Mind manipulation by governments would be safely in the domain of conspiracy theorists and fictional thrillers if world powers didn’t have such a checkered past with neuroscience. In one bizarre set of experiments conducted between 1981 and 1990, Soviet scientists built equipment designed to disturb the functioning of neurons in the body and brain by exposing people to various levels of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. (The results of this research are still unknown.) Over many decades, the Soviet Union spent more than $1 billion on such mind-control schemes.
Perhaps the most notorious examples of U.S. abuses of neuroscience occurred from the 1950s into the 1960s, when Washington pursued a wide-ranging research program to find ways of monitoring and influencing human thoughts. CIA investigations, code-named MK- Ultra, promoted “research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior,” according to a 1963 CIA inspector general’s report. Some 80 institutions, including 44 colleges and universities, were involved, but they were often funded under the veil of other scientific goals, leaving participants unaware they were carrying out Langley’s bidding. The program’s most infamous aspects involved dosing individuals—some unwittingly—with LSD. One Kentucky man was administered the drug for 174 consecutive days. Equally harrowing, however, were the MKUltra projects that focused on mechanisms of extrasensory perception and electronic manipulation of subjects’ brains, as well as attempts to gather, interpret, and influence the thoughts of others through hypnosis or psychotherapy.
Today, there is no evidence that the United States is similarly abusing neurotechnology for national security purposes. The armed forces, though, remain deeply committed to advancing the field. In 2011, according to figures tabulated by Margaret Kosal, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Army set aside $55 million, the Navy $34 million, and the Air Force $24 million to pursue neuroscience research. (The U.S. military, it should be noted, is the primary funder of various scientific fields, including engineering and computer science.) In 2014, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA, a research organization that develops cutting-edge technology for U.S. intelligence agencies, pledged $12 million to design performance-enhancing techniques, including electrical stimulation of the brain for “optimizing human adaptive reasoning”—that is, for making the analysts smarter.