How the human brain works.
Eric Haseltine is a neuroscientist, a writer for several leading science
magazines, former executive vice
president of Disney and most recently the U.S. associate director of national intelligence, in charge of all science and technology efforts for intelligence and counterterrorism. He now runs his own high-tech consultancy. The man knows brains.
How does the brain process information?
The brain sees only what it wants to see. If you have biases and desires, that colors your perception. You tend to let information in that you want and leave out info you don't. The brain really does try to only give you good news.
Does new media endanger its predecessor?
When a new kind of media comes out, it will mimic the media that created it, but the old one doesn't go away. Plays, radio, magazines don't go away. The old thing does change. Radio is very different now. You'll have old-line media, content will change. New media reaches out to consumers in new and different ways, for good or for bad.
What are the limits to the amount of information the brain can store?
There's no absolute answer to that. The limits of human perception are arbitrary. You train yourself. The brain is very adaptable. Why is that relevant to new media? If the media can sense who's consuming it, it can tailor itself. The technology is there to do it.
The way your brain reacts to surprise is the same way it reacts to pleasure. Media converts information - something you didn't know before. In a way, surprise and information are the same thing. People value highly things that surprise them. That's never going to change. When you think about the ads you remember the most, they're the ones that surprise you or take you in a direction you weren't expecting.
Change itself is information. That's how the brain processes information. If there's no change, it's not useful. What your brain wants to see is change. Your brain seeks new information.
How do you explain our obsession with text messaging and Twitter?
There's an emotional value we get in communicating with other humans. We feel included, loved. The brain is a very social organism. It needs to be liked and accepted and has emotional needs. Language fulfills those needs.
Except for the past 5,000 years, there was no text. It was all verbal. What was natural? Everything humans do is natural. We are very visual animals.
I went to a conference recently where there was an 18-year-old kid on a panel who said that she never talks on her phone - only texts - because she doesn't want to waste time with niceties and stuff. It's an instant-gratification culture.
Will it make us less thoughtful?
Maybe the proliferation of new media that gives you what you want when you want it makes you less thoughtful. You can blame new media, or you can say that humans are doing that.
Has media become too adroit at manipulating people?
Yes, media is increasing the ability to manipulate people. But media serves us, we don't serve it. It's the whole area of rhetoric and persuasion. Advertising works. Why do you think people hire lawyers? What about education, enculturation? Religion, education, advertising, the law - all of them prove that you can.
So what future role does the brain play in technology and new media, and how will it affect the business model?
Our brains stopped evolving a couple thousand years ago. New media will do a better job at speaking to that Neolithic brain. It also gets back to the subject of the way it processes information; as technology improves, people will figure out new ways of manipulating how the brain will inform, stimulate, entertain. They will uncover some latent need that isn't being tapped right now. There are probably more of those latent needs that we're going to stumble upon.
It's not like we can understand ourselves. If we did, neuroscientists would be out of a job. New media is teaching us about ourselves. Michelangelo said that he didn't carve the statue out of marble, he chipped away the pieces of the marble that weren't the statue. New media chips away at the human condition.
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