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 Ioan Grillo’s ‘Gangster Warlords.’

On Ioan Grillo’s ‘Gangster Warlords.’

During my income-less years spent researching & writing a novel, there wasn’t enough money to blow any on drugs.  While I was in California, though, my graduate school stipend had me feeling flush with cash — when you like to eat home-made bread and lentils there’s only so much you can spend on food, and when your big fashion shopping trip involves spelunking through the dumpsters during move-out week each year, you don’t drop much on clothes.

Plus, the attitude in Silicon Valley seems to be that, as long as you get your work done, doesn’t matter what else is going on.  Stoned at work?  If your work is good, nobody cares.  I fondly remember helping a friend’s bleary-eyed pot-head roommate do some Matlab coding for a project while we were both in a state of significant duress — that project worked & was widely celebrated & the dude had a star named after him.

A sorta dinky star, sure, and very far away, but, still.  His work will save a not insignificant number of lives.  Not too shabby for something he put together while often high.

Hyades
I have no idea which star is his.

Personally, I didn’t smoke much.  I like my lungs, and don’t like spending money (from my six years of grad student stipend, I socked away enough to live on for three or four years, which I figured would be plenty of time to finish my first book.  I undershot by about 50%), and, besides, pot just made me feel groggy.  Still, I spent a few hundred dollars on marijuana while I was living out there.

For about sixty bucks of that, I know that the stuff I bought was grown locally.  The rest was of unknown provenance.

A quick internet search has revealed that my few hundred bucks could buy somebody a discounted AK.

Oops.

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Image by brian.ch on Flickr.

I’ve written about the harms caused by U.S. drug policy a few times previously, but my focus is usually on our own nation’s incarceration crisis.  It’s blatantly unjust to lock up so many black & brown & poor white people for behavior that middle-class whites engage in just as often without risk of punishment.  I bought marijuana while I was living in California, but, as a rich white student, the biggest risk I faced was that my drugs might be confiscated and I’d be slapped with a fine.  With the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project I’ve put together packages for dudes who’re serving time for possession of drugs in the same ballpark as I’ve carried.

That’s not right.  It’s something that we can, and should, fix.  This injustice would be significantly diminished if drugs like marijuana and cocaine were legalized.

Indeed, now that huge numbers of middle class whites are succumbing to heroin addiction, there’s talk from politicians about responding to their plight with treatment, not incarceration.  Which is fine.  That’s good, and correct.  But it must be hard for the families of poor and minority addicts, who may have seen their loved ones incarcerated for years, to hear.  To have yet more evidence that you & yours are considered less precious by our government.

Our incarceration crisis is a big deal.  Millions of U.S. lives are damaged by the War on Drugs.

unnamedBut I’m grateful to Ioan Grillo for teaching me about the millions of South & Central American lives lost because of the U.S. War on Drugs.

Actually, “lost” is probably not the right word.  “Lives lost” makes them sound misplaced, like somebody slipped and bonked his or her head and died.  Maybe the phrase “brutally wrenched away” would better describe murders via gunshot and chainsaw torture and burning alive and being hacked to bits by machetes or dissolved in giant vats of acid.  Which, right.  Grillo’s book is very good.  His writing is lucid and forceful and he’s done excellent research.  But you should know that there are passages that are difficult to read.  Grillo describes a horrifying world.

It’s a world that I had misconceptions about.  For instance, I’ve been fascinated by microclimes — both actual and metaphorical — ever since living in California.  While biking to work, there were dips along the road accompanied by drastic shifts in temperature and humidity.  While driving to the grocery store, there was the stark, sudden border between wealthy Atherton with its perfect green lawns and leafy trees and gated communities and the area just north so poor that it’s been unincorporated from adjacent communities.

I hadn’t realized that drug cartels operate in battle-ravaged wastelands closely juxtaposed to areas that look just like my home.  From Grillo’s Gangster Warlords:

unnamed (1)          This bloodshed is not in the poorest, least developed region of the world.  It takes place in industrializing societies with a growing middle class.  Latin American and Caribbean countries continue to modernize, building gleaming shopping malls, cinema multiplexes, and designer gyms, private schools and world-class universities.  Millions of visitors sun themselves in top-notch resorts on the countries’ golden beaches.  This convinces some surprised visitors that the countries are on a quick path to the First World.  There is real growth taking place.

          At the same time, sprawling slums are home to ultraviolent gangs with links to politicians and businessmen.  The parallel universes of crime-ridden ghettos and leafy middle-class neighborhoods live side by side, sometimes meeting and clashing.

Grillo also provides a lucid explanation for the feedback loop that causes violence to escalate.  These passages carry added weight for U.S. readers because the same logic underlies the violence of our own impoverished communities.  With poverty and some initial degree of lawlessness, people often lose their trust in police.  And when people who can’t go to the police are harmed, either by violence or theft, their only recourse is to seek retribution through more violence of their own.

          One alarming development is the extent to which gangsters control their own justice systems.  From Mexican mountains to Jamaican ghettos, crime bosses try those accused of robbing and raping and sentence them to beatings, exile, or death.  It’s jungle law.  But many residents find it more effective than any justice the police and courts offer.

          Wielding such power, gangster warlords threaten the fundamental nature of the state, not by trying to completely take it over but by capturing parts of it and weakening it.  They chip into the state’s monopoly on violence — or, more precisely, the monopoly on waging war and carrying out justice.  When the state loses this it becomes less able to impose its will on many issues, including the most basic, such as collecting taxes and policing protests.  People lose faith in the government, as happened in the Mexican state of Guerrero after the Iguala massacre.  Some form vigilante militias to defend themselves.  Others burn town halls.  If governments lose more control in this way, it could have devastating consequences.

US_Navy_100304-N-7058E-086_Bales_of_cocaine_are_stacked_in_the_airborne_mission_zone_aboard_USS_Freedom_(LCS_1)_after_they_were_seized_from_a_go-fast_small_boat.jpg
The only problem with showing an image of bales of cocaine is that, really, these just look like bags.  There could be anything in there.  Ramen noodles, plastic ducks, you name it. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Ed Early/Released)

Despite covering a lot of bleak topics, Grillo’s book was surprisingly enjoyable to read.  It helps that he is such a charming, self-effacing guy.  During an interview, he winds up riding in a car with his interviewee and being handed an assault rifle, at which point he commences worrying that he’ll accidentally kill himself or his companions.  He mentions his fear when approaching certain murderous bigshots without making a big deal of his own courage.  And the similes he uses to explain his feelings are plain-spoken but illuminating.  Consider this description of the months he spent reporting on Mexico’s vigilante uprising against a major cartel:

          Covering Mexico’s vigilante movement was like watching an action movie in many ways.  It was full of larger than life characters, took dramatic twists, and had high-intensity action scenes.  Like good movies, there were inspiring heroes on a moral mission and despicable baddies, such as Nazario [large-scale ultra-violent meth trafficker with a Jesus complex], a big enough villain for any Hollywood set.  But like the best movies, it became morally hazy by the end, the heroes showing cracks, and finished leaving you with a mix of fear and hope of what might come next.

 . . .

          Yet, after two years, the problems of vigilantism were too big to deny.  One thing is holding up the ideal of armed struggle.  The other is seeing it in action.  It’s ugly.  As vigilantes drove out the cartel, they tortured and murdered.  In 2013 and 2014, police tallies count 1,894 people killed in Michoacan [a state about midway between Iowa and Wisconsin in terms of size and population], the victims of both sides.  The vigilante ranks also filled with the gangsters they were supposed to be fighting against.  And you wondered how much better off anyone had become.

Unfortunately, U.S. drug policy inflates the profits available to traffickers.  Even if major traffickers are killed or captured by the government or vigilantes, new criminals will likely take their place as long as those incredible profits are up for the taking.

Legalization would probably increase demand (but not by much, according that what little evidence we have), but it would also cause a major fall in price.  Without the lure of easy profits, there’d be less incentive for cartels to pursue horrific violence.  I don’t think I’m being overly Panglossian in assuming that more people are murderously greedy than sadistic.

I’d like to end this post with one more quotation from Grillo’s book.  This passage comes from a conversation he had with a dude who grew up in the U.S., was deported over a domestic violence charge, started working for a cartel, then left the cartel to join the vigilantes when it seemed clear that they were winning.

          “I flipped.  I had no choice.  Now I’m scared the Knights Templar [violent trafficking organization led by that dude with the Jesus complex] are going to kill this whole fucking town for turning against them.”

          However, Manuel hasn’t done too badly out of the uprising.  He has a brand-new truck that he “decommissioned” from a Knights Templar boss who fled town.  “It’s mine now,” says Manuel, who stands a head taller than his dozen comrades in the trench.

          Still, Manuel says he dreams of escaping Michoacan to return to the United States and his former life.  He wonders why I, as a Brit, would want to spend any time here.

          “I’d love to get out of here and go home.  Why would anyone choose to live in a place like this?”

Of course, Grillo doesn’t provide an answer.  That’s not his style.  But, because I’m grateful for the existence of his book, I’d like to hazard a guess.  Grillo chooses to live there because the War on Drugs in the U.S. and Britain causes huge numbers of people to be silently, senselessly murdered.  Without the efforts of courageous journalists like Grillo, those victims would have no voice.