Science news. Researchers in Japan are working on a potential new treatment for phobias and PTSD. It’s pretty interesting. This new approach, called fMRI decoded neurofeedback (DecNef), uses computer algorithms to identify and desensitize traumatic memories.
How does it work? To begin, researchers installed traumatic memories into their subjects by associating certain colored shapes with unpleasant electric shocks. They would then, naturally, feel afraid when reshown those images.
The subject’s brain had come to recognize these shapes as signifying danger. This is how specific phobias work. They tend to be installed via a process known as ‘Classical Conditioning’.
What is Classical Conditioning?
Here’s an interesting piece on the (utterly unethical) ‘Little Albert’ experiment, demonstrating the power of classical conditioning. It’s an eye-opening watch:
As you can see, the process of Classical Conditioning can dramatically alter our emotional responses. It’s powerful stuff.
Meanwhile, back in the lab…
Back to our research. The scientists placed their subjects in an fMRI machine, where they were asked to think about nothing in particular.
During that time, the software pinpointed moments when the patient’s brain accessed the previously-installed traumatic memories, which happened frequently during their time in the scanner. At that precise moment, the software offered the patient a reward, in this case money, which, over time, desensitized the traumatic memory in question. Very clever.
Unconscious Brain Processes
Here is the interesting bit: the brain was accessing these traumatic memories without the subject’s conscious awareness. Now, in this study, the memories were installed in an fMRI machine, so it makes sense that the brain then re-accessed them when placed back in the scanner. It’s a question of context.
But still, these are our brains we’re talking about. They run continuously and —most of the time— without our conscious input, as this experiment demonstrates clearly.
And that leaves us vulnerable to a certain kind of hijacking.
Conditioning, conditioning everywhere
Before we continue, here’s a word from the late, great Bill Hicks:
By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing… kill yourself. It’s just a little thought; I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day they’ll take root – I don’t know. You try, you do what you can. (Kill yourself.) Seriously, though, if you are, do. Aaah, no really. There’s no rationalization for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers. Okay – kill yourself. Seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good.
So, what has advertising got to do with any of this?
Well. Have you ever wondered why companies pay a fortune to secure celebrity endorsements? The answer is simple. Our favorite celebrities provoke positive feelings. There is nothing we can do to control this; it’s again based on unconscious processes.
‘I just love her…’
Marketers employ celebrities so we associate our positive feelings for them with the products they endorse. For instance, your logical mind, which is pretty weak in comparison, might recognize that you don’t really need a new music streaming service, but Taylor Swift is about to convince you otherwise:
To be fair to Taylor, she is pretty amazing… 😉
The conditioned response
Ahem. So, this type of conditioning is everywhere.
For instance, Coca-Cola strategically associates their products with ‘Unconditioned Stimuli’ like heat, sports, dehydration, etc. With repetition, the ‘Conditioned Stimulus’ (Coke) becomes associated with these phenomena, and just seeing a big poster of Coke can make us feel thirsty without knowing why. In scientific parlance: marketing guys are sneaky fuckers.
The manipulated world
This is just one way to manipulate the masses, of course. Operant Conditioning, hypnotic language and NLP, and straight-up propaganda exist all around us. All you need to do is open your eyes and look. Here is Terrance McKenna on the subject:
We are caged by our cultural programming. Culture is a mass hallucination, and when you step outside the mass hallucination you see it for what it’s worth.
Post-truth is nothing new
The Oxford Dictionaries has suggested “post-truth” as their Word of the Year, 2016. To me, post-truth has been the human state of mind for a very long time. Although social media is clearly changing the game, and 2016 has certainly felt pretty dramatic so far, we are used to being lied to. Manipulated. And kept in the dark.
Brexit and Trump show that people are angry. And not without good reason.
Right now, ‘dystopia’ seems an appropriate term to describe the age we’re living through. But then again, perhaps people have always thought that way. To help you make up your own mind, here’s an excellent Ted Education video, narrated by Alex Gendler:
The word dystopia means ‘an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.’ It was first used in 1868 by John Stuart Mill to characterize the new industrial world’s moral swamp.
An early example of dystopian fiction is Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels. According to Gendler, Gulliver’s Travels takes “certain trends in contemporary society… taken to extremes” as a way of cautioning us, the reader. Good dystopian fiction makes you think. And right now, thinking for yourself would be a good idea.
Whether dystopian or not, we certainly live in concerning times. Writers like Philip K. Dick, Margaret Atwood, Orwell and William Gibson (to name but a few) each forewarned us of these dangerous horizons. And they each described, in great detail, how the masses could be manipulated.
It seems to me that the conditioning of people sits at the heart of dystopian thinking.
The True Power of Donald Drumpf
I’m not getting into whether Trump is going to a good president or not. My belief is nobody can be a ‘good’ president — the job is geared to balance the status quo; there’s very little room for maneuver. However, there is no doubt he beat the odds to become elected.
When you consider what happened his ascendency is truly astonishing.
The Master Persuader
I recall reading this article back in April 2016. Here, Scott Adams, creator of the ‘Dilbert’ comics, predicted Trump would win the presidency. This was before he’d even garnered the GOP nomination. It was a fairly startling claim.
Adams believed Trump would win because he is a ‘Master Persuader’ who campaigns on emotion. Trump knows that people are irrational, and bases his appeal on emotional factors. Accomplish this, and facts don’t really matter.
And if facts don’t matter, you can’t really be ‘wrong.’
Yet more conditioning…
Trump uses repetition, and other techniques, to warp reality. He paints pictures in the minds of the people. Will he really drain the swamp? Make America great again? These phrases are meaningless, ultimately, but they create a strong appeal.
Many people feel a need for justice and greater equality. Trump managed to persuade the masses that he, a (probable) billionaire member of the Establishment, was the man to do it. That in itself is an amazing achievement, although not one I‘d feel proud of personally.
And this takes us back to the start. Our brains run on unconscious processes. We are capable of believing all kinds of nonsensical things. And they can be hijacked. More paranoia on my part? Probably.
But next time you find yourself feeling really strongly about something, ask yourself: is this what I really believe? And why?
Right now I’m about 86,000 words into the manuscript for my first novel, with another 12,000 words to go. That’s a lot of words, no matter which way you look at it. And, amazingly, some of them are even in the right order! Needless to say, this work is going to take a fair amount of editing.
I’ll keep you posted!
Beyond that, I’ve got a novella (based on three interconnecting short stories) coming out as next year as well. The world might be turning to shit, but that makes for interesting writing at least.
Thoughts? Questions? Criticisms? Recommendations? If you have anything to add, please submit your comment below. It’d be great to hear from you.
You might also enjoy this post, on ‘speculative fiction’: writezu.com/what-is-speculative-fiction/
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