The Soft Machine

I recently discussed the phenomena of strange lights on Seriah Azkath’s show “Where Did the Road Go?” where I once again brought up the oddities surrounding the human visual system and its relative “hackability”. To be more precise, the entire human sensorium is a rickety house that is not terribly hard to trick. I’ve talked about this on several shows, and it was a major talking point on my first appearance on Greg Bishop’s “Radio Misterioso”. I often reference Peter Watts’ brilliant 2006 sci-fi novel Blindsight since while ostensibly a first-contact story featuring space vampires, it’s also a deep examination of both consciousness and cognition. In the notes to Blindsight, Watts elaborates:

The Human sensorium is remarkably easy to hack; our visual system has been described as an improvised “bag of tricks”13 at best. Our sense organs acquire such fragmentary, imperfect input that the brain has to interpret their data using rules of probability rather than direct perception14. It doesn’t so much see the world as make an educated guess about it. As a result, “improbable” stimuli tends to go unprocessed at the conscious level, no matter how strong the input. We tend to simply ignore sights and sound that don’t fit with our worldview.

The point that Watts is communicating here is that the sensations we experience are not concerned with truth – only survival – and it processes those senses based on probability. Not the probability that a sensation is accurate, but the probability that it will allow us to live another day. Evolution is a haunted house, it has never been a perfect process and its primary concern is replication and fitness. It leaves behind ancient artifacts and is full of weirdness and one-offs.

Watts continues:

Sometimes electrical stimulation of the brain induces “alien hand syndrome”— the involuntary movement of the body against the will of the “person” allegedly in control29. Other times it provokes equally involuntary movements, which subjects nonetheless insist they “chose” to perform despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary30Put all this together with the fact that the body begins to act before the brain even “decides” to move31 (but see3233), and the whole concept of free will—despite the undeniable subjective feeling that it’s real—begins to look a teeny bit silly, even outside the influence of alien artefacts.

While electromagnetic stimulation is currently the most trendy approach to hacking the brain, it’s hardly the only one. Gross physical disturbances ranging from tumors34 to tamping irons35 can turn normal people into psychopaths and pedophiles (hence that new persona sprouting in Susan James’s head). Spirit possession and rapture can be induced through the sheer emotional bump-and-grind of religious rituals, using no invasive neurological tools at all (and not even necessarily any pharmacological ones)21. People can even develop a sense of ownership of body parts that aren’t theirs, can be convinced that a rubber hand is their real one36. Vision trumps propioreception: a prop limb, subtly manipulated, is enough to convince us that we’re doing one thing while in fact we’re doing something else entirely3738.

As Watts points out, your “will” to do anything can quite possibly be an illusion. If you decide to move your finger, studies on neural timing have shown that the electrical signal sent from your nervous system to your finger muscles actually happens before the decision making part of your brain fires up. He puts forth a very troubling question: “Are you actually behind the wheel, or do you just think you are?”

On the episode of “Where Did the Road Go?” I talked about how, on the base level, all that you see is a series of electrical signals sent to the visual processing areas of your brain via chemical processes initiated by photosensitive cells in your eyes. These signals are modulated by the brain and perceived by the “viewer”. This is where things get tricky and philosophical but that’s not my focus here. I put forth a speculative hypothesis that you could, theoretically, perform what is known in information security as a “Man-In-The-Middle Attack”, but on a human being’s senses.

A Man-In-The-Middle is basically where you put a point of access somewhere between a client and a server. This not only allows you to intercept all communications and analyze them, but also manipulate that data, inject your own changes, or possible reroute that to a third-party for exfiltration or impersonation. It’s an extremely dangerous attack, since on the surface it can appear transparent the client machine.

My hypothesis was that if you had a sufficiently advanced technology, or were able to operate outside the accepted norms of time and space, you could intercept the visual signal en route from the retina to the brain and manipulate it, either to scramble the information or inject your own images: in effect “hacking” the visual cortex. And it doesn’t have to stop there, all senses work basically the same way. You could make someone “hear”, “see”, “smell”, “taste”, or “feel” whatever you’d like them to.

In the episode, I suggested this could be accomplished via very fine control of electromagnetism. We know for a fact that this is possible in a crude fashion. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation has been shown in a laboratory by researchers like Michael Persinger to induce hallucinations, panic, and other altered states of consciousness.

However, I didn’t consider another possibility. Watts elaborates:

The latest tool in this arsenal is ultrasound: less invasive than electromagnetics, more precise than charismatic revival, it can be used to boot up brain activity39 without any of those pesky electrodes or magnetic hairnets. In Blindsight it serves as a convenient back door to explain why Rorschach‘s hallucinations persist even in the presence of Faraday shielding— but in the here and now, Sony has been renewing an annual patent for a machine which uses ultrasonics to implant “sensory experiences” directly into the brain40. They’re calling it an entertainment device with massive applications for online gaming. Uh huh. And if you can implant sights and sounds into someone’s head from a distance, why not implant political beliefs and the irresistable desire for a certain brand of beer while you’re at it?

The research that Watts is referencing is work on whether or not ultrasound can stimulate nerve tissue. Effectively,  by propagating an ultrasonic wave in the presence of a magnetic field, you can create particle motion in electrolytic tissues, inducing electric current via Lorentz forces. As the paper lays out, using this method as opposed to transcranial magnetic stimulation holds a few interesting practical advantages. For one, it has differing temporal characteristics:

Although the duration of a TMS pulse is typically on the order of a few tenths of a millisecond and the ultrasonic variation is on the order of microseconds or less (roughly the reciprocal of the ultrasonic frequency), considerable control over the shape of the ultrasonic waveform is in principle possible. For example, one can transmit an ultrasonic pulse train at essentially any repetition frequency or modulate a continuous ultrasonic wave in a variety of ways.

This would imply a greater degree of control – and perhaps manipulation – via ultrasound stimulation.

While thinking about this, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the oft-reported “infrasound” talked about in Bigfoot folklore. Regardless of my own belief in Bigfoot, we do have to concede that there has been no solid evidence of its existence beyond anecdotal witness encounters. While there do appear to be recordings of vocalizations that seem to indicate sound in the infrasonic range, we cannot confirm that these are real. It is known though, for a fact, that infrasound is utilized by a wide variety of animals for both hunting and defense. Conversely, some animals (such as bats) use ultrasound for echolocation and cetaceans use ultrasound for long-distance communication. While I haven’t been able to find any suggestion that infrasound frequencies could be used in the same fashion as ultrasound theoretically can, the effects of certain infrasonic frequencies on humans has been studied quite a bit.

In a paper titled “Infrasound: Brief Review of Toxicological Literature” on the National Institute of Health’s website, they seem to indicate that infrasound would not be a great candidate for applications like the one we’re suggesting:

One argument against the feasibility of the use of infrasound in nonlethal weapons is that infrasound’s wavelengths (17 m and above) are so long that they spread out too rapidly to be focused (19).

19. Hecht. J. 1999. Not a sound idea. New Sci. March 20, 1999. Available at Last accessed on September 16, 2001.

So while exposure to infrasound is known to induce general symptoms of nausea, fear, uneasiness, and possible hearing damage or changes in blood pressure, it would lack the necessary capabilities to perform the finely focused electrical manipulation I’m suggesting.

However, the idea of “ultrasound brain manipulation” devices got my brain spinning when I realized it sounded awfully familiar to something I’d heard before: “The Shaver Mystery”.

Most of you are probably familiar with The Shaver Mystery, Richard Sharpe Shaver’s Warning to Future Man and stories of underground civilizations filled with genetically engineered degenerate sorcerers who fed and tormented the unwitting humans living above-ground. If you’re not familiar, writer Nick Redfern did an excellent write-up on Mysterious Universe that you can read here.

Pertinent to our discussion above, Shaver described the evil underground Deros as having a technology that essentially describes our hypothetical manipulation device. From a website describing the contents of Shaver’s A Warning to Future Man:

According to Shaver, after the Deros had wiped out the underground community with which he was involved, he never again visited “the caves” in a physical sense, however he claimed that following this he began receiving “messages” via the “telaugs”, or electronically enhanced focused telepathic augmentation beams, claiming to be from the “Teros”.

While I’m personally a sucker for Hollow Earth stories of vast caverns filled with decaying ruins of a bygone age and haunted by the monstrous remnants of those declined civilizations, I’ve always been a bit wary of the “reality” of the Shaver mystery. In the most respectful way possible, it has always seemed to me that Shaver was possibly very, very ill and was being milked by Ray Palmer for stories. This is because this hypothetical device is a well known aspect of paranoid schizophrenia. Shaver isn’t the first person to be tormented via a machine that shoots telepathic beams to manipulate and torment the victim. This “Influencing Machine” is so well known that it has its own Wikipedia page. From said page:

The main effects of the influencing machine are the following:

  1. It makes the patient see pictures. When this is the case, the machine is generally a magic lantern or cinematograph. The pictures are seen on a single plane, on walls or window panes, and unlike typical visual hallucinations are not three-dimensional.
  2. It produces, as well as removes, thoughts and feelings by means of waves or rays or mysterious forces which the patient’s knowledge of physics is inadequate to explain. In such cases, the machine is often called a “suggestion-apparatus.” Its construction cannot be explained, but its function consists in the transmission or “draining off” of thoughts and feelings by one or several persecutors.
  3. It produces motor phenomena in the body, erections and seminal emissions, that are intended to deprive the patient of his male potency and weaken him. This is accomplished either by means of suggestion or by air-currents, electricity, magnetism, or X-rays.
  4. It creates sensations that in part cannot be described, because they are strange to the patient himself, and that in part are sensed as electrical, magnetic, or due to air-currents.
  5. It is also responsible for other occurrences in the patient’s body, such as cutaneous eruptions, abscesses, or other pathological processes.

One of the most famous victims was James Tilly Matthews, a tea broker from the early 1800s, who claimed that an evil criminal gang was telepathically tormenting him via what he called an “Air Loom”, an electrochemical device that could beam thoughts into his mind. He claimed that the gang was utilizing the Air Loom to target and influence various political figures of the time. More recently, there are parallels to Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, a supercomputer orbiting earth that sent him visions via “pink lasers”. And there’s Shaver, tormented by evil Deros doing exactly the same to him.

The device was even used as a fictional device in William S. Burroughs’ novel The Soft Machine – a machine that used a magnetic tape to control the population and keep them in check. The machine is then hijacked and used to destroy the civilization that had utilized it as a control mechanism. Burroughs writes:

Inexorably as the machine had controlled thought feeling and sensory impressions of the workers, the machine now gave the order to dismantle itself and kill the priests—I had the satisfaction of seeing the overseer pegged out in the field, his intestines perforated with hot planting sticks and crammed with corn—I broke out my camera gun and rushed the temple—This weapon takes and vibrates image to radio static—You see the priests were nothing but word and image, an old film
rolling on and on with dead actors

However, as people may know, I’m not a particularly materialist person. At the risk of sounding controversial, I’ve often thought about the delusions and hallucinations of schizophrenics and wondered if there’s perhaps some truth that can be found in them. Some of the esoteric and paranormal events people encounter could be described in similar terms to hallucinations suffered by people victim to schizophrenia. And sometimes these lines get awfully blurry.

Shaver claimed that he first physically encountered the remnant Teros, the benevolent citizens of the declined subterranean empire, before being tormented by the telepathic rays of the Deros. How many times have we heard this story before? Someone has a genuine anomalous encounter that then seems to latch onto them, changing them on a mental (and sometimes physical) level, completely derailing their old life and setting them on a new, far more unusual course.

The idea of subterranean kingdoms is as old as humanity. I’ll leave you with one very interesting rabbit hole I found.

In 1935, a series of serial films called The Phantom Empire were shown in American theaters. The film is primarily concerned with a group of modern humans coming into contact with a technologically advanced, ancient subterranean civilization. One of the actors, whose name is prominently feature on the poster, was Frankie DARRO.

d2f0efe3fe5d802b0f7307efedd5ea6aIs it possible that Richard Shaver saw this movie in theaters, just a few years before writing his A Warning to Future Man, and subconsciously got the name DERO from seeing the actor’s name on the poster, or in the title card? Did his paranoid delusions featuring an “Influencing Machine” get wrapped up in memories of a particularly interesting science fiction film featuring an ancient underground civilization in decline?

Let’s go one level deeper. There’s quite an interesting little note on the Wikipedia page for The Phantom Empire.

The idea for the plot came to writer Wallace MacDonald when he was under gas having a tooth extracted. (7)

7. Harmon 1972, pp. 61–62.

Assuming that this “gas” was nitrous oxide, I hardly need to comment on how nitrous has been used since its discovery as a gateway to altered states of consciousness. And so, the writer that perhaps inspired Shaver’s mysteries, came up with the idea for it while in an altered state.

“Curiouser and curiouser!”