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Mind Manipulation: Your Brain Versus the World Pt. 3

Hi world! Fabian from the think team, ready to talk more about neuroscience. You heard it, this is How Neuroscience can save the world part 3, also known as Your brain versus the world (in this case it may be the world versus your brain, you'll see). This time I will also continue my journey as a bystander of the TIPPING+ project!

The TIPPING+ project reminds me a lot of my fourth and second semester project in University. I find it entertaining and rewarding to see that these six-month university projects became a simulation for a three-year international European Commission-funded Project..

My second semester was focused on scenario writing, which was very fascinating to me. This project was dedicated to understanding socio-technical systems and creating interventions. It was backcasting. I won’t explain the nitty gritty details here as there are plenty of blogs about it by our CEO Tak. To recap, forecasting is about predicting the future, while backcasting is about exploring the future, finding possibilities and making targets to reach that possibility. There’s more to it, but I’ll leave it at that.

We wrote a scenario report, using the Multi-level perspective theory, to evaluate the future of Bio-based plastics. For those unfamiliar with this theory, MLP looks at systems based on levels namely the landscape, regime, and niche. In very oversimplified terms, we analyzed the driving forces of change, the current norms, and the potential game changing innovation that could take over the current norm. I can cover more about this theory in the future.

Taking these three elements into consideration, we divided ‘required expertise’ to create an intervention. We explored possible policy interventions could boost technological advancements that could bridge the gap between the future and the current situation. I want to emphasize that arriving to this point required the consideration of a lot of perspectives. I started realizing the necessity of different experts in approaching problems. Looking back, I guess it was a cool project, I didn't think I would see a real-life version of it.

Multi-level Perspective on System Innovations Geels (2004).

In semester four, instead of writing a scenario we were exploring current wicked problems. I did not know wicked was a proper academic term then. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, wicked and complex problems involve problems with more sub-problems, so much so that if you solve only one side of the problem you might exacerbate the other. Meaning, you need an all-inclusive solution for this problem to be solved. Upon identifying all these sub-problems, we divided expertise again that are needed to approach them. A mitigation plan was made for each problem. One of which, involved neuroscience 😊

How exactly? Okay this time I will actually break down how you can use Neuroscience to do things.

In this project we were planning a behavior change intervention by using communication strategies to encourage the general public to be more aware about the issue. In planning this communication strategy, we need to understand how we can convince people. To convince people, you need to understand the psychological theories behind being ‘convinced’. At a deeper level, you need to understand how the brain exactly reacts. And this is where you need to call a Neurolinguist.

Neurolinguistics is the study of the neural mechanisms in the human brain that control the comprehension, production, and acquisition of language. Here, we’ll focus on comprehension. Even more specifically, on how we attribute speakers in speeches or providing statements and exactly what physical patterns are happening in the brain during these activities.

Event-Related Potentials

Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, Krauspenhaar, and Schlesewsky (2013) studied the impact of attributions to the speaker by measuring event related potentials (ERPs). Now let's get down to the basics, ERPs are voltage peaks after the stimulus onset, measured in milliseconds! We use an EEG for this, to measure scalp potential. Here is a video of my friend's experiment using an EEG for her thesis:

A stimulus can be any form of sense from voices (auditory), text/images (visual), touch, and so on. In this case the stimulus is a true or false statement and we are measuring brain activity. Their research results showed that false statements made by influential speakers, e.g. politicians, caused stronger ERPs than the same false statements expressed by a stranger or a speaker who could not influence the statement. Perhaps it's obvious but now it's obvious at a molecular level!

Ever wondered why communication science is its own major? There is a lot more depth to it than simply cherry-picking words in a speech. The position of power of the person is almost more important than the content itself. This is one of the many examples, you can use the brain to uncover conscious and unconscious secrets about how humans behave. Ultimately, how we can use behavior studies to create large-scale interventions. I could cover more topics but I just want to illustrate some examples for now.

Back to the weekly TIPPING+, I am in constant awe to see discussions with so many perspectives going at. The discussions are never boring and I think the inclusivity of disciplines is a big contributor to that. So I hope this gives a better picture on the necessity of multidisciplinary approaches and why you should include neuroscience when you need human-related interventions.

But what does this say about humans? Are we inevitably prone to manipulation? Is neuroscience a gateway to hacking everyone’s mind? Can you properly hack a brain? I will answer these questions in the next part of my series, where I talk about the future of neuroscience and why there is an emerging field called neuroethics - a countermeasure to advanced technological developments about the brain. Have you ever considered your brain to be precious data? You’ll find out ;)

Thanks for reading and see you next week!

Further reading:

Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, I., Krauspenhaar, S., & Schlesewsky, M. (2013). Yes, you can? A speaker’s potency to act upon his words orchestrates early neural responses to message-level meaning. PloS one, 8(7), e69173.

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