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News Science

DIY Electric Brain Stimulation

electric shock

Many years ago when I was just a teenager, I came across an interesting machine. It was supposed to tone your muscles while you sit on the sofa eating crisps and drinking tea, by using electric current. Easy to use, just plug the leads into the box, attach the pads to the skin using elasticated bands, and pass the current through your leg muscles. You feel a little twitch, the muscle flinches maybe and somehow is exercised.

Well I of course didn’t need to lose weight or build up my muscles, I weighed 68 kilos, but I had the very thought that any teenage adventurer home scientist idiot would have, “I wonder what it does if you stick it on your head?”

Unfortunately my experiments were soon discovered and the offending article was removed (the machine, not my brain or sense of experimentation) which is a shame, because if not I would today be considered a pioneer, the father figure of the growing DIY brain stimulation movement.

I do not want to suggest that anyone should try it at home, but the movement for self brain stimulation is on a roll. I won’t include any links but you can discover how to build your own stimulator and where to place it either using text, photos or videos easily and freely available online. The small army of practitioners are conducting experiments upon their own brains, circulating their findings and claim real results.

Although these results are anecdotal (not totally “scientific”) users claim that their capacities for mathematics have improved, problems of depression have been lightened, memory is better and that chronic pain can be relieved.

This week the Journal Science News carries an article about the movement, and a couple of months ago WIRED also addressed the problem, and I would like to raise a few issues to add to their arguments.

We might think that it may not be a good idea to conduct such experiments upon ourselves without any expert help, but the people who have had their lives improved through these actions would not agree. Experimentation in this field goes back many years, far longer than you would imagine (in the 11th Century experiments included using electric catfish and other charge generating fish were proposed to treat patients, rays placed on people’s heads etc), and many of the practitioners today are doctors. There is even a commercially available set up that is marketed to gamers, as one finding suggests that the use improves their playing capacity.

This field in some way reflects the path of home treatment using non prescribed drugs in cases of cancer. Many groups exist that experimentally treat themselves with medication that has either not been approved, trialled correctly or is not commercially available for other reasons. If these trials are reported correctly the information they produce becomes important data, and we tend to find that people report extremely well when they are talking about their own bodies and choose their own treatment. And trials of this type may not be possible (or wanted) under the control of drugs companies or research organizations.

So there are obvious ethical issues to take into account, including issues of trust, reliability, risk, responsibility, legal implications and the list goes on, but people will always experiment. According to Doctor Who that is why the human race is what it is, why it is so wonderful.

Once again I find myself thinking about the enhancement problem and its series of fine lines, ideas of the democratization of medicine flow in, and we must not forget how much science is done in this way and how much good comes out of ad-hoc garage experimentation. Do you know what Benjamin Franklin did with a kite and a key in a lightening storm?

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Business Internet News

Blind Date (More Unauthorized Online Experimenting)

blind-date

Following up from news a couple of weeks ago about Facebook manipulating its users, this week news abounds regarding a dating agency that has been conducting some experiments on its users.

The New York Times reports that the online dating agency OK Cupid has been manipulating the data it gives to its clients, to find out how compatibility and looks effect the dating process. The company conducted 3 different experiments, in one it hid profile pictures, in another, it hid profile text to see how it affected personality ratings, and in a third, it told some hopeful daters that they were a better or worse potential match with someone than the company’s software actually determined.

So as we might imagine they came up with a series of findings, that we could loosely interpret as the following:

1. If you are told that the person is more compatible you are more likely to contact them.

2. Users are likely to equate “looks” with “personality,” even in profiles that featured attractive photos and little if any substantive profile information

3. When the site obscured all profile photos one day, users engaged in more meaningful conversations, exchanged more contact details and responded to first messages more often. They got to know each other. But when pictures were reintroduced on the site, many of those conversations stopped cold.

Well as far as I can see number 1 is pretty self evident. If you send me a note saying that a person is not compatible then I probably won’t bother them with my personal issues., 2 is quite interesting, if I like the looks of someone I am more likely to think that they are an interesting person, may be fun and without doubt the perfect match for me. And also the third is quite obvious, if I don’t know what a person looks like I might imagine their looks and would be more likely to want to get to know them.

The OK Cupid blog will fill you in on the details.

One interesting line from the blog states that “guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work”. Wise words, but I wonder if everybody realizes that. And what power they wield!

Now I would like to raise the issue of how someone can design an algorithm to measure my compatibility with another person. What will make us more compatible? Height? Interests? Worldview (and if so how can you put that into numbers)?

There is an interesting book by Hubert Dreyfus called “What Computers Can’t Do”, and in it he argues that there are some areas and situations that cannot fully function. A computer program is based on expertise, on experience that can be categorized. If there are subject matters that are impossible to completely formalise, then they are impossible to formalize in computer programs (such as the one they use to find my perfect partner if they exist).

As a human I think we make decisions based upon generalizations of a situation. Characteristics are judged based upon experiences, I once knew someone with those characteristics and they were great, or stubborn, or nasty, etc. Research suggests that we play games such as chess in this way. We do not think about a long series of possible moves in the way a computer plays, but we see a situation, it reminds us of another situation that we have confronted in the past, and we act according to our experience of action in similar situations.

I am sure some readers have experience in this field, and I would be very happy to get some comments and expand my understanding.