Strange Loops - Blog Archive: March 2004
Strange Loops Journal Archive: March 2004

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March 22, 2004

David Wahlberg wrote this piece back in February about a neuromarketing study being done at Emory University. The study used brain-scanning medical technology like MRIs not for medical or scientific purposes but to help a huge advertising firm find new strategies to sell to corporations to allow them to better manipulate consumers into purchasing products.

Certainly this attempt to get inside the consumer mind is nothing new - although the use of university facilities is questionable - but it highlights a trend that has troublesome implications. Along with targeted advertising (that is, spying on consumers and creating/mining databases of their behavior and preferences in order to market to them on a 'personal' level), neuromarketing promises to change the landscape of corporatation-consumer interaction, placing the consumer at a disadvantage where their biology is used against them.

Doug Rushkoff penned this article for the New York Press in response to such fears. He asserts that people are lending the claims of neuromarketing efficacy too much credence:

For in their relentless effort to get into the mind of the consumer and to compete for attention in an increasingly crowded media space, corporations will do and pay pretty much anything to gain an edge. They race from one advertising agency to another as each promises a yet more direct avenue toward the emotional control knob at the center of human decision-making.
What bothers me, though, is that such protests seem to take BrightHouse's specious claims at face value. The underlying assumption is that neuromarketing will actually work-or that it will work better than simply playing an ad in front of a thousand kids and seeing whether it makes them cry, "I want that!"
A decade or so from now, I suspect we will regard neuromarketing researchers and their techniques the way we regard phrenologists or blood-letters today. And we'll realize that the only people who ended up being hypnotized by their wares were the daft corporate executives who paid for them.
To some extent, Rushkoff is certainly right. Neuromarketing is not likely to be the dangerous specter it might at first seem - the new "subliminal message" of advertising, as it were. Corporations have used consumers' biology against them for years: how else could one describe the use of sexual imagery to sell beer, for instance? As Rushkoff says, it doesn't take a brain scan to know that people will respond to sexual imagery; folk neuromarketing has worked for years without the need of precise MRI scans.

At the same time, one cannot deny that advertising strategies do work, even if it is not so well as the ad agencies or their strongest critics might claim. Sex pervades marketing because sex really does sell - it just doesn't make for an automatic sale.

The fear then should not be that neuromarketers will find a "buy button" in the human brain - our thoughts and behavior are never so simple as that - but simply that they will continue to increase the effectiveness and ubiquity of advertising incrementally. While not a doomsday scenario, it is still a very real problem, and should not be ignored simply on the assumption that it will be debunked as a miracle strategy in a few years.

At the very least, consciousness of the strategies being used on us is an important line of defense against whatever efficacy these strategies do in fact have, and keeping tabs on marketing research can help us control the effects of that research's application. On top of that, though, simply bringing to light questionable marketing practices - false though the strongest claims may turn out - helps raise awareness of subtle marketing tactics in general, and this is important as we enter an era of RFID tags hidden in every item purchased and powerful computers dedicated to extracting useful psychological information from a pile of raw personal data on consumers.

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Video Game Addiction as Self-Medication
March 22, 2004
I am an avid gamer - more than that, I would say I am a gaming addict. I play video games long after I strongly desire to quit playing them. I hide disks, I give disks away, I break disks, only to waste precious money buying another copy very soon after (experiencing withdrawal while away from the game). I know that the time would be much better spent on other things, especially once I have gotten past the point where the game is fun on its own merits, and where I am playing for lack of willpower to not play.

It is especially bad with roleplaying games, or those character-driven games with experience building or item collecting. Modern game design (e.g. Diablo II, Everquest, Ultima Online) has perfected the art of making a game where players crave to collect ever more valuable and rare items, where players seek to continually improve and maximize their characters into ever more powerful avatars.

After the initial story line of the game has worn itself out, the fun of a game like Diablo II comes largely from the search for ultra-rare items, which give new power to those who have already maximized their power through normal experience building, and which confer a sort of status in online play with other participants. In effect, gaining experience (which in modern game design becomes progressively, almost prohibitively tougher at high levels) and finding new, rare items gives the player a sort of boost which then invigorates them to continue playing in the search for higher levels and better items.

If, as I suspect, there is an associated chemical event in the brain producing the pleasure that accompanies a level-up or a rare item find, then it is reasonable to hypothesize that this could lead to an actual dependence of some sort on the game (or other similar games) to reproduce this effect.

As someone who has battled various levels of depression for years (certainly not all of it caused by my gaming geekiness), I look back on my behavior and suspect that my often obsessive game playing might be a form of self-medication for my depression. More than simply taking my mind off the sources of my depression, it does so in a way that encourages dependence as one of the sole sources of antidepressant feelings. Perhaps because I lack other viable outlets, I use video games as a crutch to keep from focusing on my depression, and thus I have for years been self-medicating without realizing it. Perhaps it is so hard to quit video games because they are one of the few places I can find that neurological boost which is so necessary to stay afloat, but so hard to find otherwise.

Perhaps that is why some people get addicted to games (not everyone - even the addicts - play for this reason of course). Some people turn to alcohol and marijuana to self-medicate; others turn to unhealthy comfort foods; and then there are the geeks who turn to video games. Certainly there are worse ways to deal with depression, but at the same time I am introspective enough to recognize that my particular gameplay situation is unhealthy, psychologically and socially, and I suspect that it would be beneficial in the long-run to seek another solution.

I doubt I could ever give up video games altogether, but it would be nice to be able to give up individual video games when I no longer desire to play them, even despise them. Perhaps if the depression were treated in some other manner, I would not feel the compulsion to play these games in the addictive way that I do now.

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Mind Control
March 02, 2004
I find the idea of mind-control rather creepy, especially when it is done consciously and intentionally (e.g. government psy-ops interrogators or malicious cults). At the same time, the human brain is a fragile and complex thing, and I think after spending a little time in human society, we all unconsciously learn little tricks to alter the minds, perceptions and thoughts of others. We do it with our body language, with our emphasis on certain words, with our choice of words (euphemisms, for instance) and with our reactions to what others say. In these ways we are all under the sway of each others' mind control, and it really seems inevitable and normal, maybe even harmless insofar as it seems inescapable and we seem to get along okay with it going on all around us.

The more we learn about the human brain, the more it appears that our minds - our thoughts - are not entirely separate entities in full free sell-control. Rather, it appears our minds are intimately entwined with our experiences and interactions such that what we think or the very way we think can be influenced and controlled to some extent by others (intentionally or unintentionally). This has profound implications for those - like myself - who strive for mental emancipation from authority and outside influence. The fact of mind-control, and other interesting new information about the brain which science is uncovering, suggest that true mental emancipation - mental individualism - is a phantasm.

Perhaps there is hope for the mental individualist, however. As we learn to understand the workings of our own brains/minds, we can learn the same 'tricks' used by the cult gurus or CIA interrogators. We can learn to self-program our own minds. As self-conscious beings we can realize how our brains are affected and choose to take advantage of that knowledge to alter the final outcome. In that way, we can to some extent be in control of our own shaping, our own creation.

The following might be an example of self-programming. We now know that the brain is 'primed' by exposure to certain ideas or experiences so that when ambiguous situations come up later, the new experiences are likely to be interpreted within the framework of the old, primed ideas. Studies show that, e.g., someone who encounters a peer rubbing watery eyes will interpret the situation as crying or sleepiness or allergies depending on their priming (whether they themselves just had a tear-filled fight with a spouse, just woke up after little sleep, or are fighting allergies). Someone who understands the priming effect might choose to expose themselves to less violent imagery or to avoid using certain words (like calling women demeaning words, which might make the person subtly and unconsciously frame future encounters with women within the conceptual framework provided by the previous language choice), or they might simply make an effort to be aware of priming effects (and in so doing, minimize their influence). This is self-programming, mind-control from within.

If self-programming really is possible (and it seems to be not only possible, but common, even if it is not always conscious), then an interesting consequent becomes apparent. The workings of the mind seem to be affected by or consequences of influences upon the mind, but then in the case of self-programming those influences come from choices made by the mind itself. Yet did the mind in turn make those choices because it was influenced to do so or did the mind make those choices freely in some way?

If the choices were made freely (that is, there is some factor other than cause-effect influences upon the mind) then there seems to be a sort of duality to the mind itself, to the thinking entity that is an individual. One part of it receives input and processes it according to certain rules, yet another part has to be separated off from that part and making choices not based only on those influences. For if the decision-making part were the same as the part that processes based on cause-effect rules, then its choices were ultimately caused either by previous external influences (which seems to lead to a determinism) or by previous internal decisions (which seems to lead to an infinite regress). So the choices left to explain the ability to self-program are determinism, an infinite regress, or a free will based upon mental-duality.

If determinism was the case in our universe, there does not appear to be any conceivable way to find evidence for that fact, so while it may be true, it seems to be a rather uninteresting hypothesis. We at least appear to have the ability to choose, so whether or not our choices are determined to end up only one way (i.e. it was never possible for things to be different) does not really matter; what matters is that from our perspective, more than one outcome appears possible for future events.

Similarly, there is not really a way to disprove the infinite regress possibility, but it seems intuitively implausible, like explaining that the world is held up on the back of a giant turtle, which is held up on the back of another giant turtle, which is held up on the back of another giant turtle, and so on forever. It is not really an explanation in the sense we usually look for explanations.

So assuming for the moment that these two are not the case, what is left is this new duality to free will. Forget the mind-brain duality of Descartes, where the mind was free and the brain was a robot slave to it. Instead, we appear to have to come to terms with a freedom that resides not within our thought processes (mind) but within some sort of 'will' or whatever that is only part of (or separate from) our mind, from the thing that does the thinking. For it is not just our actions that can be influenced by choices, by self-programming, but our very thoughts, the very way we think. Yet if free will is not a thought-process thing, what is it and where does it come from? Many conceptions of free will equate the will with our mind - we think with our mind and our choices are a result of our thinking. Instead, to maintain free will, we seem here to have to turn the previous conception on its head and assert that our thinking is a result of our choices, not the other way around.

This still leaves the choices themselves - the 'will' we might say - a mystery, which it is in the normal free will account as well, but now we at least have dispelled the illusion that it is a result of our thinking. We can self-program our own thinking (even if it is indirectly by choosing to change our habits and by changing our habits, changing the way we think) so our thought processes cannot really be the source of our choice to self-program without leading to circularity.

Now determinism, if it were true, escapes the need for this solution (for choice to come from without the thinking part), since our minds would be bound by causality to do things which in turn affect how our minds work. Whether determinism is an adequate solution or merely a misconception, an idea with no real substance, is still up in the air, but if we want to deny it and instead opt for a free will account (say because the evidence or arguments support that), our account of free will has to take into account this reversal of traditional thinking and conclude that our choices are ultimately not a result of our thought processes, but a cause of them.

The above argument is all sort of firing from the hip, not thought through entirely, so I would really welcome any comments on what I've written here. Am I jumping to conclusions or is the conclusion already more widely accepted than I think, or have I failed to say anything interesting? I'm not sure where to go with this from here, nor how to fit it in with my rather physicalist conception of the mind. More to come later.

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