This article presents a discussion of neurocognitive hacking and its potential for use at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of cyber conflict. Neurocognitive hacking refers to the ability to activate specific neural areas of the brain, via subliminal or supraliminal stimuli, to shape the behavioral outcomes of an adversary. Research suggests that awareness of mortality-related stimuli has neural correlates in the right amygdala and left anterior cingulate cortex and mediates negative behavior toward out-group members, including unconscious discriminatory behavior. Given its in-group/out-group dynamic, the phenomenon could be exploited for use in information operations toward target populations, specifically ones that are multiethnic, multicultural, or multireligious. Although development of the theoretical framework behind neurocognitive hacking is ongoing, mortality-related stimuli are proposed to activate one's unconscious vigilance system to further evaluate the locus and viability of the suspect stimuli. Research suggests that the subsequent discriminatory affective reactions directed toward out-group members are representative of automatic heuristics evolved to protect the organism in the event a stimulus represents a more serious threat to survival. Therefore, presenting mortality-related stimuli over computer networks to targeted audiences may facilitate the ingestion of tailored propaganda or shaping of specific behavioral outcomes within a population, including sowing division in a target community or weakening support for a specific political regime.
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A new capability in cyber conflict?
Vol. 39 • No. 1