"All the world's a stage we pass through." - R. Ayana

Monday, 25 August 2014

Are We in Control of Our Brains? Probably Not

Are We in Control of Our Brains?
Probably Not


by Derek Mead

My brain and I have a somewhat adversarial relationship. It's not nearly as bad as when I was 16, when the principal could ask me why I ninja kicked a plate-glass window and I could honestly say I wasn't sure, but it still sometimes feels like that ball of flesh rattling around in my skull isn't on the same page as me. 

I know I'm not alone, and that the "me versus my brain" thing has long been a rather popular trope in comedy. But it still seems totally crazy, right? I mean, on a fundamental level, our brains and our consciousness are tied together, so viewing one as independent of the other would appear to be a bit absurd. But it's not as crazy as you or your brain might believe.

I've been thinking about all this brain stuff lately, not because of any terrible impulse decisions I've made recently—my brain and I seem to be in accordance on those—but in reaction to the wave of uproar that's passed through the web in the last month or two.

There have been two main reactions to emotion-based research, such Facebook's various studies or OkCupid's similar efforts. First, there's the general outrage that companies whose only product is their users would try to better engage and monetize those users. 

While the complaints are certainly valid, it is pretty curious to see people rally en masse against singular examples of corporate manipulation of emotion, when it's literally happening all around us at all times of day. But hey, as another emotion study found, anger is indeed more viral than joy.

Is your brain being a pain? Then go kick its ass.

The second reaction is related, and makes the whole phenomenon a lot more interesting than just outrage over the latest revelation that cutesy internet companies run by MySpace Toms are actually megacorporations whose only real concern is making money: A whole lot of people remain steadfast in their belief that they cannot be manipulated, even by something as obscure as slight adjustments to the emotional timbre of their News Feed.

A comment on my original story about the Facebook study lays the sentiment bare:

No, it isn't shaping US ALL. Leave me out of your blanket diagnoses, because I don't fit that neurotypical mold. Social interaction ain't shapin' me; no social contact ever has. In high school I noticed others changing their behavior in an attempt to please a particular audience, and it disgusted me. Still disgusts me. I am and will always be the same person, regardless who you are and who else is with you.  

The best adage about the internet is also an old one: If you're not paying for the product, then youare the product. The vast majority of the revenue-generating internet, including this here website, is powered by advertising, which is totally fine; if everything was paywalled, we, as readers and viewers, wouldn't have nearly as much diversity in our feeds. 

The internet remains open and vibrant because it's mostly free; the tradeoff is that we have advertisers, companies, and the occasional clicky-headline-obsessed media outlets doing their damnedest to optimize how they get ads in front of our eyeballs. And here we come to the most basic question of our lives in the internet: How subversive is that, really? Are we in control of our brains or not?

The fear is that OkCupid can alter your perception of the world just by yanking some levers on its algorithm like the Wizard of Oz. While algorithms really don't appear to be that powerful, there's no doubt that altering your timeline to show more positive or negative posts can have small effects on your own mental state. 

The internet is dissolving our own fragile belief that our brains = us. Image: Nelson Silva/Flickr

In that sense, we're not in control of our brains. We're highly empathetic creatures, and our emotional connection to fellow humans can subconsciously morph and express itself in unexpected ways, including my favorite hypothesis in the area, which suggests yawning is a subconscious, empathetic behavior.

Recent outrage certainly feels new in the sense that it's rallying against the early vestiges of a dystopian future in which all of our information is shaped, honed, and spun to protect the powers-that-be. 

(Point: Facebook using its sway to, say, shape an election is a completely horrifying thought; Counterpoint: Google is worth a metric fuckton of money precisely because it's spent years perfecting the algorithm that has more sway over the delivery of the entirety of human information than anything else, and people don't seem too pissed about that.)

But it's not new at all. The best commentary on corporate exploitation of the gap between our consciousness and our brains is 1988'sThey Live. Rowdy Roddy Piper and shapeshifter conspiracies aside, the movie portrays a world in which all of the ads bombarding our eyeballs are also carrying hidden propaganda messages brainwashing people into consumption and subservience.

That extra layer—everyone knows that ads full of attractive women drinking champagne and perfectly-stubbled men smoking cigarettes are meant to evoke a response in us, but here there's that plus subversiveness—would feel shockingly prescient if it wasn't already a real concern decades ago.

In 1970, Del Hawkins published a landmark paper on marketing research, which helped give rise to the concept of subliminal marketing. Ultimately, Hawkins' "attempts to form subliminal associations with behavioral consequences proved futile," but the idea is a sticky one, and myriad researchers have tried develop a scientific process for separating us from our brains in order to make us simply understand that Pepsi is better than Coke.

Ultimately, subliminal marketing proved less effective than traditional full-page spreads of supermodels. As the opening line of a 1987 paper reads, "The popular belief in subliminal advertising has remained robust in spite of the fact that advertising professionals almost universally discount it as a practical technique." 

Layers upon layers of subversion? No, just the basic suggestibility of our own subconscious.

Or, as one 1988 paper snarkily puts it, "The history of subliminal research consists of cycles during which investigators report a subliminal finding, others fail to replicate it, but, nevertheless, the finding is publicized and achieves some degree of acceptance among lay audiences."

But is the failure of subliminal marketing due to the fact that we're more in control of our brains than we might think, or the fact that in the 70s and 80s the right platform didn't exist? 

In recent years, subliminal marketing has been given a sexier rebrand with the new name "neuromarketing," which certainly sounds more scientific and less subversive. A rather interesting 2012 paper, which is available in full, is provocative: While it lays clear that the executive's dream—that brain scans and neuroimaging can be used to create the perfect marketing campaign, one which can hack viewers' brains and make them want to buy right now—isn't particularly realistic, preying on consumers' brains, and not their selves, does have demonstrable effects.

"To sum up, neuromarketing cannot push a 'buy button' in the customer’s brain because there is no 'buy button' to push," the authors write. 

However, "the findings indicate that they tend to think 'the person on the screen is me', and they behave, react, and feel accordingly. This notion encourages the use of neuromarketing that utilizes still pictures and video clips as well as arbitrarily chosen small groups of test subjects for studying customer behaviour and reactions in different situations," they continue.

In other words, because we are highly empathetic, more immersive and emotional advertising tends to register more with our brains—if not our conscious selves, which are probably more concerned with how much money we have. 

And where are our experiences already highly immersive and flooded with interaction? That's right, in our social feeds. "We believe that the findings and the method can be used not only for assessing the buying process, but also for testing new product and service concepts and applications, especially in the high-tech sector," the authors write.

So are we in control of our brains? Probably not. Even an understanding that all of your social feeds and searches are honed, for better or worse, by an unknown algorithm isn't enough to counter the effects, as there's no baseline for you to judge against. Facebook's feed algorithm is constantly being refined, the people in it are constantly evolving on their own, and it's all both too complex and too subtle to try to actively counter, even if you knew there was something worth pushing back against in the first place. 

Multiply that singular example across the vastness of the internet, and we're left with two scenarios: One in which we're all being subverted by third parties; or one in which there's so much noise that somehow it all equilibrates, or at least don't get pulled too far in either direction. Funnily enough, there are also two solutions: Accept the fact that we don't control our brains as much as we like and move on with our day, or simply chuck your computer into the toilet and go outside.

From Motherboard @ http://motherboard.vice.com/read/are-we-in-control-of-our-brains-probably-not

The Shocking Drink and Incredible Coke History Of Subliminal Advertising





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