In a lecture that touched on brainwashing and false confessions, on the government-led administration of hallucinogens to soldiers and lie detection, what most stood out was nature’s favorite love serum. It turns out that oxytocin — the same hormone secreted after sex and during nursing — might have a role in military intelligence.
As part of Jonathan Moreno’s Monday night neuroethics class for bioethics Masters students at Penn, CNS director Martha Farah spoke on the overlap between brain research and national security, a topic Moreno has written on extensively. Biological warfare is fascinating as a whole, but Farah’s punch line on the potential use of oxytocin in interrogation was especially interesting because it gives a new twist on our picture of the famous “love hormone.”
Oxytocin’s got a warm and fuzzy reputation, hence the warm and fuzzy nickname. It can act as a neurotransmitter and has diffuse effects on the body and brain, though its best-known effects involve bonding. It helps facilitate breastfeeding and uterine contraction during labor, and as a neuromodulator it has been linked to maternal behaviors, monogamy among prairie voles, romantic attachment in humans and social trust. As Farah explained, it’s that last point that caught the attention of security-minded folks and provoked the question: Could oxytocin play a role in interrogation? If you administer the love hormone, will it induce a state of trust and fondness that makes someone in the hot seat spill?
Farah reviewed research from the past decade pointing to this possibility. In one experiment, observers blinded to the study’s focus rated fathers who had been administered oxytocin as more attentive and communicative in playing with their children than fathers in the control group. Another study found that oxytocin made participants more generous and forgiving in economic games involving trade-offs in gains, while a third suggested that oxytocin encourages information-sharing. As of now, the most effective way to administer oxytocin is intransally, meaning you can’t quite give it to people without their noticing. Regardless, some view oxytocin as a promising pathway to gentler interrogation, replacing physical or psychological pressure with the equivalent of a mental love tap.
Of course, this idea comes with cautionary footnotes. Farah explained that oxytocin may have a “dark side,” in that if individuals are dealing with someone they classify as outside their social group, increased oxytocin levels may actually make them more hostile. Aside from raising questions about oxytocin’s broader evolutionary role, this effect could spell trouble in security contexts. Greater hostility between parties is never desirable, but more specifically, individuals being interrogated often passionately separate themselves from the groups doing the questioning. The very fact of being interrogated might drive that individual to feeling like a group outsider. In such cases, oxytocin’s dark side would fan already considerable flames.
And a number of ethical objections can be proposed, including the possible abuse of these methods and “slippery slope” consequences of using more brain state manipulation. There’s also the what-does-this-all-say-about-humanity concern that it’s wrong to play on the virtue of kindness to benefit the dirty work of interrogation. Any suggestion of “mind control” can be unsettling, even (or perhaps especially) when it involves something as innocent-sounding as the love hormone.
If the potential hijacking of love by war is a bit too much for you, check out some recent research into the role of oxytocin in sports. As for ways in which this hormone’s versatility may point to connections between sports, sex and war, that’s a topic for another day. Or maybe even another whole month.
In honor of Halloween and Hurricane Sandy (relevance to be explained), today I’m going to indulge in one of my favorite topics: robots.
When I think of robots, I like to picture the cartoon and movie ones, appropriate for a day like October 31 in their weird hybrid of human and inhuman characteristics. Such hybrids force us to think about the social and ethical influences of technology, human hubris and some of the simultaneously most exciting and terrifying aspects of our future (so, you know, some casual Wednesday afternoon-type thinking). And they can be extremely useful tools in psychology and neuroscience, in that we can use robotic technology to refine and apply our understanding of the inner-workings of our own minds (check out Brian Scassellati’s robotics work at Yale with implications for human social interaction).
But robots seem to be catching a bad rep these days, since they are often brought up in the context of drones: unmanned aerial vehicles used by the U.S. military in overseas combat and intelligence gathering. Their use is supported by both President Obama and Mitt Romney, and controversy swirls around the civilian casualties they can cause as well as possible security holes in the technology. These kinds of problems probably say far more about the people deploying these vehicles than the vehicles themselves. Nonetheless, it’s worth considering the ongoing but less publicized effort to create humanitarian roles for robotic technology. Small robots are actually being used to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, and NASA is working on a set of drones for tracking hurricanes (see the original post on this at robots.net). Texas A&M University has even got an entire research program looking to expand robot-assisted search and rescue operations, cleverly entitled “Robotics Without Borders.” Perhaps most startling, though, is that you can purchase one of the drones being used in Vernon, CT to record post-Sandy destruction to the area. Paris-based manufacturer Parrot markets their drone as a “flying video game,” and it’s basically a glorified flying camera with a WiFi system allowing you to control it from your smartphone or tablet. Then again: it’s a flying camera that you can control with your smartphone or tablet. If you think about it, that’s not exactly a trivial gadget.
These devices are a long way from the walking, talking humanoids sci-fi dreams are made of. But the technology is still pretty spectacular, and their presence just seems to be growing – meaning we’re long overdue for open conversations on the ways robot technology can be safely and ethically incorporated into our lives. For tonight, it might be enough to pop in Blade Runner. But it is something to keep in (your flesh-and-blood, non silicon-based) mind.
*An update: For a more extensive look at the dangers posed by robot soldiers, check out this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Moreno, CNS faculty member, David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics at Penn and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.