Frank and serious talk about the military’s use of mind control is rare outside the social circles of conspiracy theorists.
But at a recent trans-Atlantic discussion at the Dana centers in Washington, D.C., and London, professors of ethics, neuroscience and peace studies linked current research to forecast advancements in neurological warfare, including fear- and sleep-reducing drugs and hormones for facilitating interrogations.
Author and professor Jonathan Moreno set the stage by describing a meeting of neuroethicists he attended a few years ago. “Nobody had mentioned the possibility of military use of neuroscience,” he said. “Interest in the science of the brain has traveled a long way.”
Moreno discussed prescient legal and ethical questions about neuroscience and war before an audience in Washington, connected via satellite with professors Malcolm Dando and Russell Foster in London.
“Very few neuroethicists have considered the security aspects of neuroscience,” said Dando, a peace studies professor at the University of Bradford.
Foster, professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford, agreed with Dando. “What we (neuroscientists) love is finding out how systems work,” Foster said, adding that he rarely considered the more ominous applications of his research.
“There are ways in which this could be used as a weapon,” he admitted.
Much of the conversation focused on what Moreno, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Mind Wars, a book about brain research and national security, called the “dual-use dilemma”—problematic cases in which benign neuroscience could be abused to inflict harm on others in a military setting.
One example he mentioned was the drug modafinil, originally developed to treat narcolepsy—a devastating sleep disorder—but now also used to increase alertness and reduce the need for sleep in soldiers.
“We’re not sure how it works,” said Moreno. “It seems … that people can be awake and alert for 60 to 80 hours.”
“Sleep may be the first victim of war,” said Foster, who studies circadian rhythms. He cited the military’s promotion of amphetamine use among soldiers as a performance enhancer. “War is the ultimate 24/7 environment,” he said.
In 2002, four Canadian troops were killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire from two American pilots coming down from amphetamines prescribed by the U.S. military. Foster linked the pilots’ use of the stimulant to current research into cognitive enhancement drugs such as modafinil, which he warned could lead to similar fatal accidents.
The professors emphasized the importance of cautious research in other areas of neuroscience as well.
For example, the conversation soon turned to the possibility of “painless torture,” drugging enemies into interrogation-friendly submission with potent chemicals that invoke the systems in the brain involved in trust. Dando found the notion in violation of the basic human right to privacy. “The idea of painless torture is something we should stomp down completely,” he said.
But if the technologies seemed far-fetched, the notion that the U.S. military might pursue such avenues was not. Dando noted the “absolutely enormous increase in U.S. expenditure after 9/11” for neuroscience research by security agencies.
“Other countries must ask the question: ‘Is this defense? Or is it offense?’” said Dando.
While the panelists agreed that engaging scientists and the public to take part in discussions on policy was an important first step, they were uncertain who should hold such discussions and what they should lead to.
None thought that outright scientific censorship was the answer. “It’s very difficult to envisage what should be banned,” Dando said.
Foster took a stronger stance, arguing that “science, by its very nature, is in the public domain.”
But when the moderator in Washington, William Safire, asked, “Should there be a law-of-the-brain treaty?” the three academics responded affirmatively.
As a caveat, Dando added to his assent that such a treaty would be good “as part of an awareness-raising process, but not as part of some Draconian system.”
Moreno and Safire spoke before about 30 attendees in Washington during the lunchtime talk. Overseas, the discussion was moderated by Christine McGourty of the BBC.
-- Ben Mauk