A quick rule of thumb is that when someone seems to be acting like a jerk, an economist will defend the behavior as being the essence of morality, but when someone seems to be doing something nice, an economist will raise the bar and argue that he’s not being nice at all.
I’m intrigued by the proliferation of explicitly time-based self-care plans, like the 7 Minute Workout. They aren’t a new phenomenon – we’ve had 30 day diets and things like NaNoWriMo for decades. But it feels like the duration of these plans are getting shorter and shorter.
Part of the change is surely due to science. We know now that high-intensity interval training can produce better results in terms of fitness than longer but less intense exercise, by putting our heart and muscles under shorter, sharper periods of stress. Crucially, we know the mechanisms of why this works – it’s not just an observation, we can really see how our body’s cells and organs respond to stress.
But there are different degrees of rigour and certainty in science. A lot of the self-care plans based on psychology and neuroscience are, to my mind, based on much fuzzier research. I don’t mean to say that the researchers in question are incompetent or lying; it’s that their research is taken lightyears too far by companies marketing products.
Let’s imagine researchers conduct a study where they place university students in an MRI scanner and observe their brains while they’re listening to different sounds for ten minutes; maybe some students hear music, some hear white noise, some hear speech, and so on. They find that the students who hear the music have a different kind of brain activity in regions associated with focus or relaxation, or whatever, and the students also report that they feel more relaxed afterwards. So perhaps something is going on with the music, or that type of music, and it’s worthy of more study.
But then let’s say a company sees this research and makes an app – 10 Minute Relaxation (I’m making this up) – which plays calming music to you. They say their app is proven ‘by science’ to make you more relaxed in just ten minutes. Well, clearly not; what ‘works’ on university students sitting in an MRI may not work at all on a 50 year old sitting on a bus.
In any case, it doesn’t matter whether it works or not, it sounds good and people want a fast solution proven by science. The app makers can point at the study and the apps’ users get a nice placebo effect.
Not along ago, the time in London was different from the time in Edinburgh. Not that it mattered – it took so long to travel between the two cities, and the journey was so unreliable, that knowing the time down to the minute would have been pointlessly expensive (clocks and watches being pretty high tech back a century or two ago).
But now we have smartphones, which means that we agree on the time down to the second, and we can know our ETA via Google Maps and Uber down to the minute. We can be more efficient – no more idly waiting for ten minutes at the coffee shop for friend, because they can let us know they’re running late; we can spend that ten minutes on something else. Maybe it’s playing a game or reading Facebook – or maybe it’s something productive, like a 10 Minute Relaxation session.
The gaps in our busy lives are shrinking, which means that self-care solutions must also shrink.
Any one of us can become an exceptional artist or writer or games designer or YouTuber or actor. Any one of us can lose our jobs in an instant. Any one of us can have their entire field of work vanish in just a few years, thanks to automation and globalisation. So we are in competition with everyone else, which is a recipe for serious anxiety. It means you always need to be improving yourself; and it’s easy to see why shorter solutions can feel more manageable and rewarding than, say, the 7 Month Workout, or the 10 Year Relaxation session.
Our office manager Sophie passed me the phone. “It’s someone from Google,” she said. I raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this was an invitation to an event, or another chance to test prototype hardware, or something even more magical.
I unmute the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, I’m Tim, from Google Digital Development. I’d love to talk about how we can help you promote your apps on the Google Play Store better.”
How disappointing — they were just selling Google search ads. I quickly made my excuses and hung up.
Three months later: “Hi Adrian! My name is Mike, I’m from Google Digital Development -”
Seven months: “Hey Adrian! I’m from Google Digital -”
Twelve months: “I’m Sean, I’m from Google Digi -”
To this day, it keeps happening and I keep getting my hopes up, like a child. Why don’t I learn that ‘Google’ on the phone equals ‘Irish guy cold-calling with ad sales’?
Because I haven’t told you about the times Google contacts us about actual interesting projects. It’s usually by email, but sometimes they do call. Not on a regular schedule, of course — but at random, unpredictable times.
This pattern of frustration mixed with intermittent success is essentially a variable reinforcement schedule. If you’ve read any article about addiction in the last twenty years, you’ll know that a variable reinforcement schedule can be used to make rats compulsively press a lever in the hope of getting another pellet of food; and that the same schedule could explain how addictive behaviour develops in humans.
Some people in the tech community act as if variable reinforcement schedules were occult knowledge, magic words capable of enchanting muggles into loosening their wallets. If only we could learn the secrets of variable reinforcement schedules, we could make them addicted to our new app — all those microtransactions, all those ad views, oh my!
So when people learn that I studied experimental psychology and neuroscience at Cambridge and Oxford — and that I run a company that designs health and fitness games — they are taken aback. They are fascinated. And then… they are disappointed, but only after I tell them that the principles of variable reinforcement schedules and operant conditioning can be learned by a dedicated student in a few hours. Moreover, if experimental psychologists were all capable of making the next Candy Crush, they wouldn’t spend most of their time complaining about the quality of tea in the staff common room.
That doesn’t mean that variable reinforcement schedules are bunk, though.
Variable reinforcement schedules help explain why I spend an hour a day mindlessly checking Gmail, Metafilter, Reddit, Twitter, and Hacker News. Even when I know, with 99% certainty, that nothing interesting will have happened in the 15 minutes since I last checked them, I still type Command-R — because maybe this time I’ll get lucky.
More broadly, it’s why we pay attention to the constant interruptions that plague our screens — there’s no cost to the person sending the interruption, and occasionally, it’s of real interest to us. Continue reading “Invariable Reinforcement”
A few days ago, 73 scientists signed a letter asserting that brain training games – which typically feature puzzle games and mental exercises on smartphones, tablets, PCs, or handheld devices – do not successfully increase general measures of intelligence or memory.
I have long had my doubts about the efficacy of games like Brain Age in improving general intelligence. Doing simple arithmetic exercises, in my mind, only improves your ability to… do simple arithmetic. Supposedly there are some mental exercises you can do to improve working memory, such as the n-back task, but these are really quite difficult and not fun to do. Still, I have not been a practising neuroscientist or experimental psychologist for several years, so I didn’t feel qualified to comment.
I suggest you read the whole letter in full, or failing that, the Guardian’s summary (which also handily includes responses from game developers) but there are some important excerpts that are worth considering:
It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products. In the brain-game market, advertisements also reassure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are “designed by neuroscientists” at top universities and research centers. Some companies present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of scientific studies pertinent to cognitive training. Often, however, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.
Too many times have I seen apps and games that use the badge of being ‘designed by neuroscientists’ as a mark of efficacy and quality. It makes me sick. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their intentions, but they are being misleading. Just as often, I see game designers trot out a long list of papers of varying quality that are barely relevant to the actual experience being offered. This also makes me sick.
…we also need to keep in mind opportunity costs. Time spent playing the games is time not spent reading, socializing, gardening, exercising, or engaging in many other activities that may benefit cognitive and physical health of older adults. Given that the effects of playing the games tend to be task-specific, it may be advisable to train an activity that by itself comes with benefits for everyday life.
Another drawback of publicizing computer games as a fix to deteriorating cognitive performance is that it diverts attention and resources from prevention efforts. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the message that cognitive vigor in old age, to the extent that it can be influenced by the lives we live, reflects the long-term effects of a healthy and active lifestyle.
People shouldn’t play sudoku or solve crosswords or go to the bingo in the belief that they make you smarter. They should do them because they’re fun. If you want to improve your cognitive health, do a range of mental tasks and be physically active – there is lots of good research demonstrating this works. Unfortunately, this is more time consuming and tiring than sitting at home playing on a smartphone, and thus is a harder sell.
Do not expect that cognitively challenging activities will work like one-shot treatments or vaccines; there is little evidence that you can do something once (or even for a concentrated period) and be inoculated against the effects of aging in an enduring way. In all likelihood, gains won’t last long after you stop the challenge.
Like I say, read the whole letter.
On a related note, another thing that makes me sick are the pseudoscience apps I regularly see in the Top Health and Fitness category these days, including “Hypnotic Gastric Band” and the endless apps that promise to reduce your stress and anxiety. In some ways, these are no worse than self-help books that have been with us forever; but I think the veneer of science and professionalism delivered by the App Store and by the whole ‘quantified self’ industry is encouraging people to believe in effects that are not proven to exist. More on this another time.
By now, many of you will know about Facebook’s experimental study in which they attempted (successfully, they claim) to make their users sadder or happier by manipulating their News Feeds – without their informed consent. To call the study controversial would be an understatement. Unethical, arrogant, and bone-headed would be a little more accurate.
Beyond the critical question of ethics and the dubious scientific worth of the study lies the fascinating reaction from Facebook and from the wider technology community (by which I mean prominent venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and developers). It’s best to look at this reaction in comparison to other tech-related uproars that have engulfed the internet. Take the political issues like SOPA and net neutrality, for example. The whole tech community lent their voices and their wallets to internet-side of those movements, and they were all very happy to assume that their antagonists (‘old media’ businesses, etc.) were flat-out evil and greedy reactionaries.
When the tables are turned and Facebook is under attack for running a psychological experiment on its users, we hear… nothing at all. Radio silence from VCs and leaders of big companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Dropbox, and any other brand-name tech company. Those who are brave enough to defend Facebook usually comes from a place of utter bafflement: “We technologists are smart people and we mean well – isn’t that enough for you? In fact, the problem isn’t with what Facebook has done, it’s with your foolish and imperfect understanding of it. Here, let me explain it to your irrational, inconsistent child-like mind so that you can see how we’re trying to help you, and after I’m done you will praise us!”
The most common defence of Facebook invokes A/B testing, routine experiments companies run all the time in order to optimise their websites and apps. There are two real responses to this assertion:
1. “A/B testing” is too vague a term for useful comparison in this case; one might as well say that “experiments” are either all good or bad. Testing two two versions of a website selling hats and seeing which one version in more clicks on the “Buy” button? No-one has a problem with this, because when you’re on a retail website, you have a reasonable expectation that the owners are optimising their commercial message (just as Starbucks might optimise the names of their drinks). But what if Google A/B tested its search ranking algorithms in order to make you feel more positive about the US government? I don’t think we’d be too happy about that. Which leads us to:
2. Facebook (and indeed, Google) is different to most websites. It is a place where users want to keep up to date with their friends and family; it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a lens through which a billion people view the world. People using Facebook are not expecting that they are being actively manipulated there; at least not in a way that directly acts against their interests (i.e. to make them sadder).
You might say that this attitude is naive and we should be suspicious of everyone and everything. And indeed we are, in certain places. When we watch TV or read a newspaper and see an advert, we know that the advert is trying to manipulate us and it’s something that most of us accept, even if we aren’t too happy about it. But that’s why it’s crucial that adverts are clearly identified – not just on TV, not just in newspapers, but also in tweets and Facebook posts. You need to know what is and what isn’t commercial speech.
I suspect that technologists would rather not think about the ethics of A/B testing, which is used so widely precisely because it’s a very powerful manipulative tool that can change users’ behaviour, earning you millions or even billions more. Perhaps they’re worried that Facebook’s study might unleash regulation on A/B testing in general, or any kind of user manipulation. And, frankly, they are right to be worried. I suspect that the blithe nature of Facebook’s experiment will make people very worried about the other kinds of studies going on in private.
Yet rather than directly engage with people who criticise Facebook’s practices, their defenders instead think that we are stupid. It almost feels like they have completely internalised the messianic mission of Silicon Valley, where every disruptive startup is out to “save the world”, a stance which conveniently requires any right-thinking and ethical entrepreneur to make shit-tons of money by manipulating their users as fast as they can (in order to reach scale, etc.).
Disagree with Facebook and you disagree with the mission. Disagree with the mission, and you are an evil person.
Of course, there is a bit more to this story than what I’ve already said. Many Silicon Valley people subscribe to a utilitarian calculus of ethics, which appeals to their rational, big data personalities. Thus they might also defend Facebook by saying that the company is ultimately trying to increase the sum total of happiness in the world, and they can only do it by conducting these experiments. Ignoring the fact that it would be absolutely impossible to definitively conclude that because we can’t predict the other effects of these experiments (such as the fact that knowing Facebook has such broad control over people’s views of the world might make them sadder), the bigger problem is that there are different standards of ethics out there.
According to my standard of a good life, I would rather not have benevolent masters strapping rose-tinted spectacles onto my face. In other words, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Others may disagree, but that’s the point. There is no single ethics out there. People can have rational disagreements and there is no use to saying that we’re foolish for not wanting to be helped by Facebook. Never has Upton Sinclair’s maxim been truer: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
What is to be done?
I am still on Facebook, although I feel very unhappy about it (hah). There is currently no alternative for me to keep up to date with many of my friends and family. You could say that this makes me a hypocrite, just like the Occupy Wall Street protestor who uses an iPhone – made by a capitalist company that seeks to minimise its tax burden by whatever means necessary.
I don’t think that’s the case. This is the world we live in. You cannot get a phone that isn’t made by a capitalist company. due to economies of scale. I cannot keep up to date with my friends and family in other ways, due to network effects. The goal is to strive towards something else, even if we can’t be perfect while we do it.
To that end, I pledge to donate $1000 to any non-profit or B-corp organisation seeking to replace Facebook’s core social network functions that is able to raise $10 million in total donations.
I’d been walking back from a meeting in town when it suddenly began raining. I’m the type of person who packs an umbrella even at the slightest possibility of rain – in fact, at school my friends found it amusing how I always seemed to have an umbrella even in the middle of summer.
Lately though, I’d begun relying on a new weather app that provided very reliable hour-by-hour rain predictions to figure out what to wear in the morning – a sort of just-in-time clothing process – and today it told me the probability of rain was very low, hence no umbrella. And so here I was, sheltering underneath an awning waiting for the pedestrian lights to turn green, speaking to a guy who’d just been standing there.
I hadn’t noticed him at first; I was listening to a podcast of This American Life, the one about Father’s Day, and it took a while for me to realise he was actually trying to speak to me. The man was smartly dressed, wearing a dark suit jacket over an open-necked white shirt. He didn’t look like a weirdo, but you never know. I took one earbud out and turned towards him.
“You have a lucky face,” he said.
I laughed. “Thanks,” I said, thinking that he was just in a cheerful mood.
“You have a very lucky face,” he continued. “I can tell from your eyes and your mouth.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“But you look worried, you are frowning here,” he said, gesturing above my nose. “You should know that you will have good luck in the next three months, you will work hard but you will get what you are looking for.”
Ah, I thought, a fortune-teller. I glanced up at the lights; they were still red, and the rain was still coming down.
“Do you want to know why I think this? Let me tell you.” He slipped a red wallet made from leather out of his jacket and pulled out a few small bits of paper and a pen. He scribbed a few words on a scrap of paper, then crumpled it up into a little ball and gave it to me. “Don’t open it yet,” he said.
I took the paper and stuck it in my pocket.
“Okay, now pick a number from 1 to 9.”
Before I went to university, I thought I was interested in genetics and molecular biology. After precisely one lecture, I realised exactly how wrong I was and became determined to switch to something more stimulating, and I eventually found myself taking experimental psychology and neuroscience lectures. Many of them were highly reductionist or focusing on development or pathology, but some were at the cognitive level, and from them and from various textbooks I knew all about how humans reason and how poor we are at understanding logic and probability and causation.
They didn’t teach us specifically about magic, but it was clear that our limited capacity for attention and our ease of being misdirected was really the key to successful magicians. I once saw David Blaine perform a bit of magic at a TED conference. I was standing about one metre away from him when he did a fairly standard card trick on a guy he was close enough to touch, and then at the end gave the guy his watch back. We were all duly impressed; we had all been watching his hands intently, wanting to be the one person who was smart enough to see the trick, to figure out the ending. But he was too good.
“3,” I said, shrugging. He noted it down on a new piece of paper.
“Your favourite colour?”
The lights had turned green. This was the perfect opportunity to escape, but I wanted to see where this was going.
“Blue.” Why not?
“How many brothers and sisters?”
“Brother or sister?”
“Brother.” He wrote down ‘B – 1’ at the bottom of his list.
“Okay.” He looked up. “And what do you want most? Good health, good life, good fortune, good love, good family?”
I laughed. What an absurd question. “All of them,” I said.
For the first time, he laughed as well. “You have to pick one.”
“Okay then… good family.” He wrote down ‘G – F’.
He asked me for his bit of paper he’d given me at the start. I pulled it out of my pocket and handed it over, and he waved it in front of his face at precise points, and gave it back to me. “Don’t open it,” he said again. Then he began talking about how the numbers all added up and how if you combined this and that, I would figure out my fortune.
I was starting to finally get worried. I figured that he’d be asking for money shortly, and things had gone on for long enough that it was already going to be embarrassing when I left. With the lights back to green again, I backed away and said that I had to go now.
“No no no no no, we haven’t finished yet!”
“Sorry,” I said lamely.
“But you haven’t opened the paper!” he protested.
“Sorry,” I repeated behind me.
Befitting my status as a former scientist and being an avid reader of all the science blogs and such, I’m intensely suspicious of superstition. I have no problem with black cats. I deliberately walk underneath ladders. I’m sure I’ve broken at least two mirrors. But walking away from this guy, I couldn’t help but think I’d somehow cursed myself by not letting him finish his shtick; it was surely a rude thing to do, no matter how (eventually) annoying he had become.
Of course, I opened the paper. Written on it was:
0 – 28
For about three seconds, I froze.
Firstly, I thought: Wow, could it be true? Did this guy actually figure this out? Have I been completely wrong about all of this my entire life?
Secondly: Obviously not. But what are the chances of him guessing? Still pretty high – certainly not high enough to get a decent hit rate.
Thirdly: Wait a second… he must have done a classic switcheroo while I wasn’t looking! This must be the same bit of paper he’d been writing my answers on, and when he was waving it around, he’d swapped them over.
Aha. I felt proud of myself at this piece of Sherlockian deduction, then slightly sad. It was a tremendously engrossing piece of street magic; certainly not that technically impressive, but no doubt more than good enough to fool the average passerby. I wondered how much money he made by doing this. I wondered what he would have told me next.
And I wondered whether this was his life, giving other people a glimpse ahead into their lives. Giving them a certainty, proven with written evidence and without any caveats or probabilities or qualifications, that things were going to get better. I looked down at the piece of paper again, thought about whether to throw it away or not, and kept on walking.
Last week’s show of Thinking Allowed had a solid-gold conversation between Prof. David Gauntlett, author of Making is Connecting, and Prof. Richard Sennett, a sociologist at NYU and LSE, on Craft and Community. It began as an exploration of David Gauntlett’s book about ‘modern craftsmen’ on YouTube and other online venues but quickly flowed into a wider discussion of whether learning and crafting is, or should be, fun or pleasurable.
I’ve pulled out some choice quotes below (apologies for any mistakes); unfortunately I don’t have time to transcribe the whole thing right now, but I was very taken by a lot of what Richard Sennett had to say:
Richard Sennett: A lot of craftwork is very frustrating and one of the main things we need to learn in developing any skill is how to keep going even though we’re not getting pleasure at the moment from what we’re doing; how to commit to something that is often very arduous. And if you begin to measure the development of a skill in terms of getting pleasure from it, the first time there’s something really difficult to do, you’re going to have a problem…
David Gauntlett: People love making though, don’t they? We see that through the enthusiasm people have for making and craft activities. When people put videos on YouTube, millions of hours every week, that’s because people want to do it. It is hard and difficult and can be frustrating of course, but they have a strong drive to make things and they ultimately enjoy it even though the process itself can involve all kinds of frustrations and difficulties but it’s like climbing a mountain. When you’re doing it, you’re having a hell of a time, but when you reach the top you feel thrilled.
RS: Well, not quite, I think. One thing that really drives people on to keep working and to do good work is the sense that when they’ve come to the end of a project, that they have the sense they could do more and better the next time. It isn’t all joy, you know, at the end? I was very struck about what we know about Stradivarius, who was arguably the greatest violin-maker of all time. He is supposed to have remarked to a disciple who said “This is a masterpiece,” and he said, “It may be, but I know I could do it differently.” And that’s the kind of impulse, I think, that really keeps people going.
And it’s not just really a quibble, I think, whether it’s a question of satisfication or joy, because modern society puts so much emphasis on pleasure. The pleasure of learning, the fear of subjecting people to discipline which might make them bored, god forbid. In my view this is a terrible reduction of the seriousness of actually getting engaged in a project.
I think the issue about craft online is a really stunning and rich one. In the history of technology, people often invent a new tool before they really know how to use it. This was true in the Renaissance when the scalpel was invented; it took surgeons about a century to learn how to adapt their hands to it. I think today, with these marvellous online tools for communication, we have, as it were, the machinery before we have the knowledge for how to know them best. And they will evolve.
Sometimes the first impulses we have when we have a new tool are to use it in old ways rather than to think about new ways that are quite specific to it. This is a subject I’ve been thinking about in terms of co-operation online, which is a serious way of using Facebook, Twitter and more specific sites. We’re still in the, if you like, almost prehistoric stages of understanding how to use these machines and to develop that understanding, we have to have a motivation which is a little more long term. Which is a little less instant.
There’s a lot that I’ve missed out, including David Gauntlett’s very apt comparison of medieval craftsmen who made gargoyles to people doing DIY videos on YouTube today, and Richard Sennett’s belief that individuals need communities to order to learn a craft.
It’s the mantra of any Civilization player – just one more turn. Whether you’re exploring uncharted territory, or researching a new technology, or anticipating a Wonder of the World that’s about to complete, there’s always a reason to play one more turn. And once you’ve played that turn, there’ll be another, and another, and before you know it, you’ve blown way past dinner time, bed time, seriously-it’s-bed time, and you’re looking at your watch thinking, “I know it’s 4am, but I’ve come this far so I might as play for the x more turns it’ll take me to finish building my spaceship/invasion fleet/United Nations.”
I’ve spent too much time on Puzzle Quest, I played Diner Dash until I felt like I could re-order entire restaurants using the power of my mind, I’ve stayed up far too late messing about in Team Fortress 2 – but Civilization trumps them all. I have never played a game quite as compelling as Civilization.
There’s a term for how games achieve this kind of fixated behaviour: the ‘compulsion loop’. It’s very simple:
- You play the game
- You achieve some goals
- You get awarded with new content
- GOTO 1
You might claim that this is facile – that by this loose definition, all games contain compulsion loops – but the fact is that most games aren’t engineered around compulsion loops. Story-based adventure games like Uncharted 2 or Halo 3 may well have short-term goals and new levels and environments being awarded to the player, but they typically don’t come on a fixed schedule. Instead, they can be frustrating and time-consuming to achieve, and are easily deflated by poor pacing and writing. Not that this makes them worse – I don’t think the job of a game is to simply be compulsive – but they don’t keep me up until 4am.
Now, if you want to see pure compulsion loops in action, just check out any of Zynga’s games on Facebook. Farmville is basically a compulsion loop dressed up in plants, with goals being doled out on a player-controlled schedule and new content (crops, buildings, decorations) always tantalisingly within range. Mafia Wars is even better (or perhaps worse), because it drops the pretence entirely and is just a compulsion loop written out in numbers and text. You don’t need any skill to play these games, you just need to be able to click your mouse enough times to fill up a bar.
Viewed through this prism, it’s clear why Civilization is so compelling; every single turn of the game is a mini-compulsion loop. In every single turn, like clockwork, you move units, you achieve tangible goals, and you get new content. The game keeps you playing until you’ve have seen everything and done everything that the world has to offer.
There is a real difference between Farmville and Civilization, though. After playing Farmville for a couple of months, a friend told me, in a tone of undisguised self-disgust, that he felt like he’d wasted part of his life. I know how he feels – I played Farmville for a month and I feel like the experience was completely worthless, even though at some points I was scheduling my life around when crops were due to ripen.
Contrast that with Civilization, where well-played games will remain fresh in the mind for years – and yet even the meanest, most boring game of Civilization will contain something memorable. It might be the desperate last defence of a doomed city, or a particularly sneaky piece of diplomacy, but there’s always something you feel pleased about achieving. Civilization has a depth and complexity and meaning that Zynga’s toys can’t touch. The fact that it contains mini-compulsion loops feels more like an enabler of that richness, a way to manage that complexity, rather than a cynical trick to keep players hooked.
Of course, there’s one more big reason why Civilization, even with in its most Farmville-beating, sleep-depriving, anti-social nature, is not so bad: it always has an end.
A phenomenon well-known by psychologists, and pretty much everyone else, is called ‘tip of the tongue’, and it’s described in this American Scientist article:
When we have something to say, we first retrieve the correct words from memory, then execute the steps for producing the word. When these cognitive processes don’t mesh smoothly, conversation stops.
Suppose you meet someone at a party. A coworker walks up, you turn to introduce your new acquaintance and suddenly you can’t remember your colleague’s name! My hunch is that almost all readers are nodding their heads, remembering a time that a similar event happened to them. These experiences are called tip-of-the-tongue (or TOT) states. A TOT state is a word-finding problem, a temporary and often frustrating inability to retrieve a known word at a given moment. TOT states are universal, occurring in many languages and at all ages.
The article goes on to explain that tip-of-the-tongue may be caused by weak connections between words and their phonology (their sound) in our brain; the weaker they are, the more likely it is that you will know a word, but you just can’t recall how to say it.
There’s also a general theory of memory, that we retrieve memories through their connections to other memories – the stronger the connections, the easier the recall. You can imagine a cascading chain of memories of a moment years ago, set off by a particular smell or piece of music from that day; or revising for a exam for months and months, baking those connections in.
What’s interesting is that these connections are now being externalised from our brain, and supplemented by computers and the internet. Here’s what I mean: earlier today, I needed to recall the name of someone who’d won a prize. I couldn’t remember what the prize was, what it was for, or even when this happened. I did, however, know that it would be in an email, and the email would contain the word ‘Jeremy’. So I did a search in my mail for ‘Jeremy’, and a quick scan of the search results later revealed the email.
I don’t relate this to show that I am some sort of search ace; far from it. Plenty of people use searches in their mail, their RSS feeds, their computers, or even the entire web, to supplement things that they already know but just can’t retrieve. These days, the searches are fast enough, and the information kept in databases broad enough, that this practice of laying down virtual connections is accelerating.
I expect that as we store increasing amounts of important information on computers, and we continually improve the speed and accessibility of searches (through, say, silent messaging), we will find it ever more difficult to see where our memory and recall processes end, and where those of our computers begin. We’ll be able to remember far more, far faster – and if we’re ever disconnected from our computers, it’ll be even more painful.
One of the many sad results of Perplex City being put ‘on hold’ is that I can’t explore the effect of cognitive enhancement on society. As a former neuroscientist who studied experimental psychology at university, I always enjoyed writing about my pet fictional company, Cognivia, and its range of cognitive enhancements including Ceretin (wide-spectrum enhancement), Mnemosyne (memory booster), Cardinal (maths), Synergy (creativity) and others. I still think the names are really cool as well.
As usual though, reality is catching up to fiction at an breathtaking rate; The New York Times published an article today covering the use of cognitive enhancers in universities and society in general:
In a recent commentary in the journal Nature, two Cambridge University researchers reported that about a dozen of their colleagues had admitted to regular use of prescription drugs like Adderall, a stimulant, and Provigil, which promotes wakefulness, to improve their academic performance. The former is approved to treat attention deficit disorder, the latter narcolepsy, and both are considered more effective, and more widely available, than the drugs circulating in dorms a generation ago.
… One person who posted anonymously on the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site said that a daily regimen of three 20-milligram doses of Adderall transformed his career: “I’m not talking about being able to work longer hours without sleep (although that helps),” the posting said. “I’m talking about being able to take on twice the responsibility, work twice as fast, write more effectively, manage better, be more attentive, devise better and more creative strategies.”
Would I take cognitive enhancers? I would certainly like to give Provigil a try, if only to see what it’s like. I have concerns about its long-term efficacy, and obviously there are issues of developing a dependency on it (if not physiological, psychological). There are already many people out there who regularly use caffeine and Pro-Plus to pep themselves up. You could argue that the stimulant properties of caffeine are merely a side-effect, and that the reason people drink coffee is because it tastes nice, but I find that as hard to believe as the notion that people drink alcohol only because they enjoy the taste.
The fact is, we already widely use cognitive enhancers, whether it’s caffeine or sugar. They do improve our performance. They are not natural in the slightest, unless natural somehow means ‘old’. So the question becomes, are we prepared to allow use of cognitive enhancers that are even more powerful, more reliable, and with fewer side-effects?