Militarising the Mind: Assessing the Weapons of the Ultimate Battlefield

Abstract

Advancements in behavioural neuroscience have revolutionised the treatment of mental illness by elucidating the mechanisms underpinning human behaviour and cognition. These advancements are not completely benevolent, but have dual-use potential which harkens back to a darker time when states sought to influence and control each other’s citizenry through psychological means. This article puts proposed behaviour-altering neuroscience weapons into their appropriate technical, historical, and geopolitical contexts to present a sober and critical analysis of the threat arising from the weaponisation of behavioural neuroscience. It argues that by using psychiatric drugs, brain stimulation, brain imaging or neurobiochemical weapons, states may be able to leverage neuroscientific advances to influence, control, and manipulate human behaviour and cognition. However, these approaches are extremely nascent and face technical and operational challenges that make their deployment difficult. Despite this, in consideration of the rapid pace of scientific advancement, growing geopolitical instability, and ambiguities in international law, scientists and the international community must remain vigilant as these technologies become more refined and the practical barriers to use begin to lower.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    MKULTRA is also known in the literature by previous code names “BLUEBIRD” and “ARTICHOKE”.

  2. 2.

    In addition to enabling the design of refined PSYOPs, these authors posit that the cultural information obtained by fMRI can provide richer context in the collection and analysis of HUMINT and SIGINT.

  3. 3.

    At the time of writing, closing this loophole continues to be an explicit goal for certain CWC states parties. An agreement banning agents acting on the central nervous system is currently being advocated for by nearly 40 states (as of November 2017), and if consensus is reached, could close off this potential avenue for the proliferation of NBCWs.

  4. 4.

    There are many neuro-microbial agents outside the scope of this article on behavioural influence that also target the central nervous system. For a comprehensive review, see Giordano (2014), pp. 103–107.

  5. 5.

    Small neuromodulators, notably Oxytocin and Testosterone, can reach the brain through nasopharyngeal passages, but the vast majority of potential NBCW agents do not have this capability and must be inhaled and transferred to blood through respiratory tissue. See Crockett and Fehr (2013).

  6. 6.

    Most relevantly: the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1987 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

  7. 7.

    Most relevantly: the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

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Bruner, R.C., Lentzos, F. Militarising the Mind: Assessing the Weapons of the Ultimate Battlefield. BioSocieties 14, 94–122 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-018-0121-4

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Keywords

  • Behavioural neuroscience
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Dual-use
  • Neuroweapons
  • Biological weapons
  • Biosecurity