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One of the tropes I see very frequently on TV is having a supervillain build a huge mind controlling device that suddenly takes over an entire town, or eventually even the whole world.

So, it got me thinking, what would be the most plausible way to achieve this effect with present day / near future technology? Mind you, I know that it is not possible to do it, or else some superpower would've already done it... I mean what's the most plausible way of doing it, that requires the least amount of suspension of disbelief from the readers?

Whenever this trope comes up, the mechanism generally involves a variation of this:

  1. Subliminal radio waves, through cell phones, network antenas or satellites
  2. Nanomachines that bind to and corrupt the nervous system
  3. Neurologically altering chemicals emitted to the air or to water supplies

Could any of these achieve the effect we want, in a relatively plausible way? (you can add another mechanism if you see fit).

Here are the characteristics of the effect I seek:

  • It should cover a wide area, at least the size of a large city (if it affects the whole world, the better)
  • Its effect should be immediate. By this I don't mean that the supervillain can't have a long preparatory period, ranging from months to years, where he distributes the chemicals or nanomachines. What I mean is that the effects will remain dormant until the supervillain turns on the switch. As soon as he does that, everyone in the area of influence should immediately fall under mind control, so as to avoid people escaping the process.
  • By mind control, I mean that everyone affected will obey every command from the supervillain. This may range from turning people into mindless zombies... to having perfectly normal people with perfectly normal brain function and everyday activity, except for the fact that they seem unable to grasp the concept of "disobeying the leader".

For the purpose of this question let's assume the human's brains function the same as in our world. Let's also set aside the "magic factor"... I want a scientific solution.

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    $\begingroup$ Propaganda in preparation for a war comes pretty close to what you describe. Look at nazi Germany for example. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jun 17 '17 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ Propaganda doesn't work on everyone. It's mechanism is psychological and societal. I wanted a purely biological mechanism with high penetrance, irrespective of education, ideology or opinion. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Jun 17 '17 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ How effective you want this to be? 100% and no less? If the medium is a device they owned, then it might be problematic to force them use it when the mind control is switched on. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Jun 18 '17 at 3:33
  • $\begingroup$ I know that 100% is an unrealistic number... but the closest possible to that number as you can get. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Jun 18 '17 at 7:18
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First, Problems: I don't believe you can get literally everyone in the world, there is simply no reliable way to reach every person in the world, and the biological variance is so great you couldn't even do it with an airborne virus. You might be able to kill everyone in the world with some biologic particularly hardy and virulent, but to have a virtually undetectable neurological effect on them is a much taller order than just disrupting their life functions.

Another problem is that obeying an order from a specific leader is implausible. Not everyone in the world will understand such an order, and without a specific auditory signal (like a password, tonal combination, whatever) there is no way to tell whether a command came from the leader, or your sister. That virtually rules out any biological, the only item on your list that could know a command came from the leader is a computing device.

Given all known or expected technology in the next few decades, we are nowhere near understanding how the brain works well enough to implant any kind of machine, nano or not, to have any kind of a specific effect on belief systems, free will, etc. You might be able to cause some kinds of overwhelming emotional reactions (rage, sexual urges, fear) by releasing some kind of drug cocktail in the brain; but not anything as specific as "Send $1000 in cash to this address, do whatever you must to get it."

We just do not understand the brain that well.

I think your best bet, in a small town, is a biologic excuse to gain access to people. I presume the villain has resources. Pick a town with a singular water supply; and infect it with something fairly nasty, that gets worse with time. When people start getting sick, come to the rescue with the cure (a real one), and in the process of administering the cure, also administer a powerful hypnotic drug. THEN you can implant the suggestion in the subconscious that the leader must be obeyed.

Up to 25% of people cannot be hypnotized; the percentage is much less if drugs are used but still not zero. That said, innocuous ways of testing responses can tell the hypnotist if the hypnotism is not working for some reason. These can be disguised as normal questions to test reactions to the drug on the pretense that it affects some people differently. So the hypnotist can easily avoid implanting their control commands in people where they would not work anyway, and thus avoid raising any suspicions.

The people that do not come in for treatment will die; which is convenient for our villain. Of course he has to be smart enough to create the malady and the antidote and to position his corporation as the only one capable of saving the citizens, refusing to share their trade secrets of how this was done. He will provide the cure for free to all comers with a signed release; so it is not a commercial transaction (avoiding some laws about safety of commercial products). The rest, I'd have to leave to lawyers to make it okay for the villain to inject willing participants.

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    $\begingroup$ I would like to add that if you first administer the hypnotic drug and see if they're susceptible, you can choose to not give them the real cure and let the problem solve itself. You still need to find a way to make it plausible for the cure to fail sometimes though. $\endgroup$ – Thijs Tijsma Jun 18 '17 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ @ThijsTijsma Very clever! +1. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Jun 18 '17 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ @ThijsTijsma P.S. all cures fail sometimes; call it genetic variability. e.g, "Every person is unique. We truly regret the losses of Joe, Emily and Richard, and we are studying these failures intently to discover precisely what combination of genes is disabling the cure. There are trillions of combinations for us to sift through, nevertheless we hope to have an answer to this rare but devastating failure soon. You can help by receiving the cure as soon as possible so we can use your genetic makeup to narrow down the particular combination responsible. Come in today, the Doctor is in." $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Jun 18 '17 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ Well that seems to solve it then! $\endgroup$ – Thijs Tijsma Jun 18 '17 at 15:29
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Chemicals, needing to diffuse through a supporting medium, are far from quick and effective. Plus, with distance their dilution increases, reducing their effect.

Assuming you have a clear and complete model of how the synaptic map of an individual to define his/her consciousness, you can use nanomachines guided by radio-waves to tweak the proper synapses and alter the thoughts (and actions) of targeted individuals.

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  • $\begingroup$ Synaptic mapping is very far away from present day / near future tech. Since the synaptic map of each human being is different, it would be impossible for the supervillain to control the nanobots differently for every single individual out of millions of people using this method. A more universal strategy than neuronal mapping is required, something that would work the same on everybody. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Jun 17 '17 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ @PedroGabriel, synaptic map can be different, but still functional areas are the same (Broca regio, etc.) $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jun 18 '17 at 3:58
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We don't know enough of the brain to be able to design something within your requirements. Dormancy until the switch is thrown would require "hardware control" - you'd need to go the nanomachine way. Possibly, establishing an entire secondary personality and having it take control.

Problem is, humans don't have such nanomachines yet and don't know whether they're even theoretically possible. So it's difficult to call this a reality check; you'd need a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief.

Relaxing some constraints could lead to a feasible scenario though. People not being able to conceive a disobedience to the leader is doable enough that several nations and cultures actually came close, not with a single Dr Evil's silver bullet, but with several less powerful weapons used together.

The rationalization factor is actually already there: a human being can be induced to do something and he will concoct an explanation, and/or resent being forced to think about why he did something. This has been demonstrated in "split-brain" patients, that had the corpus callosum surgically resecated to cure epilepsy. The left and right halves of the brain continued to coordinate, but imperfectly; so that it was possible to ask in writing the person to do something, and when asked orally to explain why he was doing that, the person would fabricate an answer - and defend it.

It remains to get the people to obey the leader. In a limited way this also has been demonstrated. But the leader must make himself known. For he needs first to give suggestions (or even orders that can be disobeyed), and then find a way to make people who disobeyed uncomfortable without there being an obvious explanation (subsonics could be a good choice). Lacking an explanation, the brain will fabricate the easiest explanation: you feel discomfort because you disobeyed the leader. Because you wanted to obey the leader.

This kind of conditioning can make people do things that normally they wouldn't, such as administering electric shocks to people - it is a variation of the well-known Milgram experiment - but it can't make everyone into a mindless zombie. It can do that with some particularly vulnerable people, but nothing more.

You can build on that, using the most fanatic believers to rein in the others; several police states and "mind-control" sects did just that. Several tools are ready to be employed - psychological pressure, peer pressure, and even a made-up language (see Orwell's 1984). Pervasive surveillance. Periodic loyalty checks with drugs and lie detectors.

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I like how you want to create mind controlling device, and probably spend a ton on money, to control people when all you need to do is to set up an instagram account. Or youtube channel.

If you want to go the extra mile, why not start some revolution. Cuba, South Korea, China, Cambodia.

If you want to cover the whole world... enter Ozymandias. Just hang some spaceshippy thing in the space and tell people "Bend to my will and I will save you from the Aliens that want to destroy you {laugh, curl the evil moustache}".

You could also create some loveable and highly watchable cartoons and soaps where you hide brainwashing pictures. Then you just send via radio and speakers a message "the hen is in the fox, the fox is blue and lazy" to turn them into obeying the leader.

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  • $\begingroup$ As someone that has used a youtube channel or a blogger account, I can most assuredly vouch to you that those are completely inefficient ways to mind control the masses. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Jun 24 '17 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ You probably didn't spend your parents trust fund to buy some views to boost your popularity. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Jun 24 '17 at 20:17
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Foreword

Unfortunately, it seems that most of the answers here have derailed into something I specifically have not accepted since my first comment in the OP. Namely, people have been suggesting that I should switch from the mind-controling device into more normal ideological propaganda. Unfortunately, this falls outside the scope of the question, for these reasons:

  1. Propaganda doesn't work on everyone. Its mechanism is psychological and societal. I wanted a purely biological mechanism with high penetrance, irrespective of education, ideology or opinion
  2. The purpose of this question was to test a particular TV trope. Propaganda falls in another genre altogether, the dystopian genre
  3. In that particular TV trope, the machine is switched on and off at will (in fact, it's the super-hero's job to turn off the device, imediately saving everyone)
  4. A mind-controlling device is cooler (yep, that's an objection I have, too)

Only Amadeus and a4android's answers tried to address the question, so I'll try to answer my own question piecing together what I liked most on both answers and my own knowledge on the matter.

First, I have to agree that this device is not possible using present-day technology. But I have said that near-future tech was fair game. I don't think that nanomachines that can be introduced in the organism for medical purposes are so distant in the future so as not to allow the use of nanobots on this question. The fact that we still know so little about brain function is a more significant hurdle... but maybe we can circumvent it with as little handwave as possible (which was the purpose of the question all along).

Second, I'll take into account some objections in Amadeus' answer, namely:

Objection a. 25% of the population is non-hypnotizable; The device should work on those people too

Objection b. People should be susceptible only to orders issuing from the leader, not from other people

Objection c. The instructions should be given in a way that everyone will be able to understand, irrespective of other factors, like language or IQ

Having said this, I've figured out four possible approaches, all using nanomachines. These could be spread by the supervillain in a city during months or years and could remain dormant until the switch was activated.

Note, these four approaches are displayed in increasing order of personal preference. Meaning I like approach #1 less and approach #4 more


#1. The Puppeteer

In this approach, we have different types of nanomachines that invade different parts of the human brain. Some nanomachines would be stimulatory and others would be inhibitory. The stimulation / inhibition could be done through electrical impulses or microinjections of selected neurotransmitters.

The inhibitory nanomachines would go into the frontal lobes, where the higher funtions of the brain (like will, abstract reasoning and personality) are located. By selectively inhibiting the frontal lobes, the nanomachines could effectively shut down all voluntary control from the victim.

The stimulatory nanomachines would then take hold. These would nestle on various parts of the primary motor cortex (PMC). We have a pretty reliable map of the PMC, such that we know which body part will move if an electrical stimulus is given to a specific region of the PMC.

enter image description here

The nanobots could then be programmed with simple movements, like walking a specific number of steps or getting up if the host fell down.

This means that the supervillain could effectively turn people into mindless puppets.

All people would be affected, regardless of language or hypnosis susceptibility. Also, since everyone but the supervillain would be unconscious, there would be no one else to order people around. Besides, only the supervillain would have control over the nanobots.


Hurdles:

  1. This is an over-complicated approach. The supervillain would have to fabricate a myriad of different nanomachines and those would have to be allocated to several different parts of the brain. All those nanomachines would have to be perfectly synchronised on the same individual, so as to obtain the desired effect
  2. Even if everything went smoothly, the resulting movements would be uncoordinated and jerky. Coordination relies on the integration of the PMC with secondary motor centers. We still know little about how those work, so I think that nanomachines located in the secondary motor centers would lead to too much handwave. The puppets would not have fine motricity, so the tasks they could do would be very limited. For example, they could not do something as simple as picking an object from a table... it would be like trying to grip a prized toy with those claws from the amusement parks
  3. Also, there would be no way for the nanomachines to integrate their motor stimuli with the sensory information coming from the host, like the eyes or the proprioception receptors. The nanomachines could move people around to a specific location using GPS, but wouldn't be able to detect unpredictable obstacles. The human puppets could fall on ditches or trip in one another.

#2. The Poisoner

Maybe the supervillain could use something like approach #1., but only in part. Namely, the part about inhibitory nanomachines in the frontal lobes that would shut down the conscious person.

The supervillain could then enter town and give each person a dose of the mind altering drugs that form the basis of Amadeus' answer. If, by biological variance, some slaves did not respond to the drugs, the supervillain would only need to shut them down again using the nanobots... and then kill them.


Hurdles

  1. Time consuming. The supervillain would have to find ways to drug everyone in town.
  2. Some people could escape, if they would be hidden from plain sight or stuck in inaccessible places when the device was turned on
  3. Even more complicated than approach #1.

#3. The Messiah

Since approaches #1 and #2 are so complicated, maybe we could focus the nanobots on a single spot. The limbic system is responsible for lower brain functions, namely related to emotions or primal behaviors. Also, it is well accessible... the nanomachines could crawl up the nasal cavity and then lodge themselves on the lower parts of the brain through the pores of the ethmoid bone.

Ethmoid bone

enter image description here

By stimulating this regions of the brain, the nanobots would cause all kinds of heightened emotions, like fear, rage or lust. These emotions would be so strong, that they would override any rational thought, like Amadeus says in his answer. But no matter how much the victims would indulge in violence or sex, their urges would not be satisfied as long as the nanomachines were activated.

It would require a level of self-discipline akin to a shaolin monk to be able to resist this kind of overwhelming sensations.

Enter the supervillain. He would place a tracker on him and the nanomachines would be programmed to change their pattern of stimuli accordingly to the GPS calculated distance from the villain. As the supervillain approached his victims, the nanobots would cease their fear / rage / lust stimuli... and could even induce pleasurable stimuli.

People would eventually be conditioned to view the supervillain as a kind of liberator. Once this was accomplished, he could tune his stimulation with finer detail, inducing pleasurable stimuli as a reward for good obedience and unpleasurable stimuli as punishment for disobedience.

Eventually, people would be conditioned to obey the leader blindly, almost in a pavlovian way. The nanomachines would then be dispensable. Propaganda and regular brainwashing would suffice, for trust on dear leader would be a non-issue.


Hurdles The pre-conditioned victims would have unpredictable and erratic behavior. Many slaves would die before the supervillain could do anything about it. In fact, there's no guarantee that the supervillain would not be killed previously to the conditioning (maybe in a car crash or something like that).


#4. The Wish Seeder

This is my favorite approach. Unfortunately, it is also the one that requires the greatest amount of handwave.

I inspired myself in a4android's answer about synaptic mapping. However, synaptic mapping is pretty much beyond our reach in the near future. Also, the synaptic mapping of each individual is different, so this concept would not be able to sustain widespread mind control.

However, as approaches #1 and #3 show, we don't need a detailed synaptic map. We can focus on specific regions of the brain... what if we focused on the frontal lobes?

As I have said, the frontal lobes of the brain are the ones associated with the higher functions: will, abstract thought and personality.

Unfortunately, artificial hardware and neurological "hardware" are still largely incompatible, because they have different languages. We still do not know how to translate electronic language into synaptic language.

However, we already have rudiments of this translation in the form of neuroprosthetics and brain-computer interfaces.

Let's imagine that the supervillain has perfected an interface that can translate an instruction from a computer into a thought via a nanotransmitter lodged in the frontal lobe of the victim.

The leader could then type the order in the computer and the person would find that instruction perfectly reasonable and/or desirable.

This is the best, because unlike all the previous approaches, the slave can perform complex tasks and behave in a predictable and reliable way.


Hurdles Needs a high amount of handwave, because we can't explain the details of how such an interface would function. Also, in order to account for objection c, the computer instructions shouldn't be given in the form of words in a specific language, but in the form of images or such. Still, an interesting concept that could be perfected with some more imput from other commenters.

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