31 May 2010

O Brave New World

Two articles caught my eye recently. I paraphrase them briefly here, but read the linked articles if you haven't heard about this in the news already.

  • Oxytocin, when administered via nose spray, increased empathy in subjects in a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Discoblog has an interpretation of the findings.
  • Magnets can interfere with moral judgments, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation changed the way participants reacted to stories designed to provoke moral reactions about guilt or innocence. NPR has a summary.

You can probably, without thinking too hard, come up with half a dozen ways in which these techniques could be misused for nefarious purposes. The reported findings only represent "proof of concept," but I believe it's only a matter of time before these or similar techniques are commonly applied to unwilling subjects.

I, for one, was not really surprised to learn that scientists are getting closer to identifying a neurological/biochemical basis for relatively high-level mental functions. What's so amazing to me is the relative subtlety of these techniques. Time was when you had to jab someone in the arm or put something in their drink or apply blunt head trauma in order to compromise their mental faculties, and even then only you could only manipulate them in a very coarse-grained way (see, e.g. sodium pentothal). I am very worried that in twenty years you'll have to check under the tables for aerosolizers and neural stimulation devices every time you walk into a corporate board room or a courtroom or a car dealership.

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