The Skinner Box

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 Box (Operant Conditioning Chamber)

From Wikipedia:

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?

Synesthesia

syn·es·the·sia syn·aes·the·sia (sĭn’ĭs-thē’zhə):

  • A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.
  • A sensation felt in one part of the body as a result of stimulus applied to another, as in referred pain.
  • The description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another.

It is widely considered that synesthesia arises in brains where from a young age, neurological paths that service our sensory perception do not become entirely defined, resulting in cross-chatter between the senses.

Famous synesthetes reportedly include painter David Hockney, who perceives music as color, shape, and configuration; composer Wassily Kandinsky, who had a four senses combined: color, hearing, touch, and smell; and physicist Richard Feynman who percieves elements of equations as different colours.

What a cool way to see the world – a totally unique perception of reality. And how hard must it be to express this reality to others?! Synesthetes must feel in some part driven to demonstrate their unique perspective, perhaps driving them to create great cultural artefacts that we can all enjoy.

One filmmaker has produced their interpretation of a reality touched by synesthesia. I urge you to watch this great short film for a taste of the condition:



Synesthesia
from Terri Timely on Vimeo.

Can anyone out there think of a way us non-synesthetes might be able to experience the world like this, via the medium of Augmented Reality?
Would love to explore some ideas.