The time has come to release the findings of the mind experiment I attempted to conduct over the past week or so. Somewhat surprisingly, the field of brain science — specifically, mapping regions of the brain and observing their functions in the generation of intellect and emotion — only emerged as a serious pursuit within the scientific community over the past 3 decades. Prior to this shift in focus and study, psychiatry was the only pursuit devoted to the exploration of the human emotional spectrum and since this field is not concerned with the specific functions of neurons, it tends to rely on the ideas of nature (a person’s predetermined genetic makeup) versus nurture (the effect of experience on emotion) to arrive at its conclusions. Because neuroscience is still in its infancy, modern therapeutic models don’t yet consider physiological and chemical factors in their execution, although increased knowledge of these factors is undoubtedly responsible for the marked improvement in the efficacy of psychiatric medications. I have a suspicion that when these two fields inevitably merge, it will open many possibilities in the treatment and management of psychological disorders.
Perhaps the best place to start in presenting the results of my pseudo-experiment is to explain how I initially came to the decision to conduct it. The night before I posted part 1 of the experiment, I was — surprise, surprise — laying in bed staring at cartoons on TV. A scene from an episode of Family Guy showed Peter settling in to watch a rerun of the 1980s sitcom Family Ties until he realized that the episode was going to center around the fictional family’s youngest daughter, played by a non-descript young actress named Tina Yothers. Upon realizing this, he turns off the television and says, “And I will check in with the Keaton family next week.” The joke, for those old enough to get it, wasn’t so much the acknowledgment of her questionable acting skills but the very fact that she was even mentioned at all. For some reason, poor Ms. Yothers is a sterling example of an intrinsicly forgettable quasi-celebrity. Yet, those of us who were old enough to get the joke obviously have a long-standing and indestructible memory of the existence of Tina Yothers — a memory that only tends to come to the surface of consciousness at hearing her name or seeing her image (no offense intended if there truly are any actual Yothers fans out there…and if there are, please identify yourself so that I can further probe your fascinatingly weird mind).
Upon being reminded of her existence, something was activated in my hippocampus — the region of the brain believed to be responsible for long-term memory storage. This extracted memory, in turn, activated neurons in my pre-frontal lobe that are responsible for the generation of short-term memory and others in the same region of the pre-frontal cortex that are responsible for the higher and distinctly human functions of planning and the weighing of options in the performance of a task. So upon hearing the reference to Tina Yothers, the activation of the long-dormant memory associated with her caused me to laugh at the randomness of the subject matter injected into my waking consciousness. Maybe I should have just behaved like a normal person and left it at that — a funny joke was made and I laughed at it. But I don’t tend to operate that way. When the humor exhausted itself, I immediately began wondering why such an obscure and unimportant piece of data has managed to survive with the ability to be recalled in an instant after the passage of so much time. We are a species that routinely does things like tear the house apart looking for a hat that happens to be right on top of our head. I, like most people, have also found myself in a certain room of my apartment wondering what the hell motivated me to go there, frustratingly unable to recall a decision that was made mere moments ago. And yet, if someone mentions Tina Yothers, my brain effortlessly remembers this profoundly incidental and insignificant piece of information. This made me wonder whether that place where our emotional and intellectual lives merge — the place, in other words, that drives all human psychology — is so susceptible to the influence of random data and suggestion that perhaps we have far less control over the content of our lives than we seem to think.
So in part 1, I created an expectation in the reader of a reasonably serious investigation into brain function. I did so by essentially asserting that this is what I was doing followed by a short series of instructions based on very basic pre-meditative techniques. In other words, that was a direct and overt bit of manipulating what functions and their corresponding regions of the brain would be most prominently employed in the minds of the readers. And then I displayed the name and face of one Tina Yothers to people who were, it was hoped, expecting this type of stimuli even less than I was when I heard her name in the cartoon. In the space of about a minute, I attempted to activate three regions of the brain in rapid succession – the pre-frontal lobe upon taking in the premise in the first few paragraphs (short term memory), the wider functions of the pre-frontal cortex in performing the pre-meditative tasks as instructed (planning and analysis), and of course, the hippocampus that was forced to retrieve the obscure Tina Yothers memory. It was the unexpected interaction of these three functions that I hoped to explore further.
Both the short video in part 2 of the Manson girls singing a lullaby to a backdrop of random images alternating between pleasant and unsettling, and the obvious subliminal image contained in the Fight Club .gif in part 3 were included to reactivate the same three brain centers but with slightly different emotional pulls. The more signficant aspect of part 2 was my asking the reader to pay attention for any seemingly random memories that might arise in their minds over the course of the next day or two. I’m guessing it was fairly obvious that I was trying to see if the unexpected suggestions created by the images and sounds I employed would influence someone’s thought processes when he or she had stopped actively paying attention to what was contained in the blog posts. Quick mini-conclusion: they didn’t, at least not in any way that I could discern.
Now I’ll talk a little more about the answers I received to the five questions I posed in part 3. I’m not going to repeat all of the responses here because they were too disparate to support a comparative analysis of each reply to the same question, but if you’re interested in seeing the responses just as they were presented, you can find them in the comments section of part 3. In total, eight readers answered the questions. Four of the respondents answered the first question regarding randomly activated memories in the affirmative. Three of those readers indicated that they experienced an image or feeling related to someone from their past who they had not thought about in years, which seems to correspond with the sudden recollection of an inconsequential actress. Another reader indicated immediately after part 1 that the mention of Tina Yothers caused him to think of another somewhat recent example of a cartoon (South Park) mentioning her for the same desired effect of humor arising from the oddly random reference. That was an example of the hippocampus performing a dual function of pulling up the initial memory created by her small degree of fame in the 1980s and then relating it to a more recent but still long-term memory of a similar after-the-fact mention. What happened in the brain of this reader is farily easy to see from the perspective of neuroscience. But what about the 3 responders who answered the first question in the affirmative? Would they have had these sudden memory flashes without the suggestion created by the query posed in the blog post? Again, the pool of subjects responding this way is too small to make any definitive jumps to a conclusion. It seems equally plausible that they would have had these same sudden thoughts if they hadn’t read my blog and were therefore uninfluenced by the small amount of manipulation implicit in the question.
The answers tendered in response to my question about whether there is any greater significance to synchronicities than just mere coincidence were as varied as the responders. The median view on this seems to reside somewhere dead center of a higher significance and pure chance. And those who leaned toward the notion of significance varied greatly in just how high of a degree of it they see in such synchronistic events. In other words, if the only information utilized in the exploration of this question is that volunteered by random subjects, there are really no strong conclusions that can be reached.
If conclusive results were what I had anticipated from this endeavor, then the little experiment would have been doomed to failure from the start. But I embarked upon it with that knowledge firmly in mind and was therefore just hoping to extract responses that would form the basis of my own future studies into brain function experiments conducted by people far brighter and more scientifically disciplined than I. And in that respect, it was quite fruitful. I have printed out all the responses I received and intend to revisit them in light of any new neuroscientific knowledge I obtain.
But there is one final fascinating result yielded by this experiment with which I would like to conclude. This was entirely unexpected and its implications are enormous in both the realms of psychology and metaphysics. It might just alter your entire outlook on consciousness forever after. As such, I’m going to humbly pass the baton to one of the greatest minds of the 20th century for its elucidation: THE SECRET OF CONSCIOUSNESS