Friday, May 3, 2019

The transcranial helmet

“The day-by-day experience of a managed existence leads us all to take a world of fictitious substances for granted. . . . The verbal amoebas by which we designate the management-bred phantoms thus connote self-important enlightenment, social concern and rationality without however denoting anything which we could ourselves taste, smell or experience. In this semantic desert full of muddled echoes we need a Linus blanket, some prestigious fetish that we can drag around to feel like decent defenders of sacred values.” — Ivan Illich

The id is the primitive component of personality that responds directly and immediately to the instincts. The id operates on the pleasure principle which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences. The superego's function is to control the id's impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression. It also has the function of persuading the ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones and to strive for perfection. The ego or ‘the self’ is a result  of the tussle between the id and the superego. Modernity appears to have suppressed the superego, for authority and society say that now it is good to do what has always been bad. Gandhi wrote in Harijan, 31-1-'35:
Man must choose either of the two courses, the upward or the downward; but as he has the brute in him, he will more easily choose the downward course than the upward, especially when the downward course is presented to him in a beautiful garb. Man easily capitulates when sin is presented in the garb of virtue.
Philosophers and scientists debate about whether humans have free will. There are scientific studies that indicate that free will is an illusion. If this is true, then it should be possible to manipulate desires and feelings by genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation. Experiments indicate that even complex human feelings like love, fear, anger and depression can be manipulated by stimulating the right spots in the brain. Not surprisingly, the military has started using this idea to make soldiers kill more people. In On Killing, Grossman writes that military history can be written as a history of methods to overcome a human being's inbuilt resistance to killing another human.

There are helmet-like devices fitted with electrodes that attach to the outside of the scalp. It produces weak electro-magnetic fields and directs them towards specific brain areas which stimulates the desired brain activities. The American military is trying out such devices for improving the performance of soldiers on the battlefield. The results are not conclusive but they could be used for enhancing the abilities of snipers, drone operators etc.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari writes about a journalist for New Scientist, Sally Adee, who was allowed to visit a training facility for snipers and test the effects of the helmet herself. In a battlefield simulator without the helmet, she felt fear as 20 masked virtual men, armed with rifles and strapped with suicide bombs, charged straight towards her. For each assailant she shot, three new ones appeared and her panic and incompetence were continually jamming her rifle.

Then she wore the helmet and she picked off the terrorists one by one coolly and methodically. At the end of her 20 min. session, she felt a bit disappointed - she was enjoying killing the terrorists and wanted to kill more. Her 20 minute session seemed to be over in an instant. She says:
. . . the thing that made the earth drop from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut up. . . My brain without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head. . . I hope you can sympathise with me when I tell you that the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.
The helmet helps the mind to drown out the argument between the Id and the Superego thus enabling the Ego (Self) to make decision about matters (eg. killing a human being) which do not come easily to a person. In some battlefield situations, such a helmet may be useful. The political and economic system would expect and reward such abilities. But its overuse may reduce the person’s ability to show empathy and tolerate doubts and inner conflicts. In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari writes:
When we mix a practical ability to engineer minds with our ignorance of the mental spectrum and with the narrow interests of governments, armies and corporations, we get a recipe for trouble. We may successfully upgrade our bodies and our brains while losing our minds in the process. Indeed, techno-humanism may end up downgrading humans. The system may prefer downgraded humans not because they possess any superhuman knacks, but because they would lack some really disturbing human qualities that hinder the system and slow it down.
 As any farmer knows, it's usually the brightest goat in the flock that stirs up the most trouble which is why the  Agricultural Revolution involved downgrading animals' mental abilities. The second cognitive revolution, dreamed up by techno-humanists, might do the same to us, producing human cogs who process data far more effectively than ever before, but who can hardly pay attention, dream or doubt. For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become over-sized ants.


  1. Scary thoughts, but definitely within realms of possibility not too far away in future.

    Nicely written!

  2. I read about this. Where are we going? Who will we be? Or, perhaps, what will we be? Transcranial stimulators or chemicals (like the protagonist in Limitless), to fine tune can offer us what? A manipulation of accomplishment by coercing desire and feeling with genetic engineering or chemicals. Either will change what homo sapiens are. Interesting piece.