Monkey mind control? Ultrasound pulses influence decision making

| | June 15, 2020
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Credit: Yuri Arcurs/Tetra Images/Corbis
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A team of scientists was pulsing imperceptible ultrasound waves through his skull into frontal parts of his brain, and tacitly controlling which object he looked at. The monkey no longer had a choice.

If that’s possible with rhesus macaque monkeys, could we be next?

Mind control is a tale for science fiction and conspiracy theorists. To be clear: nope, you won’t have evil scientists controlling your decisions by blasting silent sound waves at you. In this study, the team focused on a part of the brain called the frontal eye field (FEF). Rather than controlling a life-changing decision, think of it more as steering the monkey’s biological “cameras” towards one target rather than another, like an extra pair of hands at the wheel.

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But the story does get a tad creepier: it stands out because the ultrasound pulses were able to override the monkey’s internal decision-making process. Rather than looking at the thing that’ll give him a gulp of juice—the reward—he’s now looking away from that reward.

Sinister underpinnings aside, that’s great news for those struggling with compulsive disorders such as pathological gambling or drug addiction, which fundamentally come down to bad choices in pursuit of reward. If you can’t stop yourself, why not get some external help? With ultrasound pulses, we could one day “influence choice behavior noninvasively without using drugs… [and] provide new ways to diagnose and treat disorders of choice,” the authors wrote.

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