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The Mind-Wolf is one of the more dangerous foes in my world. It can read minds, it can plant thoughts in the unwary, slowly warping senses until pushing the victim into the equivalent of a full blown psychotic episode, completely broken from reality. Given enough time, it can permanently alter/damage neural pathways, all of it via its long tendrils and frankly impressive capability to control fine electromagnetic fields for neural induction at what today's scientists would consider unachievable voxel densities.

None of this is magic, unless by the Clarke definition of it as sufficiently advanced technology. However, the question remains. Would an entity capable of such subtle, tailored thought-manipulation have to be conscious itself (at a near- or over- human level), or can it be a mere machine/lowly beast?

Edit: Let's define conscious as sentient in a Turing-capable way.

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    $\begingroup$ if it knows what are ''thoughts'' then it is conscious , if it has reasons to do things then it's conscious , if it can plan and learn then it's conscious , if it can react to environment and have more than one option for response then it's conscious. $\endgroup$ – άλεξ μιζέρια Jul 7 '16 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ I'm confused by the "mere machine" part. Today's computers think many times faster than humans, albeit in a more structured manner. We can already design machines that stimulate nerves, and this technology will continue to improve. Look at something like implants to cure blindness. $\endgroup$ – Kys Jul 7 '16 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ In one of the Wild Cards books George Martin describes a monster that implants thoughts on his victims, but which is not conscious nor even self-aware. He does it based purely on instinct. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 7 '16 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ "or can it be a mere machine" I'd say computers give "subtle, tailored thought-manipulation" all the time, they're called ads. Get a pop up saying "Lusty singles near you" and it is very capable of planting thoughts. $\endgroup$ – DasBeasto Jul 7 '16 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DasBeasto, wouldn't know anything about that, my machine employs wards, called adblockers, that protect me from the other people's machine's mind probes. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jul 7 '16 at 19:58
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The Mind-Wolf would not need to "be conscious" to produce full blown psychosis. Consider that fairly simple drugs, produced from naturally occurring compounds, can produce all kinds of havoc in the mind, all the way to full-blown psychotic episodes (See Wikipedia). I lived in Malaria prone areas for most of the last 16 years, and know from first-hand experience how these common compounds can produce really horrid dreams. That can escalate to paranoia and psychosis. All your Mind-Wolf would have to do is to cause the same type of chemical changes in the brain that these drugs do, maybe amped up a bit. Also consider the way animals respond to people's emotions and moods. A dog does not have to have a "conscious" mind in order to respond to its owner being angry at something that has nothing to do with it. And also consider the mythic hypnotic capabilities of snakes, lulling their prey to mindlessness so they can kill them more easily. Then extrapolate that.

Imagine a primitive, non-conscious mind that is able to respond to its victims moods, sensing their fear, disgust or other negative emotions that cause an agitated state or a disjointed state of mind. Imagine that your Mind-Wolf is also able to instinctively capture the thoughts or sensory perceptions that cause those negative states and is able to amplify them and feed them back, eventually rendering its victim helpless.

The key would be that your Mind-Wolf would need to be able to sense what its prey is perceiving (sight, sound, touch, smell...) or thinking, even without understanding it, while also being able to sense what the effect on the prey's mind. Are the prey's reactions slowed down, thoughts disjointed? Chaos happens in our minds all the time. The Mind-Wolf would be able to sense that and enhance it, causing its prey to become helpless. It would not need to understand the thoughts and perceptions, just an instinctive feel that they are chaotic or disjointed.

Mind you, most animals do a primitive very superficial form of this. When a blowfish inflates its body, it is engaging in a very mild form of thought control (all communication and interaction, at some level, is thought control), causing a perceived predator to become afraid and flee. Still, nothing about this reaction from the blowfish indicates that it is a conscious rather than instinctive reaction.

We could get into discussions as to whether a dog (or a blowfish) has consciousness, but I think it is enough, for your question, to say that your Mind-Wolf does not need to have a more conscious mind than your run of the mill dog or wolf.

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It depends on the type of thoughts it wants to plant.

Our conscious, rational brain relies on associations to attach meaning to things. Such abstractions are learned and therefore differ from person to person. When a physicist, a biologist, and a poet look at a flower, it's unlikely that they'll represent it the same way in their minds.

However, some thoughts build on instincts. Primal fears, hunger, sex drive, being tired or agitated, those function in a fairly uniform manner. Similarly, pain, sensor and motor functions, and so forth are simple enough that we know countless drugs to alter them.

So, I'd expect that there is a huge jump in difficulty between manipulating instincts, vague feelings, and body functions versus causing structured and rationally meaningful thoughts. For example, if you want to make someone think of a tree, you have to find the nodes and connections representing a tree in this specific person's head. And those might not at all be similar to trees in your head. It's going to get very complicated.

Then, it's important whether there is a conscious process between the manipulation and any intended effect. While "primitive" attacks like raising anxiety or making the target tired are straightforward, it is unreliable to trigger emotions to make someone do something specific. For example, the Mind-Wolf wants to keep someone out of a cave, so it plants fear. But the person happens to be afraid of open spaces and feel safe in caves! Suddenly, the person is eager to get inside, maybe even ready to fight the wolf to get inside! Without deep understanding of the target's thought process, such reactions can be quite unpredictable.

Consciousness is a somewhat debated concept. If I take it as a synonym for self-awareness – which not everyone would agree to be the same thing – it's usually placed somewhere around the reflective ability required to pass the mirror test. If you want to plant a targeted, meaningful thought in a healthy, educated human, I'd say you'll end up needing more than that: you need to understand who the other person is and what is relevant in that person's world of thoughts. Doesn't seem like an easy task for some animalistic machine.

To sum it up:

  • If the Mind-Wolf just needs to wreak havoc, it doesn't have to be smart. Mess with the person's stress level/Sympathetic nervous system. Amplify whatever thoughts correlate with anxiety and irritation. Or just induce random errors in the target's attention/working memory. It will deal a lot of damage.
  • If the Mind-Wolf wants to trigger an instinct, like making someone afraid, aroused, dizzy, careless, stunned, etc., that should be doable with reasonable effort too, and wouldn't be too different from the effects of certain drugs. I wouldn't want to rely on any results though, as people have different strategies of coping with impulses or feelings.
  • In order to place specific thoughts or ideas, that are meaningful with respect to reality, the Mind-Wolf would have to understand what the neural network of its target means. That requires detailed understanding and is probably extremely difficult.
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    $\begingroup$ +1 It's a whole different matter to plant something like "I'm tired" than to plant "I need to go to the city to spread the Mind-Wolf plague" $\endgroup$ – Kys Jul 7 '16 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Kys, yet mindless fungi make ants climb to the top of grass blades and make them wait there to be eaten by sheep... or yet another parasite makes rats fearless and attracted to the smell of cat urine. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jul 7 '16 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa these examples don't compare well to creating human thought. Ants' brains and decision processes don't differ as much as those of humans, not even remotely. The rat parasite you mention, Toxoplasma gondii, has an effect on humans, but it is a very unspecific, fear-reducing effect that doesn't trigger any specific high-level concepts. Those compare to vague feelings and body functions in my answer, rather than concrete thoughts. (BTW, smell may be a lower-level feature than other sensations. This might be related to the brain's low ability to dream of, or imagine, smell.) $\endgroup$ – Vandroiy Jul 7 '16 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Vandroiy, admittedly, but the parasite is not targeted at humans, but at rats. It generates precisely the response it wants from those. Who is to say that a sufficiently well-designed mindvirus, fungi or parasite could not have a highly specific response from humans ... say by getting them to strap bombs to themselves and blow themselves up. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jul 7 '16 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly: The fungi and toxoplasm are cheating ;-) It just happens that making small differences to the low level smelling of rats, will in the end alter their behaviour in a pretty consistent pattern. If they like the smell of cat-urine, they will follow it and eventually get eaten. - If I put something in your drink that makes you vomit, you will probably run to the toilet. But that doesn't mean I have controlled your mind to make you go to a specific place, it just happens that a blunt impulse triggers a complex but consistent reaction $\endgroup$ – Falco Jul 8 '16 at 12:20
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No. You can have thought-implanting without sentience. There exist real life organisms which do it. There are very simplistic animals (and even some fungi or bacteria) which can plant these thoughts into the minds of animals:


(Some clarification)

(at a near- or over- human level)

I would guess you meant "sentient" rather than "conscious". Any animal can be conscious if they are not sleeping or otherwise knocked unconscious.

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No, entirely not. The human mind is probably vulnerable to replay attacks.

A monster does not need to understand the mind to manipulate it. Let's say the Mind-Wolf wants the human to do a task like "eat lunch". The Mind-Wolf does not need to understand what brain pattern maps to "eat lunch". Given that identical mental states map to identical behaviors, the Mind-Wolf simply needs to memorize what a human eating to lunch feels like. Then the Mind-Wolf simply has to splice the "eat lunch" thought pattern back into the human's head later on.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't this just result in the human spastically dropping to the floor, since the Mind-Wolf overwrote all kinds of context/motor data into a situation that probably isn't at all identical to the situation before? All kinds of parallel processes in the brain would be interrupted with the replay, too. Sounds more like epilepsy than a well-controlled effect to me. $\endgroup$ – Vandroiy Jul 7 '16 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Vandroiy I would like to point out the usage of the word "splice" in the answer. $\endgroup$ – zzz Jul 7 '16 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ I get what you mean, but I'm still very skeptical. Even if such a partial replay were to result in a functional state of mind, which is a huge leap of faith, determining how exactly to splice might be incredibly complex. For learned knowledge or routines, it's not at all clear what should and what shouldn't be included, or whether finding such a partition is significantly easier than understanding the meaning behind the specific processes. I don't know enough about the brain to be sure, but isn't this much more likely to make the target malfunction than do something meaningful? $\endgroup$ – Vandroiy Jul 7 '16 at 18:31
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Maybe it's a "virus concious" and only concious when the host mind is thinking its thoughts for it.

Consider that a biological virus has no metabolism or life processes, but co-ops a cell to act on its behalf. Maybe the wolf is the same way, acting as a computer virus in the mind, getting the host to suppliment its own small amount of processing power. Its own brain is a dumb animal alone and only knows enough to attack and find a host, as does any lizard or parasite. But once attached, it has storage for its own data it brings, but not the processing power to use it. It makes the host think the wolf's thoughts for it, which gives it access to the stored knowledge and the advanced planning capability of the host.

And, in the case of a human host, the resulting mind becomes fully concious.

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Yes, it would have to be conscious. If it wasn't how would it know what thoughts to implant in its prey? And even if the thoughts were simplistic (fear, anger, etc.) it would still need to have a higher level motivation to do this.

The closest thing I can think of is the fungal infections that can attack ants. (Also, note: "The Last Of Us" videogame). But that just modifies the ant to enable the fungus to grow and spread, and quickly kills the ant host.

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I think the question is: did it co-evolve with its target? If you find a random alien, the chances of being able to interact with its brain are none, period.

But if you have had million of years to adapt, then there is nothing you can't do.

Think of unicellular parasites controlling ants (planting the thought 'I want to go on top of a blade of grass' for instance) -despite having no brain.

In this case, I think the real limit is that a non-conscious animal will maybe do something complex, but it will only do the same thing every time. If it evolved to have the victim, say, want to bake a cake and bring it to grandma on the other side of the forest, I think any animal could do it. But a human society would find a way to protect itself -maybe it would ban any form of cakes, so children don't even know what they are; then the wolf would lose all power, and possibly go extinct.

A truly scary enemy is always only a conscious one who can outwit you.

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