The truly great manipulators in this world are skilled enough to work their magic — for good or for evil — without anyone even noticing that they’re acting out of anything other than their own volition. A boss makes a subtle design tweak to the office, and all your co-workers suddenly like each other a lot more. A kid watches the right cartoon and decides he’s cool with vegetables. Choose the right words and cultivate the right demeanor, and you can convince total strangers that they want to do your bidding.
Or, if you want to go the less subtle route, you can skip the head games altogether and just implant a mind-control device in someone’s tooth. In a report recently published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, a team of Indian researchers outlined the case of a man who believed that he had fallen victim to exactly that.
The man, a 58-year-old resident of northern India, arrived at an outpatient psychiatry center with an odd complaint, according to the report: Over the past several months, he had been moved by some strange force to commit actions he had no control over. “I can see my hands doing it,” he told doctors, “but I know I do not do it”:
Initially the patient had found this experience very frightening and believed himself to be under some spirit’s control; but subsequently he “realized” that through the root-canal therapy he has had 30 years ago, his brothers must have implanted a device inside his tooth. Now with the help of that device, they could hear whatever he said, and controlled all his actions. He said he could feel a tingling sensation inside his mouth every time he experienced such forced actions, and simultaneously hear a machine-like sound. He was thus convinced that his brothers were playing tricks on him to acquire his property, and would eventually force him to kill himself.
But an MRI scan also turned up something unusual in the physical state of his brain: The insular cortex — the part of the brain than controls self-awareness, among other things — had atrophied. This, the authors argued, was likely the true root cause of his mental state. The atrophied insula “probably deranged the sense of body ownership in him, leading to self-acts being perceived as externally imposed,” they wrote; in response to “the alienation of his ‘free will,’ the patient developed a delusional explanation for this out-of-the-world experience.” In other words, his own brain was still the one in the driver’s seat, manipulating him into believing that it wasn’t.