Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday, 3 September 2011

We don't need no thought control

I consider myself to be an individual and I'm sure you do too. In fact, if you are reading this, there is a high probability that you are a blogger too, and thus something of an independent spirit.

If so, then, like me, you will doubtless be worried by the findings emerging from Nijmegen, where scientists have been trying to identify the part of the brain that determines the conformity of its owner's behaviour and, having tracked down this elusive region - it's in your posterior medial frontal cortex, in case you were wondering - looking for ways to influence it.

It turns out that a burst of Transcranial Electromagnetic Stimulation (TMS) inhibiting the activity of neurons in this area made their subjects less likely to alter their decisions in response to group pressure.

'Dr Klucharev believes this part of the brain is responsible for generating an "error" signal when individuals deviate from the group opinion, triggering a cascade that leads them to conform with the group view; "Individuals differ in the strength of the error signal – which is why some people are more conformist than others".'

Klucharev envisages techniques that can increase immunity to the negative aspects of peer presssure - criminal behaviour, for example or aggressive marketing - but it's a worryingly short step from there to the idea of manipulating neuron activity in the opposite direction to increase conformity.

Far-fetched? The stuff of science fiction? I sincerely hope so, because the thought of such techniques in the wrong hands is a frightening prospect indeed.

While on the subject, I have been wondering whether bloggers - or at least those who offer comment on social and political phenomena - are, in fact, a self-selected group whose 'error signals' are so weak as to be imperceptible. After all, the ability to place yourself outside events and offer an independent view suggests a strong maverick streak.

Or are we all actually closet conformists seeking the approval of an online community of similar thinkers?

What do you think?


  1. "Or are we all actually closet conformists seeking the approval of an online community of similar thinkers?"

    Yes we are - we all have to conform to something. I'd say the main difference is that online people take part in bidirectional idea trading, unlike the MSM.

    We online folk are also taking the trouble to clarify our own views and look for alternatives, or at least nuances we hadn't considered. Surely a healthy thing to do instead of gaping at the telly.

  2. AKH, one of my favourite passages from Lisa Alther's novel of self and identity, 'Kinflicks', describes the heroine taking part in a well-known experiment on peer pressure.

    She believes she has correctly identified the longer of two lines, but the rest of the group insist on the wrong answer; eventually she caves in and agrees with them. The description of her mental struggle is well worth reading.

    Like the marshmallow test, knowing the purpose of the experiment invalidates it; it would, however, be interesting to find some way to assess the conformity or otherwise of bloggers.

    That's a good point about active blogging as apposed to passive viewing; might one argue that 'taking the trouble to clarify our own views' is in itself the act of the non-conformist?

  3. "What do you think?"

    I dunno, let me read a few other bloggers on this and see what they have to say....

  4. Oops! Wrong novel; I meant 'Original Sins'.