Biochemists have traced grumpiness in humans to a single gene. So provided you don't have it (and you don't live next to a wrecking yard or something), sound is probably a mostly enjoyable sensation for you.
Unlike a sensation such as odor, it seems fair to say most instances of sound are either pleasant or innocuous. And also unlike smells, distasteful sounds are relatively easy to avoid or counteract in modern times. Despite the increasing ubiquity of sound pollution, headphones, portable audio devices, white-noise machines, and super-strength earplugs can drown out just about anything your neighbor, snoring bed partner, or least-favorite trance DJ can sonically throw at you.
Plus, there's an entire science, refined over millennia, of organizing sounds into every sort of fantasy the human mind can experience: music. As any music lover knows, music can access a spot in the psyche that is very deep indeed. The emotional and spiritual primacy of music shines through in the words we use to describe its variations, such as "soul," "blues," and "love songs."
But it's because music and sound have this special wormhole into our minds that they have long been explored for nefarious purposes as well.
In fact, music has an evil twin: the science of organizing sounds into every sort of nightmare imaginable to the human mind. The only difference is that its research is carried out by governments and private industry, rather than rock bands and songwriters. And as a result, it gets very little publicity -- there usually isn't a press release issued when someone achieves the latest innovation in using sound waves to incapacitate the human body.
Yep, that's what we're talking about here: sound as weapon, music as mind control. Sonic bullets fired at rioters. Terrible music blasted at pulverizing volumes to rattle besieged cult leaders. Bass waves so deep they jiggle the insides to jelly.
Such topics are, shall we say, a bit fringy, so getting verifiable information on sound-torture R&D is difficult. Sources on the subject are mostly polarized into the conspiracy-convinced Chicken Littles on one side, and the debunkers and military-employed deniers on the other. But in the past year or two, culling the truth has gotten a bit easier, as the mainstream media has started to report on functional audio weapons, and more credible research has emerged. Resist the urge to cover your ears.
Consider the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, probably the most prominent image in the popular consciousness of sound put to sinister use. In it, British psychiatrists use Beethoven's Ninth to program juvenile delinquent Alex's mind to abhor violence. Science fiction, right? Well, in the book Anthony Burgess: A Life, published last year, respected biographer Roger Lewis claimed to have solid evidence that Burgess, author of the original Clockwork novel, was in fact a CIA operative privy to the agency's real-life mind-control experiments. What Burgess called the Ludovico behavior modification technique was apparently something he had actually witnessed.
The problem is that Lewis' source is a mysterious retired British agent who, of course, won't divulge his name. That's the best we get in this field -- the most trustworthy research is based on the testimony of anonymous sources claiming to be intelligence insiders. In the end, you're never completely sure.
The main exception is the work of conservative writer Gordon Thomas, specifically his Journey into Madness: The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse. Thomas actually names his interviewees, who include famed CIA men like William Buckley and former director Allen Dulles. As a result, his story is the most credible account we have of black-budget governmental noodlings with the human brain. He explains how televised statements from American POWs captured in the Korean War -- men who espoused pro-Communist ideas and appeared to be brainwashed -- frightened American intelligence into starting its own clandestine investigation into mind control.
To these ends, the CIA in 1953 launched the spooky MKULTRA project, which in turn funded the extreme and inhumane research carried out by American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron, then the president of the American Psychiatric Association and the most prominent psychiatric researcher in the world.
Dr. Cameron dedicated the basement of the psychiatric facility at Montreal's McGill University -- the CIA figured it would be too much if Americans ever found out he'd inflicted such abuse on fellow citizens -- to breaking the human mind, and sound figured prominently in his techniques. According to Journey into Madness, he never succeeded in achieving actual mind control over any of his subjects, and to this day, there hasn't been a documented case. But the closest he got was with a process he called psychic driving.
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