A single-celled slime mold (physarum polycephalum) can solve mazes, mimic the layout of man-made transportation networks and choose the healthiest food from a diverse menu – and all this without a brain or nervous system:
Lesson: deploy resources efficiently – really smart solutions often arise naturally, yet knowing what’s best still requires lots of prior research. But hey, if a slime mold can do it…
Scientists have created an artificial jellyfish using silicone and muscle cells from a rat’s heart. The synthetic creature, dubbed a medusoid, looks like a flower with eight petals. When placed in an electric field, it pulses and swims exactly like its living counterpart:
Lesson: even the most difficult concept can be somehow ‘brought to life’ – be it in a new context, through the addition of a couple of key ingredients, or sheer appliance of science!
In B. F. Skinner’s famous experiment in operant conditioning, a lab rat is placed inside a container and rewarded with a food pellet on completion of a task, triggered by an external stimulus such as a light, a sound or a shock. The pattern of reward becomes increasingly inconsistent, following a ‘schedule of reinforcement’ controlled by the experimenter.
Skinner’s operant chamber allowed him to explore the rate of response as a dependent variable, as well as develop his theory of schedules of reinforcement. If the event increased the number of responses it is said to strengthen its responding and if it decreased the number of responses it weakens the responding.
In short: a Skinner Box allows one to observe habits being formed, through control of the conditions surrounding a subject and their reward.
The lessons learned span far beyond Psychology: Education; Behavioural Economics; Interpersonal Communication and even Video Gaming have each benefit from an understanding of operant conditioning, so it is no surprise to see advertisers capitalising on our easily pliable behaviours.
One such experimenter, a brand of flavoured rice cake, posed the research question “how far will you go for Fantastic Delites” – their conditions, a large scale Skinner Box and the baying masses of an Australian shopping mall.
The results are equal parts twisted, fascinating and funny:
The evidence suggests human subjects will endure an embarrassingly strict schedule of reinforcement, especially in a public scenario.
At last year’s TEDxObserver Cory Doctorow gave a talk comparing the machinations of Facebook to operant conditioning of a more dangerous kind… and I can’t help but feel he has a point.
We will go pretty far for free rice cakes – but would we go further knowing we were in a Skinner Box?
The state we call the “honeymoon period” is known as being in limerance, and there are specific things going on in our brains (darling, when I look at you my ventral tegmental area lights ups with the power of a thousand suns and my caudate nucleusis floods with enough dopamine and norepinephrine to fill a thousand seas) when this happens.
The pharmaceutical industry will cotton on to this and produce pills to keep the spark of love alive. We already take vitamins, Viagra and Prozac by the bucketload to improve our standard of living, so why ignore this incredibly important aspect of our emotional lives?
Worried that it’s not ‘real’ love? In the future the lines between what we think of as real, virtual, enhanced or fake will be more blurred anyway. We won’t mind.
Prenuptial agreements will be accompanied by brain scans which will ‘prove’ we’re marrying for love. Marriage counselling could take place in the EEG/fMRI scanner, with new versions of neurofeedback therapy helping us get our relationships back on the right track.
Love is good for your health.
Once we’ve all given up smoking and we eat well and exercise, what’s next on the agenda? We may be seeing NHS leaflets encouraging us to go speed-dating. We may even be prescribed the Love Drug described above.
More likely, we will be offered more education about love, which starts in schools and continues at the GP. It’s happening already. Interpersonal psychotherapy is an evidence-based talking therapy which helps people with relationship skills. The benefits are improved mental and physical health, which last a lifetime. The NHS is already investing more money in IPT, and will continue to do so.
Love is big business.
There are thousands of dating sites out there, catering for more niches than anyone knew existed. (Geek lover? Got a Stashe Passion? Zombie looking for love?) This diversification won’t continue.
The truth is, there are lots of unconscious things going on when we fall in love. We are not always good judges of our own characters (and we can’t help lying in our profiles.) We’re not good judges of characters of others and we often don’t have a good understanding of we should be looking for in a partner that will make us happy.
OKCupid are doing some very interesting things with the data they’re gathering from their millions of members which finally gives us real data about what makes a good match. When Google gets involved, things will get interesting and result in love.google.com
We won’t need to spend several hours writing our profiles trying to sell ourselves.
A Google spider will find all the things we’ve ever written online (On Buzz, Twitter, blog, social network profiles etc.), then text analysis software like Alceste will scan it and suss you out based on:
keywords (i.e. I mention ‘books’ a lot on my blog)
frequency of keywords (I mention books a LOT)
moods (i.e., I complain a lot, especially in the mornings)
thought patterns (i.e. I can get overexcited and Tweet a lot)
sentence structure, grammar (i.e. I’m an informal writer, but I don’t use three exclamation marks in a paragraph and I don’t write LOL.)
Then Google Love will look at all that juicy data it has about us as individuals:
Google Love will gather an overwhelming amount of data on millions of people and track the course of their relationships. Using all this knowledge, eventually Google will be able to create a Love algorithm to find the ideal partner for everyone.
The Google Love algorithm will be big and beautiful, and it will work.
Marriage, sex and robots.
Most visions of love in the future involve a lot of casual sex (thank you male sci-fi authors.) As sex becomes safer with improved contraception, people will be doing more of it. Google Love won’t care if you’re unavailable, if your data is there then you can be ‘headhunted’ by a love interest. If you were told you had a 98% chance of falling in love with someone wouldn’t you want to meet them?
‘Traditional’ marriage is a crazily outdated concept. In what other area of life would we accept a contract that we sign when we are intoxicated (see ‘Love is a drug’ above) that is binding until death? As life expectancies continue to increase, marriage must have more flexibility. Perhaps similar to a mobile phone contract – minimum of 10 years with a rolling annual contract afterwards.
There’s definitely a place for the robot girlfriend and BritneyBot. The BoyfriendBot version will be sophisticated software only, programmed to send romantic/loving messages and emails throughout the day to satisfy her need to feel adored.
Love is a meme.
That instinct for all-encompassing love from an all-powerful, benevolent, omnipotent being we have as babies never leaves us just because we become adults, so we invented God to fill the gap. For a long time, religious love was seen as True Love. We evolved to believe we’re the centre of the universe and it’s a heady feeling to be told that God loves us.
But now the philosophers have dug a God-shaped hole in our heads, what replaces it? Look at the popularity of the Twilight Saga to see what is happening already. The fantasy of romantic love and our instinct for religion meet in stories like this, and the result is 85 million books sold worldwide.
Stories about love (seen in films, books, magazines, perfume adverts, family and friends) propagate the love myth and make it stronger. The supernatural love meme will become stronger and more powerful. Vampires aren’t going anywhere.