July 25, 2012
Our dog and our cat – approximately the same size – like to lick each other’s face. It looks like they’re making out. It’s extraordinarily cute, except when they lay across my chest and do it. That’s only cute until one of them licks my chin as if to get me in on the threesome. That’s when things feel awkward. (So far I’ve declined the invitation.)
Anyway, it makes me wonder if my body has an easily measurable response to cuteness. I know I become instantly happier when I see animals doing adorable things, but is there a cheap and easy way to monitor my brain’s change in happiness? For the sake of today’s post, let’s say we can measure a person’s happiness, arousal, relaxation, and other positive physical reactions in real time. And let’s assume that while the cost of such monitoring equipment might be expensive today, the technology will eventually drop to a consumer level. You’ll put on a hat with sensitive brainwave sensors, connect the hat to your computer via Bluetooth, and you’re all set.
This is where things get interesting. Imagine software that monitors changes in brainwaves and learns by trial and error which kinds of images and videos work best for a given individual. Maybe your favorite “awwww” experience comes from videos of penguins shuffling around while I prefer waterfalls and rainbows. The software starts with a random slideshow of images on the Internet and records your brain’s reaction for each. You just relax and let it happen. Over time, the software learns what relaxes you, what arouses you, and what pumps you up for exercise.
Now let’s add a few layers. Sound is next. The software would experiment with music, engine noises, nature sounds, and more. Again, the software would measure and record how each sound influences you.
Next we do smells. I think the technology already exists to generate different odors. Imagine the software releasing a pumpkin pie scent, vanilla, perhaps some new car odor, and each time it measures your brain’s response.
Now let’s say you’re sitting in a high-end massage chair that has dozens of settings. The chair goes through each possible setting while the brainwave hat figures out which combinations of pulsing and vibrating and intensity works best for you.
Let’s assume the software only allows you to experience one sensation at a time during the learning phase. So the slideshow wouldn’t be happening at the same time as the massage chair or the smell or music. Once the software learns your response to each isolated stimulation, it can later intelligently combine them for a stronger total experience.
We know people need lots of variety in stimulation to avoid getting bored, so after the software learns your preferences it continuously seeks out different versions of the same general stimulation by data mining other people’s preferences across its database. The software might learn that people who get aroused at the sound of a Ferrari engine noise also like images of skiing. A simpler example is that people who like one baby picture will probably like another.
So far, this all sounds feasible, if not today, certainly in your lifetime. The real question is how much control could the software exert over a typical person? I think you’d be surprised.
Visual images alone would have only a limited impact on a person, but adding the massage chair, smell, and sound at the same time would be an immersive sensory experience. I think the total package would have an impact comparable to a powerful narcotic, and it might be just as addictive.
In today’s world, finding pleasure is a somewhat random process guided by a little bit of planning. If you know you like nature, you can plan a hike, but sometimes the weather is bad and a rattlesnake ruins your happy-go-lucky mood. In the future, technology will be able to figure out what you like best and provide it in a setting with no offsetting negatives.
That’s something to look forward to.