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In my world, I have a form of magic that can be used by a practitioner to connect with a subject's mind at touch range, and effectively give an experienced, powerful practitioner total control over that person's mind and body.

Such a practitioner could easily kill an individual, or - given a minute or so - drive a person insane in any way imaginable. They can read the subject's mind and alter, delete or implant memories.

Now, suppose that a practitioner of this art was unsuspected, and they wanted to do something nasty to an oppressor, and they could achieve the physical contact needed for long enough to do whatever they wanted. However, doing something obvious such as killing the oppressor or driving them insane immediately would lead to their being suspected and punished, so something more subtle is in order.

How could such a practitioner subtly influence an oppressor's mind in such a way that it was not immediately obvious that something had been done, that would ultimately lead to such an oppressor becoming insane to a point that led to their effective social incapacitation, suicide or becoming such a threat to society that their execution would be desirable.

There would need to be several days at an absolute minimum between the practitioner doing their thing and the subject's psychotic break. The psychotic break should not take more than about a year either.

As far as possible, use real-world human psychology, though the mind-set of the subjects is more 17th-century and more superstitious.

Edit: Assume a single event. The practitioner must gain any information needed from the subject from the same contact event that must be used to cause the delayed insanity.

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    $\begingroup$ You know, the people on this site are just diabolical! $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 23 '14 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ Wait until we get going! $\endgroup$ – Sobrique Nov 24 '14 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ Self-poisoning through radiation or some chemical whose fatality is not immediately evident both seem like more practical avenues. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Nov 24 '14 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ Possibly relevant: today's Dictionary.com word of the day is gaslight. $\endgroup$ – wchargin Nov 24 '14 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Ludwik they don't have the magic tag. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Oct 8 '15 at 12:48

17 Answers 17

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Any time you want a subtle influence to have sweeping effects, it should be assumed that the influence is highly personalized. It might be that the practitioner can form such a personal connection during the touch, but more likely the practitioner would spend some time observing and, ideally, interacting with the target.

Since the practitioner cannot be there when the insanity breaks out, the target must build their own insanity. The effect of the practitioner would probably be along the lines of an itch that the target scratches harder and harder. The actual source of their insanity would be their own doing.

HDE 226868 claims "people on this site are just diabolical." If we seem diabolical, consider Randall Munroe, who on December 12, 2007 actually did drive people insane at a distance, including myself. His work is still at large and destroying minds to this day!

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    $\begingroup$ On that day, I lost 3 minutes of my life to that resistor puzzle. I went on the forum, to find dozens of posts that all followed a common pattern: "5 minutes" "2 minutes" "3 hours." It was comforting to know I was not the only one nerd-sniped $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 23 '14 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ Can you give an example? What sort of insanities could be caused this way? $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 23 '14 at 23:31
  • $\begingroup$ Because the practitioner isn't the one building the insanity, the limit is literally your target's imagination. As an example, it should be possible to generate a feeling along the lines of what a soldier would feel as he suddenly realizes that he's been fighting on the wrong side of the war. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 23 '14 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Can your mages read minds also? ....it shouldn't really be that difficult to craft something personally devastating. Cort -- great answer, +1. $\endgroup$ – Shokhet Nov 24 '14 at 0:46
  • $\begingroup$ +1 This is a brilliant insight. No single experience affects everyone. $\endgroup$ – Green Oct 6 '15 at 18:33
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Given a 'one shot' approach to it - you need something that'll escalate. Ideally triggering 'insane' actions and self reinforcing.

So lets go with the 'religion' angle - a set of beliefs that are circular and impossible to contradict. Lets go with something Cthuluesque - There is a great evil and it's currently sleeping.

  • You have been given a message with ultimate authority (God, ultimate good, whatever fits this world). Evil is rising in the world. The only way to prevent evil from rising is through the destruction of innocence.

  • Destruction of innocence is wrong, but it must be done for the greater good.

  • "Authority" has been thoroughly subverted. They are agents of the evil who want it to rise.

  • Plant a positive feedback mechanism. A sense of pleasure when they 'save the world' that's in proportion to how 'effective' they've been. But tie it into their own perceptions of it and how big an inhibition they had originally.

  • Make them forget the cycle of seasons. Encourage them to believe that the turning of seasons is the sign of the end times. Autumn and Winter are caused because the big Evil hasn't been placated. (This gives you your timeline of about a year, and for bonus points - if they don't self destruct before spring, they'll go quite for a bit and you start over again next year)

In doing so, you create a balanced set of beliefs - that doing something repugnant is necessary. Their own morality will stop them from doing it initially. However, because you're rewarding their behaviour, you'll create an addiction cycle - the more atrocious their crime, the better the reward. However, overcoming inhibitions is a sliding scale - the first time you do something naughty feels much worse than the 50th time.

So - you may find they hold off for a time, because of that initial state of morality. Sooner or later though, they'll do something accidentally (y'know, maybe tell a child that Santa isn't real) and find that they like it. But second time they do it, it's not as bad, so it's not as much of a thrill.

You might also add in some randomish paranoid beliefs, so as to create further escalation/paranoia, such as:

  • beards are a sign that someone is possessed. They cannot be trusted - they're trying to stop you.

  • Blue eyes are a sign that someone's a messenger of the forces of good. You should heed their words, they're trying to guide you.

Again, both these normally might just be a little odd, but they should serve to further reinforce the fantasy.

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    $\begingroup$ Some very good ideas here - this would certainly lead to the target doing some things that would get them ostracised or executed. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 25 '14 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ Not trusting facial hair in political leaders is probably a good idea, actually. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Oct 8 '15 at 12:53
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Add a very strong phobia against something which is not in the vicinity of the target at the moment. It can be an animal, an object, or something which will be sent to the target in a few days after you left. Even more diabolical, add that phobia against a family member or very close associate who is not present and will only arrive a few days/weeks later, this is bound to make the target look at least paranoid and hinder him even if it doesn't make him outright insane.

The phobia can also be against an astronomical event (an eclipse, for example) which is bound to happen in the near future.

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Why not take an Inception like route? Simply implant the deep suspicion, that grows into conviction, that the target is in a dream and needs to die, harm others, sing naked from the rooftops, or whatever in order to wake up.

To have such a suspicion grow, for it needs to begin very subtly and increment in the smallest of ways, associate common events with the idea "this is a dream". This can be interaction with known companions, frequent cultural sayings, even images associated with an upcoming season (like snow in winter). But especially with any attempt to convince the target they are not dreaming, this will tend to greatly accelerate the effect once the target begins to voice their suspicion.

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You could consider the notion of hypnotically-planted triggers, as in The Manchurian Candidate or (with a timescale too short to be useful) stage hypnotism.

I have no idea how realistic these are, but you posit total control over the mind. So I would think that could plausibly include the ability to plant some kind of subconscious suggestion or repressed memory, that would re-emerge at a future trigger and cause whatever form of mental change you need. The trigger, then, needn't be something delivered directly by the perpetrator, it could be whatever likely future event you want.

Or for another way of doing things: you say "insane in any way imaginable". I can imagine a form of insanity that consists of "act completely normally for 6 months and then enter a murderous rage". So inflict that.

Whether these implanted doohickys could be detected by another powerful practitioner of the same magic is up to you, I expect.

More concretely, I believe that PTSD can initially show little or no symptoms (at any rate, none beyond those of the traumatic experience(s)), but get worse over time. So: hallucinatory or false-memory trauma, implant PTSD. The victim could be afflicted with intermittent flashbacks, anxiety attacks, and other PTSD symptoms, that likely won't manifest immediately simply because they're intermittent. They'll get worse over time. If your magic allows placing an additional short-term inability to remember the hallucinatory trauma at all, then symptoms could plausibly be guaranteed not to occur until that starts to wear off.

Not that real-life PTSD is inevitably fatal or incapacitating, of course, but a bad case of it in a society that doesn't understand it is hardly safe.

For a somewhat cheesy example: if you can place a powerful and specific delusion, then something like "you have a lovely balcony in your bedroom on which you like to sit and watch the sunrise" could cause someone to fling themselves out of their window to their death the next time they're awake early enough. They probably wouldn't show any signs that anything was wrong, then again, there's a "risk" they'll mention the balcony by chance to someone who knows it doesn't exist and acts to protect them from the delusion, so that plan isn't guaranteed to succeed. Other delusions are available: "you're an excellent duelist", "you have developed a resistance to cyanide", "anyone dressed as Santa is a demon and should be killed on sight" (implanted in June). Go wild.

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  • $\begingroup$ hypnosis, +1. Use the 'doctor' as a go-through. and only be guilty of conspiracy. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Nov 24 '14 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ I wanted a fairly specific mechanism, so I'm not sure the 6-month-delayed-murderous-rage thing would work quite that simply, but the hypnosis and trigger ideas are great, so +1. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 25 '14 at 21:26
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Political suicide

An appropriate way to deal with such an enemy would be to have them do publicly something that's completely unacceptable to the society and be appropriately punished for that.

Denounce the dominant religion? Claim that the ruler is an imposter and reveal "the true king"? Confess to rituals or sexual acts or any other local taboo topics that have a death penalty at the society? The best option depends on the surrounding environment, but a superstitious 17th century society would offer plenty of interesting options.

Simply supress their memories that this is forbidden, and implant a plan to make a public speech on a major event (or write and distribute a pamphlet) praising the taboo practice and confessing their "habits".

Let them be a part of a conspiracy

If you can plant memories, you can make the target convinced that certain powerful figures are allies in a larger plot that has a reasonable chance to succeed; and that a plan has already been agreed upon, with a condition that the conspirators pretend that they don't know each other.

The end result, naturally, would be the target doing "his part" in the plot, disclosing himself to the public in the process, and failing to receive any support from the high-ranking "allies" - instead, being arrested and executed by them.

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It can be done incrementally.

If you can alter people's memories at your whim, then you essentially have control over their sanity.

You say that the practitioner can alter, add, or delete memories, so I will give an example for each. You'll see a pattern.

Alter memories of decreasing triviality. Start with memories that aren't likely to be accessed regularly, such as the name of a childhood acquaintance. It'd be best if there were multiple memories involving the changed object, as this will cause an internal discord. Slowly, the target will start to feel as if they're getting forgetful, or that their mind is overworked. As this mental fatigue grows, the memories that are altered can become increasingly more important to the target. The goal is to drive the person to insanity by making them doubt their own mind and eventually their perception of reality.

Remove memories, first randomly, then focus on specifics. The first memories removed can be randomly selected, but they also shouldn't have a major impact on the target's life. They'll forget things like who they ate with yesterday, people's names, maybe appointments. As time goes on more memories can be removed during each interaction. The target will start to believe they're having general memory issues, with no reason to associate the issues with the practitioner. Once they sufficiently doubt their memory, you can remove specific areas of memory (such as their professional skills, or a family member).

Add memories that increasingly conflict with reality. This will run similar to the altering their memories tact. The difference is that they'll have multiple memories of the same event, or remember different events that would be occurring at the same time.

Alternatively, you can build up a severe paranoia/phobia, by slowly adding memories of being traumatized by something. A childhood fear of the dark could be expanded upon. After every visit they have a new memory of something frightening or terrible happening during in the dark. As their mind processes these memories, their phobia grows until they start avoiding the dark. This phobia, using the mind's own power against itself, could naturally lead to hallucinations and severe anxiety. (Hearing sounds in dark and being terrified. Thinking you see shadows in the corners of your eyes.)

Update: Since the practitioner will only have a single opportunity to affect the target, I would suggest a few alternatives to those above.

Completely alter all memories of specific people to be about other people. This is Goodkind-inspired, a sort of reverse Chainfire "spell". Everyone else will remember events how they actually happened, but the target will remember them as if they happened with somebody else.

A good friend could be completely replaced by a number of other individuals. As more events are discussed with others, the more the discontinuity will show. Once the target runs into a person they've "forgotten", the cracks in the psyche will expand. The key is to not just remove the memories of the people. The target should be able to argue "No, Bob wasn't there, it was Tom."

One completely imaginary person should be woven throughout all of these altered memories. Like a fake childhood friend that has always been in the target's life. Once the target starts insisting, "Just ask Charlie, he was there, he can explain all of this," then people will really start to think he's crazy. Eventually, they'll convince him of it.

Add/remove/change a large number of memories to create acute phobias. Change even childhood memories. If there was an incident where they were afraid, but a parent or friend soothed their fear, remove the memory of that soothing and replace it with continued fear. Phobias are irrational fears, so the planted memories will need to make that fear seem rational. They could remember the thing frightening them, or remember other people talking about how the thing "got" someone else. Injuries they've have can be remember as being caused by the thing.

I'd use a "timeline" like this:

Child-like fears reinforced during young childhood memories. Older child memories have the child-like fears go away, but that lingering doubt is reinforced. As the person "ages", the memories increasingly convince him that the fear is rational. In adulthood, the most recent traumatic memories are altered to be caused by the fear. In recent memory, events that couldn't have really happened are added (somewhat like hallucinations) to make it feel as if the fear is growing in power.

The severe phobia(s) will present themselves readily. Anytime something negative happens, their mind will process it subconsciously with these new memories. Their fundamental worldview has changed, and they won't have any way to tell that those fears are unfounded. Severe phobias can cripple people, or leave them confined to their home.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, the incremental approach won't work. Something has to be set up during a single contact event that will cause insanity at a later time. Can this be set up to occur after contact has ceased? If so, how? $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 24 '14 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ I would go with creating a fear/phobia. Add a gamut of memories that lead up to creating one or more specific phobias. The mind won't suddenly remember all those false memories. But as they encounter objects/events similar to the planted memories, they'll slowly recall them until it blooms into full-blown phobias. It would take time for the target to experience enough stimuli to properly trigger the fears. They'd be like repressed memories. Anxiety can be crippling. $\endgroup$ – Web Head Nov 24 '14 at 4:49
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild I updated the answer with some suggestions for a single point of contact. $\endgroup$ – Web Head Nov 24 '14 at 5:17
  • $\begingroup$ Shame that the incremental approach isn't helpful here, but look up Gaslight for an example that doesn't even involve magic. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 24 '14 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ I like the phobias and the altered/fake people ideas. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 25 '14 at 21:23
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If the practitioner can choose a time when the victim will be on a trip (and hence away from his family for an extended period), he could induce the Capgras delusion in regard to the victim's family members. Upon returning home, he would believe that they had all been replaced by impostors. Perhaps he also 'knows', upon 'realizing' they are impostors, that the 'government' (or some other entity with power) is responsible for replacing them. When the victim then tries to fight the powerful entity to get his family back, it results in his undoing. This also has the side effect of causing him to distrust those who would be his strongest support system in dealing with the loss of his sanity.

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I can be a simple as letting the target believe he is being stalked by giving him the illusion that "someone is watching him" add a pinch of sometimes seeing things out of the corner of his eye and let it stew on a low flame.

This can turn into extreme paranoia until he locks himself in a tinfoil-lined closet.

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Inhibit the body's production of calcineurin.

This should, over time, produce schizophrenia-like symptoms perhaps including reduction in working memory, social withdrawal, impaired attentional function, and/or hyperactivity.

(This has only been tested in mice and not in people for obvious reasons).

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  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, the technique used by the practitioners would not give them access to this as a 'handle', though a calcineurin deficiency could be an effect of an adjustment to a schizophrenic state. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 25 '14 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ Oh. They don't have "total control over that person's mind and body" after all? $\endgroup$ – A E Nov 25 '14 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ They can have as much control over another's body as they do over their own while in contact, but they have a 17th century understanding of biochemistry... $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 25 '14 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, fair enough. $\endgroup$ – A E Nov 26 '14 at 6:05
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Give them one of the weird syndromes, like inability to recognize oneself in a mirror, the belief that one is dead and rotting, the belief that everyone has been replaced with imposters, wait, no, it's actually the same person in disguise.

Choosing the right one with the right trigger might cause them not to show symptoms for days or the symptoms aren't detected immediately. It also goes towards the victims personality: some people would immediately start questioning the impostors, others might wait to see why they're dressing up like their mother and father.

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One approach I came up with was to establish a Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, also known as Multiple Personality Disorder), with a secondary personality that is aware of the thoughts and actions of the primary personality, but the primary personality is not aware of the secondary personality's thoughts and actions unless the secondary personality wants them to be known.

The secondary personality would be established to hate the primary personality and many (but not all) of the people close to the primary personality, and to like the practitioner, some of the people close to the primary personality, and some of the primary personality's enemies. The secondary personality would also be established to be patient, to want to keep its existence a secret, to have little sense of self-preservation of the now-shared body and to disregard physical pain, and with a secondary goal to aid and/or protect the people it likes, as well as punishing the people it dislikes for as long as possible.

Since the secondary personality would want to protect the practitioner, amongst others, but would want to punish the primary personality more, it could easily be persuaded to stay inactive for a period and then slowly ramp up its activities over the course of days or weeks.

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  • $\begingroup$ This vaguely reminds me of the series Farscape, where the protagonist is implanted with a 'neural clone' of the show's primary villain. What you're basically doing is taking a part of the practitioner's psyche and motivations, then implanting it as a new personality inhabiting the victim's mind. It's a pretty elaborate technique, though, as it essentially amounts to long-range remote control by proxy personality. It does raise some interesting possibilities for the ongoing development of the newly hatched personality and divergence in its ultimate intentions, since it is independent. $\endgroup$ – Dan Bryant Nov 25 '14 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ @DanBryant, yes, though the Farscape neural clone had a different purpose, insanity (real or apparent) was a side-effect. This one would be deliberately trying to make the victim's - and a lot of his friends and family's - lives difficult. Sure, it might diverge from the original intention, but it would disadvantage the whole person greatly before it did so, possibly even after its divergence. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 25 '14 at 23:25
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Give the target a compulsion to write a diary and keep it in a conspicuous place. Then have them erase their own memory of, and firmly disbelieve any of the events that they have written in the diary has happened the way they wrote it.

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  • $\begingroup$ That seems like you would need to have at least 2 interactions with the individual, maybe more. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Oct 6 '15 at 15:36
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Give them memories of a deep, lasting love affair with someone who doesn't exist. In the memories, that person is conveniently absent for the next few days.

Later, when the loved one don't return, the victim seeks to find them. No one, friends, police, etc. know what they're talking about.

Do this right, and anyone would crack.

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Simply implant the idea in the oppressor that he is God especially if your world has a monotheistic belief system. It won't matter if this drives the oppressor insane, everybody else will think said oppressor has gone absolutely crazy. When everyone else thinks you're insane, soon the oppressor will fit the role to a T.

My other suggestion was to totally remove all risk aversion. Sooner or later the oppressor will something sufficiently dangerous to kill himself. The oppressor would become so dangerous to everyone around him they'd think he'd gone nuts.

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I'd go with something like an involuntary tick whenever a particular stimuli is encountered. Like, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there was the whole bit where, whenever Coulson heard the word "Tahiti," he'd respond, "It's a magical place." Eventually, he realized he wasn't saying "It's a magical place" voluntarily. You could have it so whenever the person being driven insane is presented a particular stimuli, he has to say or do something. The word, "up" could cause him to hop in place three times, for example. A knock on a door would cause him to bark like a dog the same number of times. Three knocks, three barks. And these ticks could be set up so they didn't start to manifest right away. After three days, the first one manifests. After three more days, the second tick manifests. Every three days, a new tick emerges, but none of them go away. Eventually, the poor man is turning in a circle whenever he sees a clock, doing a jig when he hears a pigeon cooing, and reciting the entire national anthem every time somebody tips their hat to him. At 30 days, he'd have 10 ticks, at 60 he'd have 20, and so on, until, after a year, he'd have over a hundred of them (provided a year is the same length of time as it is in the real world.) He wouldn't be able to accomplish anything, and his sanity would be falling apart as he couldn't control himself.

Or he could just have increasingly worse nightmares that start to bleed into his waking hours with each passing day until he can't distinguish fantasy from reality.

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Wait for a cloudy day and make them believe the sun will kill them if they are exposed to it for more than 45 seconds.

Make the person believe that water is poison. Blood is the only thing they can drink to sate their thirst.

Make them believe that yes means no, no means yes, hello means "run away or I'll kill you".

Give them a crippling addiction to the strongest readily available hallucinogen ic drug of the time. Make them believe their tolerance is much higher than it actually is.

If you wanted them to put on a show as they died you could do the water thing but make them believe only alcohol was safe to drink.

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protected by Monty Wild Jul 28 '18 at 15:16

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