Tag Archives: the human brain

Memory Enhancement: The First Killer App For Neuralink?

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Every new technological innovation promises to change the world, but few end up delivering. I still remember the overblown hype in the early 2000s when the Segway Personal Transporter was supposed to revolutionize the world. It was such a big deal that “South Park made an episode about it.

The concept was intriguing, improving mobility for people in a way that was less bulky than a car and less taxing than a bicycle. I think its inventor, Dean Kamen, envisioned a world where the entire urban landscape changed as a result of his invention. I don’t doubt for a second that he believed in that vision.

However, like so many other ambitious inventions, it never came to pass. These days, the only place you’ll see Segways is malls and stadiums. It didn’t revolutionize mobility or transportation. Its use and appeal was just too limited.

Kevin James would argue otherwise.

Compare that to enormous impact of other inventions like smart phones. From the BlackBerry to the first iPhone, these devices have literally changed the world. How they brought about that change varies, but the key factor that set them apart from the Segway was the idea of a “killer app.”

You could argue that smartphones invented the term, but the idea is much older. A killer app isn’t as much an innovation as it is a use that goes onto be so popular that it further advances the technology behind it. Smartphones had many, from cameras to translation applications. As a result, they’re both a multi-billion dollar industry and an integral part of our lives.

Given the current pace of technological change, it’s only a matter of time before another innovation comes along that has a similar impact. That technology might actually exist now, but lack the killer app that will make it both a valuable market and a major part of our lives. One such technology is brain implants this technology has the potential to be even bigger than smartphones.

I’ve mentioned brain implants before. I’m even guilty of hyping it up a little. I’ve gone so far as to call it the most important technological advance in history, citing companies like Neuralink as the arbiters of this monumental change. Since I’m not a scientist and I’m not Elon Musk, it’s very likely I’m overstating many aspects of this technology.

Hype or no hype, brain implant technology is an emerging field. This isn’t a warp drive. This technology actually exists. Like the old brick-sized cell phones of the 1980s, they’re basically prototypes in need of both refinement and a killer application. The refinement is ongoing, but that one application to really further this technology isn’t as clear.

Now, and I apologize if this sounds like more overdone hype, there may be one use that could prove even more useful than a smartphone. That use is memory enhancement. If you don’t think people are willing to risk putting something in their brains to boost their memory, then you’ve clearly never crammed for a Spanish exam for three hours trying to memorize conjugations.

Think back to any situation where you wish your memory didn’t suck. Even if you’re not in school or college, how often do you forget something that no reasonable person should forget? Let’s face it. Most brains aren’t wired with a photographic memory. It’s not that it isn’t useful. There’s just little survival benefit to having one unless you’re a world class scientist or mathematician.

Since photographic memories are so uncommon, and some doubt they even exist to the extent people believe, a specialized brain implant could change all that. Modern neuroscience has a solid understanding of how memories are formed in the brain. In theory, an implant would just augment or expand those functions.

It’s not even entirely a theory. In early 2018, the New York Times reported that a study utilizing brain implants in human test subjects showed a significant improvement in memory function. It was a simple study, but the effect is real.

In the study, the research team determined the precise patterns for each person’s high-functioning state, when memory storage worked well in the brain, and low-functioning mode, when it did not.

The scientists then asked the patients to memorize lists of words and later, after a distraction, to recall as many as they could.

Each participant carried out a variety of tests repeatedly, recalling different words during each test. Some lists were memorized with the brain stimulation system turned on; others were done with it turned off, for comparison.

On average, people did about 15 percent better when the implant was switched on.

While 15 percent may not sound like much, it’s still important because it proves the concept. Like that first bulky cell phone in the 1980s that could barely make a call out of New York City, it shows that this idea does work and can be done with our current tools. It’s just a matter of refining those tools and improving the process.

Those refinements will find a market that is already ripe with people anxious to improve their memory and overall cognitive function. In recent years, the use and abuse of mind-enhancing drugs like Adderall is growing. I can personally attest that this happens.

When I was in college, I knew more than a few students who would do double doses before exams. If you think putting something in your brain is dangerous, then take a moment to appreciate the fact that drugs like Adderall are very similar to methamphetamine. One is available by prescription. The other is the basis of a hit TV show about drug dealing.

There is both a demand and a market for enhancing memory. Unfortunately, that market is dominated by supplements that don’t work and study programs run by convicted fraudsters. Unlike these costly and potentially harmful methods, a brain implant could actually work. It could enhance our memories to a point where we could read a dictionary in Swahili and remember every word.

This doesn’t just mean lost car keys are a thing of the past. This means our entire approach to learning, education, and training completely changes. A lot our modern education system, as well as training for doctors, lawyers, and scientists, relies heavily on memorizing large chunks of information. It takes years of constant and careful study to understand all that information. What happens when that is no longer the case?

Imagine a world where people can learn a new language in the span of a week.

Imagine a world where people can learn complex legal and medical procedures in only months.

Imagine a world where people can learn new software coding in just a few days.

If you’re a sports fan, imagine a world where football players can memorize an entire playbook in just a couple days. What will that do to the NFL Draft?

With a memory enhancing brain implant, it’s not just possible. It’s a potential game-changer. There are so many uses to having a good memory, just as there are so many uses for a smartphone. We had no idea that smartphones would lead to applications like Snapchat or Tinder. I doubt anyone has an idea on the impact that memory-enhancing brain implants will incur.

It won’t happen all at once. It took years for smartphones to become prevalent and unlike smartphones, this advance involves putting something in your brain. Then again, people are perfectly willing to put dangerous chemicals in their bodies to enhance their bodies so I don’t think that’s too great a barrier to overcome.

There are, of course, far greater applications for brain implants beyond acing final exams. I’ve mentioned a few of them, but those applications won’t be possible until the technology becomes a thriving market. For an advance like brain implants, it only takes one app to get the engines of innovation going. Memory enhancement may very well be that app.

It’s just a shame it came too late to help me with my Spanish exam.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, human nature, psychology, Sexy Future

Prison Or Brain Hacking? A Choice That May Shape Our Future

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How does a civilized society deal with its least civilized individuals? This is a question that every society has had to answer, going back to the hunter/gatherer era. We live in an imperfect world full of imperfect individuals. Some are more imperfect than others, so much so that it’s not always possible to reform them into functional members of society.

Most people who commit crimes are not monsters, nor are they sadists who get their joy by torturing the innocent. A vast majority are just people who find themselves in bad situations where they make wrong decisions, exercise poor judgment, or lack impulse control. For these people, fines and brief imprisonment are usually sufficient.

For those who become career criminals, neither respecting the law nor seeking to abide by it, the current system is woefully inadequate. It’s part of the reason why criminal justice reform has become a hot topic. We’re finally learning that throwing people into prisons where they’re dehumanized, degraded, and tortured doesn’t help them become productive members of society. Go figure.

There’s plenty of room for improvement. Some countries have demonstrated that there are more effective, more humane ways to treat criminals. However, even those systems have their limits. As long as human beings remain an imperfect species, we’ll still have to deal with these deviant, violent, and inherently dangerous individuals.

For the moment, our options for dealing with these people are few. It primarily involves incarceration or intense therapy, often coupled with drug therapy. While this can be helpful to some, there are severe limitations. Some individuals don’t even want treatment and even those who are caught don’t always respond.

With that in mind, allow me to present a not-quite-hypothetical scenario. What if, instead of prison or therapy, we gave offending criminals an option to undergo an invasive treatment that affects the primary source of their deviant behavior in the brain? Jail is still an option for those who aren’t keen on messing with their brain wiring, but for certain people, an alternative is an alternative.

What I just described is one of those concepts in which the science is there, but the technology and the courts haven’t caught up to it. I know whenever I talk about emerging technology, be it sex robots or artificial wombs, I venture pretty far into speculation territory. Some of these advances rely on science and tools that don’t yet exist. This isn’t one of those cases.

In July 2018, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study revealing that targeted stimulation of the prefrontal cortex reduced aggressive tendencies in test subjects. Before you start getting fever dreams of mad scientists strapping people to gurneys and sticking wires in their ears, you can rest easy. This isn’t the kind of electroshock treatment that find their way into one too many horror movies.

These treatments have ground-breaking implications. They prove that it’s possible to temper or mitigate certain behaviors in people. The study doesn’t specify the limits of the effects or if it can be applied to something other than aggressive behaviors. It’s still a proof of concept and one that could compound the impact of other emerging technologies.

We already have tools like CRISPR that allow us to tweak our genes. We also have companies like Neuralink that are actively working on implants that could fix, augment, or expand our brain capacity. While men like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil often discuss these advances within the context of keeping humanity on pace with artificial intelligence, there will likely be some interim uses for these technologies.

Tempering violent behavior in people with significant cognitive impairments is just one possible use, but one that has the potential to change how we think about crime and punishment. Think back to those people I mentioned earlier who just inherently violent. They can’t manage their emotions or control their anger. They don’t think before they act and some don’t even feel guilty about what they do.

Like it or not, these people exist. I’ve known people in my life who have terrible impulse control and fly into a rage over the smallest things. Some of those people have had issues with the law and I often see in them a sense of never-ending frustration. Many don’t like that they have these issues. A few have tried to get help, but it doesn’t always work.

I suspect that if some of those people were given a chance to treat their tendencies with targeted shock therapy or a brain implant, they would jump at the chance. Deviant tendencies aside, they seek some level of function in their lives. If tweaking their brain is the difference between prison and freedom, then they’ll take that risk.

Turning people who might have been unrepentant psychopaths into productive, non-violent members of society is an objective good. The technology to do just that is not that far off and more study could help us refine the process, so much so that prison might be less necessary in certain cases. Given how expensive it is to imprison people, it’s an alternative worth pursuing.

Along with that undeniable good, however, there are plenty of potential dangers. Anyone who has ever seen one too many psychological thrillers or just read “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” can easily imagine how this kind of technology could be abused.

Tempering someone’s violent behaviors is all well and good, but why would it stop there? The brain is capable of all sorts of behaviors, deviant and otherwise. Say a society determines that other non-violent behaviors, be it sexual promiscuity or binge-watching Netflix for too many hours, are not socially desirable. What’s to stop them from imposing this on their citizens?

Some countries probably already fantasize about technologies that enable them to directly pacify their citizens, rendering them weak, passive, and easily manipulated. In his famous novel, “1984,” George Orwell called these people proles. However, in the book, the deviants had to be tortured and re-educated. If Big Brother had access to this technology, it would be a simple medical procedure.

That has plenty of terrifying possibilities for abuse. What if someone uses brain stimulation to prevent people from having homosexual urges? What if someone uses it to treat those who identify as transgender? There’s no evidence that the techniques in the study would work on that, but there’s no evidence to say it’s impossible.

Its use will definitely be controversial. That much, I’m certain of. It’s not advanced enough to become a legitimate treatment for anything. At the moment, direct brain stimulation is utilized for a specified set of conditions and it’s often a last resort. Using it on healthy people who just want to cull their violent urges is uncharted territory.

Whether it enters the picture for criminal justice reform is anyone’s guess, but if the process works, someone who has dealt with one too many repeat offenders will try to use it. From there, the precedent will be set. It’s hard to say what form it’ll take, but it’ll take society into uncharted territory with respect to controlling our minds.

Perhaps, at first, the process would be voluntary and only be presented in conjunction with jail or some other treatment. It’s also possible that the courts will determine a strict set of criteria for when the state could force this treatment onto someone. There are probably a few repressive governments who would try to use this on an industrial scale. I won’t say they’re names, but most people know who they are.

Like any emerging technology, there are risks and rewards worth considering. We stand to benefit greatly by having a society with as few violent individuals as possible. We also stand to lose a great deal if we allow misguided authority figures to determine how we use this technology.

I’m not qualified to determine whether or not someone should have their brain hacked. I don’t know that anyone is. However, I also don’t deny that the human brain, as magnificent as it is, has plenty of flaws. We should go about fixing those flaws, especially in people who are disproportionately impacted by them. We just have to be very careful about how we manage it.

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How Advanced AI Will Create Figurative (And Literal) Magic

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If you went back 50 years and showed someone your smartphone, chances are they would be amazed. To them, such technology would seem downright alien. However, they probably wouldn’t think it was magic. Go back 500 years, though, and chances are they will think a smartphone is magic, miraculous, or a tool of the devil.

Just look at what a smartphone does and compare it to the magic of old. You can ask it a question and, depending on how well-worded it is, it’ll give you an answer. If you ask it to make food, clothes, or tools appear, it’ll make that happen too. Thanks to services like Amazon and Grubhub, this isn’t magic to most people. In fact, it’s downright mundane.

Granted, these things won’t appear instantly out of thin air, but depending on your willingness to pay for quicker shipping, it will get there. By medieval standards, that’s basically sorcery.

You don’t have too far back in time to appreciate the magic of modern technology. Most of us don’t understand how it works. We don’t know what makes the screens on our phones light up when we push a button or how our car moves when we press the accelerator. We understand that there’s science behind it and it’s not magic. It just feels like it from a certain perspective.

Famed science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, once said that magic is just science we don’t understand. It was one of the three laws he used in contemplating the future. Time and a host of amazing advances have proven the validity of this sentiment. We’ve created materials once thought to be impossible. We’ve uncovered phenomenon that seem to undermine our understanding of physics.

This is to be expected because our understanding of the universe is incomplete. We have some pretty solid theories so far, but there’s still a lot we don’t understand. As we learn more, some of the things we discover may seem magical. Even in a world that is more educated than it has been at any point in human history, there may still be forces that our primate brains just can’t make sense of.

To some extent, it helps that humanity is making these discoveries through their collective effort. It helps us accept a seemingly-impossible idea if it comes from a member of the same species. What happens, though, when we gain knowledge from something that is both not human and many times smarter than the entire human race? Will it seem like magic to us?

I argue that it would. I would also argue that we’ll be seeing this kind of magic sooner than you think. It won’t come from some enigmatic sorcerer with a thick beard, a white robe, and an uncanny resemblance to Ian McKellen. It’ll likely come from the world of advanced artificial intelligence.

In the past, whenever I’ve talked about advanced artificial intelligence, I’ve focused on its potential to fundamentally change our civilization and what it means to be human. I haven’t touched on how it might work, mostly because I’m not nearly smart enough to make sense of it. However, that gives me more in common with the experts than you think.

In the emerging, but rapidly growing field, of artificial intelligence, there’s a strange phenomenon known as black box AI. Simply put, this when we understand the data that goes in and comes out of an AI system. We just don’t know how it went about processing that data. It’s like putting a slab of meat in an oven, pressing a button, and getting a Big Mac without knowing how it was made.

It’s not quite magic, but it’s a manifestation of Arthur C. Clarke’s ideas on science and magic. AI systems today are advancing at a pace that we can’t hope to keep up with. We already have systems that can surpass any human in terms of Jeopardy, chess, and Go. We don’t yet have a system that has the same intellectual capacity of an adult human, but most experts believe we’re well on our way to achieving that.

When that day comes, we may very well have an AI that does more than just process data in ways we don’t understand. Once an AI is capable of matching or exceeding the intellectual capacity of an average human, then it’s likely the black box phenomenon will become more pronounced.

Imagine, for a moment, we had an AI that was smarter than even the smartest human beings on the planet. We go to that AI, we feed it every gigabyte of data we have on human biology, and ask it to surmise a cure for cancer. It takes only a few seconds to process all that data. Then, it spits out the formula for something that has eluded generations of doctors with ease.

We don’t know what form it may take. We may not even fully understand the components of it. However, it still works. From our perspective, it’s akin to a magical healing elixir straight from the world of Tolkein. We assume there’s some sort of science behind it, but we’re utterly baffled by the specifics. We just know it works.

It goes beyond medicine, as well. With an even more advanced AI, we could feed it every one of our most advanced theories about physics, biology, chemistry, and cosmology. We could then ask it to fill in all the gaps. Again, it gives us an answer and suddenly, we have a Theory of Everything.

We probably won’t understand the details. We may find out that we were dead wrong about particle physics, cosmology, or why our cell phone can’t hold a decent charge anymore. The knowledge such a system gives us could end up being so advanced that we literally do not have the intellectual capacity to understand it. It would be like an ant trying to do calculus.

In the same way a magnifying glass must seem like magic to an ant, the knowledge an advanced AI gives us may seem just as extraordinary. That’s especially true if we give that AI access to a 3D printer, a molecular assembler, or anything it could use to actually craft something.

That could be especially dangerous. For all we know, a sufficiently advanced AI could take a stack of dirty dishes and turn it into a nuclear bomb. We would have no idea how it would work. It would, for all intents and purposes, seem like magic to us. This thing would be doing something that our brains and senses tell us is impossible.

As the AI gets more advanced, it’s abilities and feats become more magical. At that point, it’ll be harder to accept that what it does counts as science. These advances are no longer coming from the efforts of people. They’re coming from a machine that’s millions, if not billions, of times smarter than any ordinary human could ever hope to be. How could it not magical from that perspective?

Throughout human history, sane and competent people have believed in magical things. Not long ago, people believed they could talk to the dead. Sir Isaac Newton believed in alchemy. Alfred Russel Wallace believed in literal spirits. Despite these beliefs, there was an important context to all these perspectives.

They emerged out of our collective ignorance of the world around us. We had nothing but our brains and our senses to make sense of it all. Since both can be easily fooled, as any competent street magician will attest, it doesn’t take much to get people to assume magic. An artificial intelligence would circumvent that context because it has something better than magic.

An advanced AI is not bound by the same senses that constantly fool ordinary humans. It doesn’t even have to misdirect or trick us. It only has to show us ideas and concepts that are completely real, but totally incomprehensible. The entire human race could spend a million years trying to understand it and it still wouldn’t be enough. It would still seem like magic to us.

That notion seems scary on paper and more than a few people have voiced concerns about this. However, all that magical thinking will only occur if our human brains remain unchanged and unenhanced. That’s not likely to be the case. Between the emergence of neural implants and the ongoing development of brain/machine interface, we’ll find a way to keep up with AI. If we want to survive as a species, we’ll have to.

Even if we do somehow keep up, there may still be aspects of advanced AI that seem like magic to us. That may always be the case, so long as we retain part of our caveman brains. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. No matter how smart or advanced we get, it helps to see a little magic in the world. With advanced AI, though, the rules for magic are bound to change, among many other things.

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Daily Sexy Musings: Ravaging Love

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Sometimes, you want to make love in the most tender, loving way possible. For anyone with a shred of romantic inclinations, this is a pretty common fantasy and one I’ve depicted multiple times in my sexy short stories. However, even among self-proclaimed romantics, there are times when you just crave something a bit more raw.

It goes by many names. Some call it being ravaged. Some call it being fucked. Some just call it basic humping. Whatever you call it, most know it when they see it, feel it, or want it. You just want to cut loose and vent all the sexy feelings you and your lover have been holding in. It’s not always romantic, but it can still be very passionate. This daily sexy musing celebrates that unique passion in all its ravishing glory. Enjoy!

To hell with candles.

To hell with fancy dinners.

To hell with dates, sweet talk, and subtlety.

We don’t need any of that. We just need a room with a piece of furniture that can support our body weight. It doesn’t have to be a bed. It can be a table, a chair, or even the dirty floor. It doesn’t matter. I want you. You want me. Let’s not tempt the lustful beast within us. Let’s indulge it!

There’s no discussion. There’s no plan. I just walk over to you, rip off your clothes, and lay you down on the nearest stable surface. There’s no technique or tantalizing. We just let our bodies do the talking. I enter you and you embrace me. It’s so crude, but so effective. Every sensation is so unfiltered and direct. We don’t just taste it. We gorge on it.

It’s a familiar act, but one with a radically different context. We make love all the time. We have sex just as often. It’s good. We enjoy it. There’s a place for it in the ongoing celebration that is our love. Then, there are times when we need not be gods or angels. In such rare and fleeting times, we can just be the animals we are at heart.

My primate brain tells me to love you, but my lizard brain tells me to fuck you.

My deepest emotions urge me to show affection, but my basic instincts urge me to mate.

My human side tells me to form a deeper connection, but my animal side tells me to just follow my genitals.

The results are predictable, but powerful. There’s no script to follow or role to play. We need only be two lovers who happen to be horny at the same time. We don’t bother being careful. We dare to be reckless. We make a mess of ourselves and of our surroundings, but that’s a concern of the future. Now, we focus on the present.

Your nails rake along my back.

My hands squeeze your juicy flesh.

Our sweat mixes as every sinew grinds in primal harmony.

Together, we don’t speak. We just grunt and moan. That says enough. To make love is to turn emotions into actions. To ravage one another is to merely mix raw lust with heightened passion. Alone, they’re powerful enough. Together, they’re extra potent. With it, we ravage one another. For one rare moment, the animals and angels within us are content.

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Daily Sexy Musings: Danger, Excitement, And Romance

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The following is a sexy musing inspired by the effects of danger and thrill-seeking. It’s a real psychological phenomenon, danger and excitement leading to raw arousal. It’s called “Misattribution of Arousal” and it’s kind of what it sounds like. It’s when the brain associates an aroused state with something other than the actual source.

In other words, the line between feeling scared and horny tend to blur. We’re afraid, but we’re also aroused. We’re in danger, but we’re also excited. That tends to cause all sorts of strange and wonderful feelings. It’s part of why women like bad boys and why men like naughty girls. However, me being the romantic I am, I think the link between danger, excitement, and romance runs much deeper, as you’ll see. Enjoy!

I look at you from afar. In an instant, I no longer feel safe and certain. In you, I suddenly become vulnerable. Like being naked in a blizzard, I feel so exposed. It’s dangerous, but I’m not scared. I’m only uncertain.

Then, I take a step closer. Suddenly, fear strikes me harder. I’m more than just vulnerable. I feel completely naked, exposed to elements and unseen forces that bombard me from every angle. I don’t know what it is. I can’t hope to protect myself from it. At the same time, though, I don’t want to.

Closer and closer, I see you in all your glory. Your eyes finally meet mine. At that moment, I’m paralyzed. I cannot move. I forget out to breath. I’m drowning in an ocean of awe. With just a single glance, you do something to me that defies logic.

Who I am suddenly changes.

How I see the world suddenly evolves.

The life I’ve lived becomes secondary to the life I now seek.

It’s overwhelming. It’s downright dangerous, knowing my life will never be the same. My heat races faster. I feel like I just jumped from a plane without a parachute. I’m falling through cold, unforgiving winds. There’s nothing that will stop me from falling to the center of the Earth.

Then, you walk up to me and smile.

Just like that, you catch me. I am no longer falling. Now, I am in your arms and you’re in mine. It’s like we’re hanging from a cliff, clinging to each other for dear life. Below us is a vast abyss. Above us is layer of storm clouds, thunder and lightning trying to tear us apart.

It’s no use, though. Everything around us is so dangerous. In your presence, though, I fear none of it. I only fear letting go. You are now my lifeline. You are my anchor in a stormy sea. Every second I’m with you feels like test of will and endurance. It’s like a ride without end and you are my only security.

It still scares me.

It still overwhelms me.

It still thrills me to no end.

Finally, you greet me. I hear your voice. I touch your hand. Through my fear and dread, I greet you. I know then that before the night is done, we will be together. We will know each other, feel each other, and make love to each other in every meaningful way. Secure in that knowledge, I no longer feel fear. There is only the thrill of finding you and following you into the danger.

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The When, How, And Why Of People Who “Snap”

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Have you ever been so upset and so distressed that you felt like you were going to just lose it? Your ability to process emotions, as well as your grip on reality, is hanging by a thread and that thread just gives way. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but something inside you just shatters and there’s no going back.

There’s no scientific term for that sort of state, but it’s something many in the scientific and non-scientific fields love to analyze. Chances are many of us feel like we approach that precarious state at some point in our lives. Only a handful of people ever cross that line from just feeling like they’re going to lose it to actually losing it.

We often say those people just “snap.” It’s not a very scientific description, but I’ve yet to find one more fitting. I won’t try to invent some fancy term for it, as I’ve attempted before. It’s just something I want to talk about because it reflects a dangerous extreme of the human condition.

It’s a scary, but fascinating phenomenon, understanding what happens to people who snap and how they got to that point. When I was in college, one of my favorite classes was a course called “Abnormal Psychology.” Only a small part of it dealt with those who snapped, but that part often generated the most discussions in and out of class.

I say it’s worth discussing outside a classroom. I would go so far to say that it’s more pressing now than it has been in recent years, if only because it’s easier for people who snap to make the news. Thanks to the rise of smartphones and social media, it’s possible for someone who snaps to make the news before they’re even done snapping.

The Columbine shooting was a terrible story involving two very disturbed teenagers, but it happened in 1999. Unless you were near a TV, chances are you didn’t hear about it until it was over. Compare that to the shootings of Sandy Hook and Parkland. Within an hour of the shooting, it began trending on social media. We can basically live-tweet the act of someone snapping violently.

While I’m sure that will generate some frustrating discussions about the role social media plays in our lives, I want to focus on the people who experience these mental breakdowns. The act of someone snapping has been going on long before social media. Even when it doesn’t happen all at once, mental illness is well-documented in various historical figures.

Seeing as how there are over 7.6 billion people on this planet and growing, the confluence of numbers and time ensure that someone will snap again at some point. Whether or not it trends on social media depends on a whole host of factors that aren’t relevant to the discussion.

Given that inevitability, it’s worth assessing and even speculating a bit on what leads someone to that point. That’s more difficult than most insights into the human mind. There is some science into what happens to someone when they have a “nervous breakdown.” I consider that similar to snapping, but I think those kinds of breakdowns are the next to last step in a much more damaging process.

You can recover from a nervous breakdown. There are even recovery programs for it. Once someone snaps, something fundamentally shatters within their psyche from which there is no full recovery. For someone to carry out a mass shooting or a horrific crime, someone’s mind crosses a proverbial point of no return. What that point is varies from person to person, but the effects are just as devastating.

With respect to what pushes someone to that point also varies and is almost impossible to study in a scientific context. Until we can actually map and interpret the trillions of signals operating in someone’s brain, which we are working on, we can’t know for sure. Since we are all human, though, we all have some insight.

Now, I’m not a scientist, but I am an avid user of Reddit. In the interest of compiling insight, I asked for input on what other people thought made someone snap. As usual, Reddit provided a wealth of responses thanks to subs like this one, this one, and this one.

Many offered plenty of ideas, theories, and anecdotes. I won’t say there was an underlying consensus, but there were plenty of common themes. They included factors such as mental illness, alienation, isolation, depression, despair, and overwhelming anger. Some posters made especially insightful posts. Here are just a few.

You snap when the weight you carry is heavier than you can bear, and you see no better alternative.

Duty is heavier than a mountain. Death is lighter than a feather.

It is calculated response. Some people look ahead in their lives and see 60+ years of quiet desperation, insignificance, loneliness, banality, and suffering ahead of them. They are willing to give up all of those years for 15 minutes of being the MOST IMPORTANT PERSON in the room. The gun means they can’t be ignored, the attention they have been starved of is showered on them. And they will get talked about for months, maybe years to come. Something they don’t see as possible by any other action.

Disconnection, alienation, circumstance, depression, hatred. We’ve all felt like outsiders at some time, or put upon, deprived, taken from or taken advantage of, hopeless, in emotional pain so bad it hurts physically. We’ve all had those thoughts of, “I wish that person were dead,” or “fuck everyone,” or “I’ll get them back,” or “life isn’t fair.” But 99.9999% of us don’t ever act on that and as we mature through adolescence we learn to deal with these emotions and problems. We learn to work on ourselves, we learn perspective and that these things pass, we learn not to let others affect us to such a degree – or hopefully we do. Now imagine someone is dealing with this as a vulnerable teen, but 10x as bad as what any of us has dealt with, with maybe some greater tendencies towards mental illness, or narcissism, or anger management.

I think there’s a kernel of truth within these responses, as well as a few oversights. Someone who snaps is someone on a very specific path. Sometimes it’s one they choose, not knowing where it will lead. Some choose that path on purpose because they have sadistic tendencies that they seek to push. Eventually, they cross or are pushed beyond a threshold that just breaks them.

To some extent, we can think of the human psyche as one of our bones. Bones can and do break, but nature has made them pretty strong out of necessity. Some peoples’ bones are stronger than others and some get weaker over time. Put them under sufficient stress, though, and they fracture. Put too much stress on them all at once and they snap.

The human brain is more complex than a bone, but the principle is the same. It has a system for regulating stress, emotions, and pain. The system is more robust in certain people than it is for others. Those with mental illness are like those with osteoporosis in that their systems are weaker than others.

Just straining that system can be damaging. While the human brain is uniquely adaptable, too much strain too quickly can overwhelm that system. Once in that broken state, everything that usually keeps someone in check goes out the window. That’s how you get someone who has eruptions of violence, descends into self-destruction, and endures irreparable mental scars.

To complicate matters even more, which is saying a lot for such a sensitive subject, there were a few other factors that my Reddit posts brought up that may compound this process. A few posters brought up the effects of kids being over-prescribed drugs like Ritalin to fix behavioral problems.

Now, I was never on these drugs, but I did know a few kids who took them and I can attest that they have some pretty potent effects. While studies on this issue are inconclusive, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that tweaking a kid’s brain chemistry may incur some pretty lasting impacts.

Another complication that may end up being more powerful than drugs is the way our hyper-connected world just amplifies the stress that leads people to snap. While I won’t go so far as to say social media is causing people to snap, I think it can accelerate the process for those already on that path.

People already in a precarious state go online every day and see a world in which they feel left out or lost. They see others succeeding and feel it’s too late for them. They see others suffering and feel powerless to help them. They find themselves in hate-filled digital environments that only reinforce their sentiments. It makes the notion of snapping seem cathartic.

It’s impossible to know for sure just how big a factor drugs or media may be for those who end up snapping, but I suspect there are more than a few instances where it plays at least some part. Given the breadth and complexity of every individual person, I believe everyone who snaps does so only after a confluence of many factors.

When it does happen, it’s tragic for the person and their loved ones. It can subsequently manifest in some pretty horrific acts. Our current media landscape is sure to document such acts, sometimes to the point of being counterproductive. As bad as those acts can be, I do think there are reasons for hope.

That may seem outrageous after talking about such a sensitive issue, but I genuinely believe the potential for good outweighs the bad. Say what you will about the media, but by documenting those who snap, it brings attention to issues involving mental health care and how we confront hate.

I’m not saying more awareness will stop people from snapping, but it may help improve efforts to get to people before that moment comes. It is something we, as a functioning society, would be wise to work towards. Not everyone who eventually snaps can be saved, but if we can help those who can, I think it’s in their interest and that of their loved ones to help them.

Again, thank you Reddit for helping me write this article. I really appreciate it.

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Why Social Media Is NOT The New Tobacco

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It’s a full-blown crisis. Kids are spending hours upon hours using it. They’re becoming mindless, unmotivated zombies. Every day, it’s getting worse. It’s all around them. There’s no escaping it and if something drastic isn’t done, it’ll corrupt an entire generation beyond repair.

No, that’s not some hysterical rant from Jessica Lovejoy on “The Simpsons.” It’s not referring to smartphones or social media, either. That urgent message was referring to television. This isn’t another one of my thought experiments. This is one of my memories. It’s true. Televisions was a real concern when I was a kid. Some called it a full blown health hazard.

If that sounds strange, then chances are you aren’t old enough to remember a time before the internet was the ultimate addiction. It really existed. It makes me and many others in my cohort feel old, but it happened. When I was a kid still in grade school, especially between first and sixth grade, the internet wasn’t the thing destroying kids. It was television.

That memory I mentioned wasn’t unique. It came courtesy of an assembly my school held. I don’t entirely remember the purpose of the assembly. I was just a kid and it was an excuse to get out of class. What I do remember, though, was the common refrain about the dangers of television.

Adults of all kinds would find creative ways to tell us to stop watching television and do something “productive,” which I took to mean more homework, more chores, and anything else my teachers made me do. It didn’t really appeal to me and I don’t think it changed the TV habits of my peers, either.

That panic, while nowhere nearly as extreme as the Satanic Panic of the 80s, came and went like many moral crusades tend to do. Some are just forgotten, but others just evolve into a whole new panic. That seems to be happening with the internet and social media now. Watching TV is actually in decline among younger cohorts while their usage of the internet and social media is increasing.

I imagine those same teachers who bemoaned the impact of TV when I was a kid would be giving similar lectures on social media now. They would have competition too because parents today worry about their kids’ internet usage more than their drug usage. Some go so far as to call it the new tobacco to belabor its damaging and addictive nature.

While that kind of comparison strikes all the right emotional chords with concerned parents, I think it’s an unfit comparison to say the least. At most, I would call it absurd. The memories of all those warnings about the dangers of TV leave me inherently skeptical of anything that’s allegedly poisoning children. Unless it’s actual poison, I think the tobacco comparisons are premature.

Now, there’s no question that the internet and social media are having an impact on young people, old people, and everyone in between. There are documented cases where people have exhibited addictive behaviors surrounding their internet usage. Before you make any nicotine comparisons, though, keep in mind that people can be addicted to all sorts of weird things. The human mind is just that strange, powerful, and flawed.

Tobacco, and the nicotine it delivers, is an outside chemical that enters the brain and has real, measurable effects. Using the internet, whether you’re checking FaceBook or browsing Instagram, is not like that. That’s why internet addiction is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that legitimate doctors use to diagnose addiction, but substance abuse is.

It’s also why porn addiction is not considered a true addiction, which I’ve talked about before. However, porn is more specific in its purpose and its effects. There’s also still a stigma, albeit a damaging one, surrounding it that sets it apart from the rest of the internet. A kid browsing the internet, for the most part, is no less damaging than watching cartoons on TV all day.

That doesn’t stop a growing number of people from expressing sincere concern about the effects it’s having on their minds and their health. Some may even prefer that their kids watch old Hanna Barbara cartoons rather than tweet, text, and live-stream all day. There’s a growing sentiment that the internet, social media in particular, hacks our brain’s rewards system.

On paper, it makes sense. You pick up your smart phone, you turn it on not knowing what to expect, and if you find something you like, you get a quick release of pleasure chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. It’s basically a form of gambling. A slot machine works the same way, but you don’t need to be a high roller to enjoy the gambling-like thrill.

Like so many other ideas on paper that go onto fail, though, it’s nowhere near that simple. The human brain can’t be that crude with its chemistry. As a good rule of thumb, if you ever hear someone other than a legitimate neurologist talks about the effects of dopamine on pleasure or addiction, chances are they have a very limited understanding of it at best.

While dopamine does play a role in how we experience pleasure, that’s just one part of a wide range of functions it has within our brains. Trying to understand addiction through dopamine alone is like trying to bake a cake with only a teaspoon of flour. There are many more chemicals, processes, and interactions at play.

Using social media may offer its users a rush whenever they get exciting news on their feed or see something that intrigues and/or offends them, but our brain processes that in a way fairly similar to anything else that catches our attention. The primary difference with the internet and social media is that it happens solely through a digital screen and that does somewhat limit those reactions.

I know that undercuts the concerns of parents who think the internet permanently damaging the collective psyche of their children, but I think they’re overestimating the influence of things that are experienced solely through a screen. Much like TV, the internet and social media can only effect so many senses and that is a major mitigating factor in its impact.

To understand that, go find a picture or video of an exotic location. If you’re a heavy user of Instagram, chances are that won’t be too hard. Look at those pictures. Watch that video. Take in the sights and sounds of that location. To your brain, it’s an appealing bit of visual and auditory sensations. However, those are the only two senses it stimulates.

What about the smell of the air, the feeling of the wind, and the sense of place that being in those locations evokes in our brains? Even if you experience it through hyper-realistic virtual reality, it’s still just sights and sounds at most. Thinking that alone is enough to damage a kid’s brain is like thinking someone can win a sword fight with a sewing needle.

That’s not to say the internet and social media can’t have a powerful psychological impact on certain people. That’s the key, though. It impacts certain people the same way TV impacts certain people. Sure, there are documented cases where social media played a role in a major tragedy, but those are the exceptions and not the norms.

In the same way not everyone gets addicted to a drug after they try it, not everyone is going to be irreparably damaged by the internet, social media, or TV. There’s a reason why extreme cases of people being heavily influenced by these things makes the news in the first place. It’s exceedingly rare.

I would still make the case that the internet and social media are more influential on people, society, and our culture than TV ever was. By being so hyper-connected to such a wide audience, the professional trolls of the world have a way to effect others in a way that just wasn’t possible, even with TV.

As bad as some of those trolls are and as tragic as it is when some suffer because of them, blaming the internet for those ills is like blaming umbrellas for hurricanes. Lumping it in with cancer-causing drugs only further obscures the real issues associated with the ever-evolving internet.

There are, indeed, serious issues with how people use the internet and how it manifests. However, treating it like a dangerous drug did nothing to address the issues surrounding TV. It’ll do just as little in addressing the various controversies of the internet. Until the next “new tobacco” comes along, those same people who lectured me on too much TV will bemoan the dangers of the internet while ignoring all the good it does.

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