May 22, 2014

Coming Soon to a Skull Near You!

In the year 3000 . . .

Fry: So you're telling me they broadcast commercials into people's dreams?
Leela: Of course.
* * *
Fry: That's awful. It's like brainwashing.
Leela: Didn't you have ads in the 20th century?
Fry: Well, sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio. And in magazines and movies and at ball games, on buses and milk cartons and T-shirts and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams. No, sir-ee!
Ah, Fry, if only you hadn't frozen yourself through the 21st century, for in this amusing/disturbing post over at the Volokh Conspiracy, I see a whole new avenue of brain manipulation advertising just around the corner.

Consider the case of Mr. B (no relation - he's Dutch), who suffered from anxiety disorders and OCD for more than four decades.  He was treated with something called deep brain stimulation or DBS.  According to Wikipedia, DBS is:
a surgical treatment involving the implantation of a medical device called a brain pacemaker, which sends electrical impulses to specific parts of the brain.
Okay.  While it seems to work, its "underlying principles and mechanisms are still not clear" and it "directly changes brain activity in a controlled manner."  In other words, not something to be undertaken lightly.  It also seems like the kind of thing - changing brain activity - that might have some interesting side effects.

Which is what happened to Mr. B:
Mr. B., had never been a huge music lover. His musical taste was broad, covering Dutch-language songs, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, with a preference for the last named. While music did not occupy an important position in his live, his taste in music had always been very fixed and his preferences stayed the same throughout decades.
On average, a half year after DBS surgery, Mr. B. stated that he was turning into a Johnny Cash fan. He had been listening to the radio, when he coincidentally heard 'Ring of Fire' of the Country and Western singer and experienced that he was deeply affected by the song. Mr. B. started to listen to more songs of Johnny Cash and noticed that he was deeply moved by the raw and low-pitched voice of the singer. Moreover, he experienced that he preferred the performance of the songs in the Seventies and Eighties, due to the fullness of the voice of the older Johnny Cash in that period. His favorite songs, 'Folsom prison blues', 'Ring of fire' and 'Sunday morning coming down' had a certain rhythm with a fast tempo in common that moved him.
It would be hard to oversell just how much Mr. B is fallen under the spell of the Man In Black.  He bought all his albums and videos.  When he listens to the songs Mr. B "feels like he finds himself in a movie in which he plays the hero's part."  Mr. B also claims that "there is a Johnny Cash song for every emotion and every situation."

In other words, he's like a 10-year old girl who just discovered Justin Beiber.  Perhaps the brain zapping went a bit too far?  At least, it appears, the result isn't permanent - if the gizmo starts to malfunction, Mr. B forsakes Johnny and falls back into the arms of those other, lesser musicians.

The good news, of course, is that Mr. B appears to be cured of problems that have plagued him for his entire life and the side effect of a thrilling new cultural obsession seems like a small price to pay.  But let's go further - if we can change a person's musical tastes by zapping a certain area of the brain, then how long before advertisers are trying to do it?

Because you know, like Fry learned, if there's a way to jam an ad inside your brain, marketeers are going to make use of it.

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