Brain Wars of Star Wars: Fact or Fiction?

Posted in News Release  |  Tagged ,

WASHINGTON (Dec. 10, 2015) – “Science fiction is often the driver of science fact.” So says Georgetown neuroethicist James Giordano, PhD, MPhil (new window), (pictured) when asked about one of the most popular science fiction movies, “Star Wars” and the seventh installment: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (new window)

Giordano, with the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, is particularly interested in “mind control,” a powerful tool allowed by The Force in the movie.

“Neuroscience isn’t exactly allowing for mind control the way Obi-Wan Kenobi would do it, but we are harnessing science, technology and nature to yield new technologies that can be applied to control thought, emotions and behaviors.”

Defining mind control

In the medical setting, two primary technologies impact the brain and its networks: transcranial techniques (applying electrical current or a magnetic field from outside the brain) and implanting electrodes (allowing deep brain stimulation).

“There is a growing body of evidence to suggest these approaches can be effective in treating a variety of disorders such as depression, anxiety and impulse control problems. But they can also improve or alter human behavior and performance,” says Giordano, a professor of neurology.

He punctuates his explanation with a provocative suggestion: “Of course, what that really means is directing the performance, thoughts and behaviors of others. Mind control? That depends on how you look at it.”

Video: What are the possibilities mind control today? Dr. Giordano explains. (new window)

Who defines what’s good?

Giordano says, “We’re not talking about doing what Obi-Wan Kenobi can do… sitting in a cruiser and influencing the thoughts of storm troopers. But it may very well be that through neurotechnologies, we are able to influence individuals’ cognition, emotion and behavior.”

Giordano says while such technologies are mainly used in medically directed ways, striving for good, they could also be used in more provocative if not contentious ways. “Let’s face it. Good just depends on who is defining what the good is.”

And Giordano cautions that some technologies, such as transcranial electrical stimulation, are being offered directly to consumers.

“It is not a question of whether consumers will misuse or even abuse these technologies. It is more a question of when they will and what those effects will then yield,” he says.

Questions persist

“There’s a lot we can do with neuroscience and technology, but what should we do with it? Who is doing it? And what shouldn’t we do? Are there certain things we should never do?”

Giordano says the answers will be found in what social cultures, politics and economics are dictating.

“Of course Star Wars is science fiction but let’s not forget that yesterday’s science fiction often becomes today’s science facts.”

Video: Dr. Giordano explores some of the ethical issues of mind control technologies. (new window)

About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis — or “care of the whole person.” The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization, which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health.