The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to understand the science behind human violence; and then find ways to alter an enemy's thoughts by implanting false, but believable stories in their brains. The goal is to create a more peaceful scenario: We're your friend, not your enemy.
Critics say this may raise ethical issues similar to those found in the 1971 sci-fi movie, A Clockwork Orange, which, using vision-mind control techniques, attempted to force people to be less violent.
Advocates, however, believe that placing new plausible narratives directly into the minds of radicals, insurgents, and terrorists, could transform enemies into kinder, gentler citizens, craving friendship.
Scientists have known for some time that narratives; an account of a sequence of events that are usually in chronological order; hold powerful sway over the way humans think, shaping a person's notion of groups and identities; even inspiring them to commit violence, as evidenced by suicide bombers.
In another area of thought research, genetic components are taking center stage. Scientists at the University of Buffalo recently studied DNA from volunteers and discovered what they refer to as the 'niceness gene', a gene that dictates whether people will be nice or are prone to antisocial behavior.
Contrary to popular knowledge, being kind to others may not be something that we can only learn from those who raised us. It seems some people are simply born 'nice', and others, nasty.
Researchers found that people who see the world as a 'threatening' place were less likely to help others – unless they had versions of the receptor genes that are generally associated with niceness.
Today, scientists have yet to master the ability to change 'nasty' genes into 'niceness' versions, but by the 2030s, many predict that modifying these genes could become an acceptable and routine procedure.
Others say managing thoughts, not by changing genes, but with drugs, offer the best solutions. Drugs, many experts believe, could reform criminals more efficiently and far less expensive than a jail sentence.
In their recent ground-breaking book, Enhancing Human Capacities, co-authors Julian Savulescu, Ruud ter Meulen, and Guy Kahane explore how society will benefit when we use technology to alter moods, boost memory, and increase intelligence levels; along with the ethical concerns these technologies raise.
Kahane says scientists are discovering new behavior-altering procedures that make us more likeable, sociable; open to other people's views; and will curb many of our desires for vengeance and violence.
Drugs that affect our moral thinking and behavior already exist, but we tend not to think of them in that way. Prozac lowers aggression and bitterness, making people more agreeable. Oxytocin increases feelings of social bonding and empathy while reducing anxiety.
Some question, though, whether society will want a pill that would make them morally better. Being more trusting, nicer, and less aggressive could make people more vulnerable to exploitation.
However, proponents believe the benefits are too important to ignore. Pursuing many of the technologies mentioned in this article holds great promise to curb crime and violence throughout the world, improve personal and career relationships, and raise happiness levels everywhere.
In another area of the behavior-altering arena, memory-management drugs are becoming popular. Data experts at Memory Pharmaceuticals, a leading New Jersey drug information firm, believe researchers will soon develop drugs that will dim, or permanently erase traumatic memories.
And an even more radical technology, downloading knowledge directly into our brains may be possible by mid-2030s, says Georgia Tech graduate student Peter Passaro. Future brain-machine interfaces will allow us to receive data; and then convert it to memory, bypassing the need to learn the information.
Clearly, the road to altering thoughts winds around unknown turns, but this positive forward-thinker believes the overwhelming benefits of less violence and criminal acts will push this bold science forward.
Could this be the catalyst to forming a peaceful global village? Stay tuned. Comments welcome.
Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.
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