Friday, December 7, 2012

Compass of Pleasure and Sleights of Mind

Version 0.5

A Comparative Review of The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden and Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde, and Sandra Blakeslee in Light of the Twitter

Now I realize that I probably bit off more than I can chew. I definitely feel like there is a unifying thread running through these 2 books and some of the recent research that I have been reviewing on Twitter, but it's rather hard to figure out how to weave the thread into words. It involves the unified focus of human consciousness. In other words, we really only think clearly about one thing at a time, and that's why research based on sampling of the Twitter on a broad scale is doomed to failure.

In The Compass of Pleasure, the primary focus was on the group of brain circuits that are frequently involved with pleasure responses and addictive behaviors. This was kind of a magic lever (with a deliberate play on the next book) into human behaviors, but the contributions from elsewhere in the brain were nebulous and far from clear. Being able to sample random signals going through other parts of the brain is kind of meaningless, as though you had a few random samples of neural responses and chemical samples from responses that are actually connected, but there is no way to explain the connections. You might detect that one particular neuron in the visual cortex is responding to a vertical line, while another fairly close neuron is responding to a movement, and somewhere else in the brain there is a clear signal that is activating a movement in the right leg, but the fact that these are all connected is not going to be something that can be inferred from this kind of data. Random sampling is wrong. You need highly directed searching, even if you have an anchor point such as the pleasure circuits.

In Sleights of Mind the the key notion is that magicians manipulate your mental focus so that you are mentally locked into the place where the trick is not taking place. In fact there's sometimes even automatic inhibitions of neighboring neural areas to help you focus on the place where the magician has specifically persuaded you to go with your mind's focus of attention. Often that involves friendly and empathic feelings that cause any human to respond to the interest expressed by other people, but feelings that are deliberately manipulated by the magician. The classic example is when one person stares up, and other people stop and stare in the same direction to see what it is. It's kind of like a shared social focus, though the authors used a more precise term for it (which I've already misplaced).

The intersection with Twitter is that no amount of analysis of random samples of tweets is going to produce anything useful. The metaphor is strained, but I think it's like having reports of the activities of random neurons from a brain. There are patterns to be found in the Twitter information, but your disconnected like the links between distance neurons. Again, the key is intelligent search. The hashtags can be clues, but even there things are very mobile. There are multiple competing foci among the hashtags and only a few of them ultimately rise to high levels of activity and visibility on Twitter. I'm not actually convinced that any of the information flowing around Twitter really amount to any decision points., but that is evidently what the people who are studying Twitter think they are looking for. Even President Obama was involved with Twitter this last week. I think he was just wasting his time, but he deserves some recreational time, too.

These ideas are actually linked back to my current thinking abut the recent election, where I am now feeling that the race between Obama and Romney was essentially the distracting focus that the magicians wanted you to look at, but far away from the the real action. Now I'm beginning to think the key thing was that all of that SuperPAC money wasn't really being wasted, though that is now the "magicians' patter" (from the pundits) about the election. In actuality, the money was effectively bribing the mass media to continue playing the election game in the same old way. Sure, it looks like the Romney got essentially nothing for a billion dollars, but especially in the swing states and in some key districts, the large flows of campaign advertising must have been enormous windfall profits for someone. I read that the nonpublic SuperPACs had to pay as much is 10 times the low basic rates that were guaranteed to the official advertising of the candidates. The money didn't disappear like a magic trick, and whoever got it will be glad to get more from the next election...

Not sure what insights to draw from this comparative review, such as it is. My problem remains that I'm fundamentally a replay machine, just executing the mental models that have been created by the real authors. It's not that I don't have anything to say, even when I can say it relatively easily using voice dictation (which I used for most of this post), but I'm more like a mirror than a light source.