Neuroscience—and the weapons of the mind

Neuroscience—and the weapons of the mind

By Robert Bruner, Filippa Lentzos

While MKULTRA is infamous for its attempts to control the mind through hypnosis and phenomena, its researchers primarily concentrated on the use of pharmaceuticals and mind-bending drugs such as hallucinogenic mushrooms, marijuana, heroin, LSD, and truth serums to make intelligence targets more cooperative in questioning and more willing to act as agents of the United States. Ultimately, the project failed because of a lack of scientific understanding of the inner workings of the brain and how to manipulate it.

But today, neuroscience appears to be breaking down previous technical barriers to the exogenous control of emotion, behavior, and ultimately the mind.

Scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of the biological basis of behavior and cognition have given rise to numerous treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders. These treatments have improved the quality of life for many people all over the world. But these technologies have dual-use potential.

Psychiatric drugs and brain stimulation stand out as neurotechnologies of particular concern. But what are the on-the-ground realities of these technologies—what is the potential for converting clinical uses of behavioral neuroscience to the battlefield? Is it technically possible to alter brain chemistry in order to introduce novel emotions, cause cognitive shifts, and affect behavior? YES…

Dr. James Giordano, Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program and Scholar-in-Residence in the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University, speaks to cadets and faculty about how advancements in neuroscience and neurotechnology will impact the future of war. This event was hosted by the Modern War Institute at West Point.


If mass-produced, weaponized, and spread further afield, the same drugs that show promise as substitutes for psychological torture could be used as neurochemical weapons that alter the emotions of a nation’s armed forces, or that quickly change hearts and minds within a civilian population by influencing the visceral reaction to a military campaign. The most threatening neurochemical weapons—and the most likely to be used—are hypnotic drugs that reduce alertness, sedate, and anaesthetize. Psychedelic drugs, however, which alter cognition, emotion, and behavior, also have potential for battlefield deployment because of their ability to disorient and simulate psychosis. Numerous microbes and toxins that target the nervous system also have potential to affect decisions about whether to fight or surrender and could significantly impede adversarial soldiers.

Mind control back in vogue!

Make no mistake, neuroscience can be misused to alter emotions or memories, covertly implant ideas, or cause cognitive shifts. However, significant technical challenges remain—again, operationalizing neuroweapons is extremely difficult. Yet while it is unlikely that promises of mind control will be realized by neuroweapons, it would be naïve to assume that approaches to behavioral control will not become more refined over time. Obstacles to behavioral control also present themselves to psychiatrists treating disease and, as better psychiatric treatments continue to be pursued, barriers to the malignant use of neuroscience will lower. Neuroscience can be weaponized and deployed by actors willing to expend the time, money, and resources necessary.

International humanitarian and armament law represent crucially important components in governing the development and use of neuroweapons. On the surface, these legal standards prohibit neuroweapons. Their strength, however, has been weakened by ambiguities and by the defiance of state actors. For instance, because international bodies had failed to provide guidance about which specific actions constituted torture, the Bush administration was able to argue that its “enhanced interrogations” of Guantánamo Bay prisoners did not meet the severity threshold of pain or mental injury required by international law—and thus could not be considered torture under existing treaties. In the context of state attempts at behavioral control, arguments similar to those of the Bush administration could be used to explain away the use of pharmaceuticals or neurotechnology that malevolently altered the inner workings of the brain. The prohibition of neurochemical weapons under armament law is much stronger, but here too, loopholes and ambiguities exist. Chemical weapons intended for riot control are not prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, for instance; this provides space for states to legally develop incapacitating weapons under the guise of developing a domestic riot control agent, and then rapidly convert neurochemical weapons for use in conflict.

Another challenge to the governance framework is the possibility that, as the technologies described here become more developed, perceptions of their utility may shift—just as barriers to the development and use of biological weapons are decreasing. For example, some observers argue that not only are drugs permissible if (by simulating a state of euphoria and positive emotions) they make a person talk, but that they are a morally superior substitute for torture and “enhanced interrogation.” The allure of behavioral-control capability could change nations’ existing sociopolitical calculations about the utility of neuroscience-based weapons and drive further military and intelligence development of neuroweapons. Troublingly, these shifting perceptions—matched with increasing geopolitical turbulence and a shift away from state-centric conflict—could make behavioral control seem ever more tempting.

An increasingly multipolar world is emerging—one in which rising powers view human rights, justice, transparency, and the use of force differently. Therefore, challenges to humanitarian and armament law will only increase. To monitor the conversion of behavioral neuroscience from benign medical treatments into malignant weapons, and to shape how neuroweapons may be perceived and used, the international community must attach the utmost importance to strengthening the normative and legal framework that is embodied in multilateral treaties and national laws and regulations. The medical standards that doctors and scientists are obliged to uphold, as well as codes of practice and research ethics, must also be strengthened in view of the potential misuse of behavioral neuroscience. The containment of neuroweapons relies on the strength of norms—from the top down and from the bottom up—against the use of torture, unconventional weapons, and the militant use of neuroscience. Both scientists and the international community must remain vigilant about preventing behavioral neuroscience from leaking into the security realm.