m not a huge fan of machismo bodybuilding culture.  And I don’t know if you’ve seen many modern dating guides (a la Neil Strauss’s The Game, or the sort of thing that won’t be funded through Kickstarter ever again), but I think it’s reasonable to suggest to readers of such guides that they oughta eat more cat feces.