Rick and Morty mind control
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Credit: Adult Swim

Science Behind the Fiction: Rick and Morty's musical mind control

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Nov 14, 2019

It's been two years, but our favorite science fiction odd couple, Rick and Morty, are back on Adult Swim. Season 4 of their eponymous TV show premiered earlier this week with an episode entitled "Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat," which covered a lot of ground in its 22-minute runtime; there's a ton going on, as is typical of the genre-bending, universe-hopping duo.

**Spoilers for Rick and Morty Season 4, Episode 1, "Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat" below.**

Never content to skewer just one real-world or genre trope, the fourth season premiere manages to fit in bits about traversing an asteroid field (something that's a lot more difficult in movies and television than it would be in real life), dying in a vacuum (something we've covered here before), the terrifyingly violent feeding habits of wasps, and funeral selfies.

The last of these sounds like a joke only Dan Harmon could pen. Yet, the act is so widespread that nearly one-third of funeral-goers have admitted to snapping a quick pic in the midst of their mourning, and at least one funeral director has spoken out against the practice. But all of those are throwaway jokes.

The episode's main story follows the titular pair on one of their classic adventures. Rick heads off in search of a rare object — death crystals from Forbodulon Prime — with Morty in tow. The crystals in question don't cause death but instead, show you how you're going to die. Rick intends to sell them off to the sorts of folks in regular need of that particular information. Before he's able, however, Morty gets a glimpse at his own end. Or, rather, he gets a glimpse at many possible deaths, each one shifting as he makes new decisions. One death, in particular, is special, as it happens with his long-term crush Jessica at his deathbed.

Morty becomes obsessed, willing to stop at nothing in order to follow that specific path to a life that ends with Jessica at his side, no matter the cost. And the cost is steep. Almost immediately, Rick is killed (temporarily) when he's thrust through the windshield of his ship and skewered on a rock. Then Morty goes on a sci-fi weapon-fueled killing spree in order to follow the new life path set out for him by the crystal.

Morty eventually surrenders, still under the guidance of the crystal, and after a brief trial, Morty wins over the public by warbling what sounds like the incoherent song of a dying whale, during a press conference.

An animated Nancy Grace proclaims, "People, I gotta tell you something. That little boy, I thought I knew everything about everything, but something about the tones and frequencies that just came out of his mouth have made me... I mean, I think we're just about ready to forgive him and move past this whole thing. He's a free young man, and as far as continuity goes, the reset button's been hit."

So, the question must be asked. Could an unstoppable science fiction boy convince the people around him to forgive and forget the destruction of an entire armed battalion using only the sultry tones of his voice?

UNDERSTANDING THE MIND

In order to grapple with whether or not certain sounds or frequencies could have an external impact on the workings of the mind, it helps to first understand how the mind works. While the fine details of the brain's activities still aren't largely understood, we do have a pretty good grasp of the overall function.

Your brain is a mushy lump of mostly fat, water, and neurons, roughly the size of two clenched fists. On average, it makes up about 2 percent of your total body weight but consumes roughly 20 percent of your daily caloric costs. That owes to everything it's doing, every conscious thought, and every behind-the-scenes activity.

It's not uncommon to hear the brain being compared to a computer. It's a pretty good analogy; there's a lot of electrical activity going on, information being sensed and processed, calculations being made. An entire picture of reality being painted.

The brain is broken up into various sections, each one responsible for different functions. Though, even that isn't totally accurate. It's not really broken up in any true sense. But we like to categorize things. That is to say, the brain likes to categorize things. Even itself. And while different functions can be traced to specific areas of the brain, there's a lot of cross communication. So much so that, if one part of the brain is damaged such that it can no longer serve its ordinary function, other parts of the brain can pick up the slack, at least to some degree.

The most apparent division of the brain is between its two hemispheres. A complex bundle of nerves, known as the corpus callosum, connects the two sides. It acts as a thick bunch of cables, sending information from one side to the other. Damage to this portion of the brain can disrupt that communication. Alternatively, miscommunication within the corpus callosum can cause the brain to misbehave. The intentional severing of the two hemispheres is sometimes used as a treatment for severe seizures and some pretty interesting things can happen once the procedure is complete.

In short, what we've learned is that the brain does operate like a computer. Or, perhaps more accurately, a network of connected computers. And you can fiddle with the machinery in ways very similar to how we can fiddle with electronics.

MAGNETS AND MOBILE PHONES

There's long been some concern, as is the case with almost any emerging technology, that cell phones might be negatively impacting our brains. There's some logic to this concern. It's a device with complex electronics, sending and receiving signals, which we hold directly to our heads on a regular basis.

The notion is pervasive enough, and just convincing enough, to be the stuff of conspiracy theories and even the premise of a novel by Stephen King. Research has been done looking into the potentially negative impact of cell phones on the brain and the results have been inconsistent. That's not to say, however, that cell phones have no impact at all.

A study led by Rodney Croft of the Brain Science Institute in Melbourne strapped Nokias to the heads of 120 men and women and measured the way transmissions altered alpha waves in their brains. They found increased alpha wave activity in the tissue directly beneath the device.

Alpha waves are typically considered to correlate to internal though, as opposed to external observation, and a key part of sleeping. Conversely, a second study conducted by James Horne at the Loughborough University Sleep Research Center in England found that similarly, head-strapped phones decreased delta wave activity when switched to talk mode.

Participants whose phones were transmitting in talk mode, resulting in the decrease in delta wave activity, took nearly an hour longer to fall asleep than those participants whose phones had not been transmitting. What we've learned is phone transmissions have some effect on brain activity, but we can't precisely say what that effect is.

Another example can be seen in the ways we are impacted by magnetic fields. Any kid with access to moderately powerful magnets might be familiar with the funny ways they can impact electronics like televisions or radios when moved too close. It's apparent, even if you didn't understand why, the magnet is doing something to the machinery, messing with the way it operates.

Sufficiently powerful magnetic fields can have a similar effect on the brain and body. But they have to be massively powerful. According to a team of researchers at the Utilities Threshold Initiative Consortium, the lower limit required for a human being to experience a bodily response from exposure to magnetic fields is 10,000 microtesla, considerably more than anything you'd encounter in your day-to-day.

For context, the field generated in an MRI machine comes in at around three million microtesla, well above that lower limit. If you've ever had an MRI, it's likely you didn't experience anything too unusual, outside of being shuffled into a metal tube in nothing but a paper gown. And there's a good reason for that. In order for you to experience any impact, the field must change direction relative to your location. That simply isn't happening in an MRI. The field is static and you aren't moving.

If, however, you took to a fit of dancing while in the machine, you might experience nausea, loss of balance, a metallic taste, or something called magnetophosphenes: flickering white lights in your field of vision owing to the excitation of neurons in your retina.

At the far extreme, according to Discover magazine, are magnetars, a type of neutron star with incredibly powerful magnetic fields. According to Paul Sutter, astrophysicist, host of the Ask a Spaceman! podcast, and editor for Space.com, "The first thing you would notice is your entire nervous system, which is based on electrical charges moving throughout your body, is going to stop working, and then you basically dissolve."

Suffice it to say, your brain is at the mercy of external forces. But Morty wasn't using magnets, he was using melodies. Could he pull off the same feat?

MUSICAL MIND CONTROL

The simple answer to whether or not your thoughts can be impacted by sounds is "yes." How many times have you heard an old song and experienced an emotional shift as a result? How often have you been driven to anger, sadness, or joy as a result of someone else's words? Ever had a neighbor's dog barking at all hours of the night and been driven near to madness?

Sounds absolutely impact our emotional and mental states, but is there something more insidious, perhaps a little more mad-science, going on?

Non-invasive neuromodulation is a relatively new field of study and focuses on ways to externally alter brain function. There are various ways to do this, but for our purposes, we're going to focus on ultrasound.

Researchers use sound waves to penetrate the skull and activate or inhibit brain circuits. Research is primarily happening with animals but some human testing has been completed. The use of low-frequency waves also allows for ultrasound to be delivered deeper into the brain without leaving any lasting ill-effects. That is, assuming the intent of the person wielding the waves is not nefarious.

Antoine Jerusalem, a professor of engineering science at Oxford University, gave an interview as part of a World Economic Forum gathering wherein he discussed the potential benefits and deficits of this research.

He did remark on the possibility of treating diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's but noted that any new technology has the potential to be misused, saying, "It's similar to drugs. It can cure you, it can get you addicted, and it can kill you. It's al about staying within a given set of rules." Jerusalem went on to say, "I can see the day coming where a scientist will be able to control what a person sees in their mind's eye, by sending the right waves to the right place in their brain... And if you find a way to make somebody get better, then you most likely also know how to do the contrary."

These are the sorts of ethical concerns with which we have to grapple any time we venture into new scientific territory. And we can't eschew them. Human nature is such that once something becomes possible, it will certainly be done, by someone.

Let's just hope it isn't a Morty. Or worse, a Rick.

The first episode of Rick and Morty Season 4 is available now from Adult Swim.

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