Memetic weapons through the ages

The following is safe to read. This might become important later.

It’s well known to anyone who has thought about it for a second that when you observe the world, you aren’t directly perceiving the world. Your eyes picture some image, and your brain translates it, and with a few exceptions it corresponds pretty well to the actual world. When it doesn’t, we call that an optical illusion and it’s nothing too exciting. Usually.

But what happens if, instead of interpreting an observation incorrectly, the brain simply has no idea what to do with it? In the worst case, the brain can completely shut down. Picture an episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk heroically tells a robot that “this sentence is false,” causing it to explode. For the robot’s brain, that sentence is a memetic hazard, something that it simply can’t deal with.

Obviously human brains can handle that without a problem, and so could any competent artificial intelligence. And who builds an exploding robot, anyway? The point is that there can exist some information that a brain cannot handle, and that could have almost any effects. A memetic hazard would have to be something a lot less obvious and less likely to come up by accident than “this sentence is a lie,” but the existence of fictional examples (even stupid ones) doesn’t make the concept impossible. It’s entirely possible for this type of thing to work on human brains as well.

In some cases, a memetic hazard has been used as a weapon. It doesn’t have to be in the form of a sentence (it usually isn’t, in fact), just any image or statement or sound that the human brain cannot interpret. Advanced memetic weapons can exploit the fact that the brain isn’t functioning properly and include a command that the brain will automatically follow. It doesn’t know what else to do. This should not be confused with ordinary subliminal messaging, where the effects range from placebo to negligible, and never last long anyway. A memetic weapon can have major effects all the way up to insanity or death just from looking at it or sometimes even thinking about it.

The earliest known memetic weapon is known today as Medusa. Anyone who looked directly at it would be instantly killed. This was passed down through the mythology as a monster so ugly that anyone who looked at her turned to stone. Despite how extreme the effect was, Medusa was actually a fairly primitive memetic weapon. All the image did was shut down the brain. A more advanced version could have caused almost any effect on the victim, from complete mind control to speaking only in limericks to forgetting the whole experience. Causing instant death is simpler, if scarier. It also had a certain flaw, specifically the fact that the mirror image was harmless. Modern visual memetic weapons are often made symmetrical by placing the picture’s mirror image next to it, for precisely this reason. But then, we do have a few thousand years of development that the inventors of the Medusa didn’t.

Another ancient memetic weapon is from much later, at approximately 1000 B.C. Instead of being an image, this one was auditory. A king, known for being both a warrior and a musician, wrote about his enemies,

As soon as they hear, they obey me.
Foreigners lose heart,
And come trembling out of their fortresses.

That sounds rather like an auditory weapon. It could, for instance, shut down the brain and then (unlike Medusa) allow it to continue, but trigger all the brain’s circuits signifying fear. It would be very useful for making one’s enemies surrender on demand, and would have effects exactly as described. This king was very explicit that these victories were not from his military might, and he wrote that this was all a gift from his God. You might have heard of this before. Specifically, you might have heard about a secret chord that David played that pleased the Lord.

Those are both ancient, but as you might guess there are more recent examples as well. In 1944, the British army unleashed a joke so funny that anyone who heard it would die laughing. They had armies of soldiers who only spoke English reading it out in German, and anyone who understood it would be dead in seconds. There was a well-known documentary made about it.

Related in the “idea that will destroy you” category is some mathematics. Specifically, infinities. Infinity plus one is infinity. It doesn’t get any bigger, not even one bigger. Two times infinity isn’t any bigger either. For that matter, infinity times infinity is still the same size. But, despite all that, some infinities are bigger than others. For instance, the number of numbers between zero and one is greater than the number of integers. These statements were all proven by a man named Georg Cantor in the early 1900s, and he was tragically driven insane. This may or may not have been caused by his discoveries. The proofs have since been reworked into a form that is safe to understand, and I’m not too worried about accidentally destroying anyone’s mind by posting this here.

A current example: Some Japanese researchers invented something they call the “SpeechJammer.” Everyone else calls it the “Shut Up Gun.” It records the voice of the person to be shut up, and plays it back at them after a few tenths of a second. The speaker is then forced to shut up. It’s a perfect example of a memetic weapon: The sound of your own voice coming back that quickly is not something that comes up often, and the human brain isn’t equipped to deal with it. So it shuts down the speech. This gizmo won a 2012 Ig Nobel Prize (it’s like the Nobel Prize, only ignoble) and is totally a real thing.

I have a memetic weapon myself. It’s comparatively harmless and is mostly just annoying. It’s a method of infecting people with akrasia, but it only works on people who have more intelligence than common sense. Unfortunately, it worked on me. Ever since I heard it I haven’t been able to stop procrastinating on everything. So no, I’m not going to say what it is.

Memetic weapons: A major threat. Keep an eye out for them. On second thought, don’t.

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