Dear Inception:You’re doing it wrong(a guide to practical mind-hacking)

August 7, 2010

Caution:Spoilers await below

I liked Inception. It’s definitely one of the better movies that I’ve ever seen, with a unique premise and a good ratio of philosophical discussion to shooting at things. Sure, there were a few details and deus ex machina moments that made me go “what?”(falling into water wakes you up, but being shot in the chest doesn’t? Why does your mental security take the form of paramilitary snipers with a lower accuracy rate than storm troopers, rather than, I don’t know, a giant wall of concrete? If you can bend Paris in half, can’t you materialize some barricades between you and said storm troopers?) But this isn’t Bad Astronomy, so I’ll leave those questions for now.

One thing that was more significant was at the very start of the movie:

Arthur: Right, but it’s not your idea. The dreamer can always remember the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.

Of course, Cobb quickly jumps in to correct him, one thing leads to another, and before you know it, they’ve thought up an elaborate plan that’s basically a cross between Ocean’s 11 and the Matrix. The idea, of course, is that when the person is dreaming, you can access their subconscious without the resistance that their conscious mind would normally put up hearing a radical idea from a complete stranger. Okay, sounds good.

Incidentally, this is why it’s good to actually have some background knowledge when you’re about to do something fairly complex and/or dangerous. Because really, instead of going through three levels of dreams(which , keep in mind, a professional pretty much assured them wouldn’t work), they could just:

1.Hypnotize the person

During hypnosis, people are almost always more “suggestible”, that is, more likely to respond to instructions and suggestions of others. Such suggestions can extend outside of what we would normally consider ourselves able to adjust–people can be hypnotized to have hallucinations, for example.

Unforutnaley,  hypnosis requires a great deal of trust in the hypnotist, and is not always successful, especially when asking someone to do something that they would never normally do. For example, giving a hypnotized person a gun and telling them to shoot themself would probably not work. But, if a person was sufficiently trusting and hypnotized deeply enough, you could likely convince them that they were holding a water pistol, and tell them to squirt themself.

Of course, the Achilles heel of this method is that it requires trust in the hypnotist. But if that’s not possible, you can also go with…

2.Changing their memories

Contrary to Arthur’s statement, we DON’T always remember the source of our ideas, a phenomenon known as “source amnesia”. A dramatic example of this was Ronald Reagan’s  recount of an aerial battle he fought in during World War II;, which, when examined by third parties, was found to have never happened, but instead, was a scene from a movie he acted in.

Why does this happen? It’s because of how the human memory is intrinsically linked to imagination. Even when a memory seems vivid–like a video camera recording of something–the brain really only stores a small amount of information, and relies on the imagination to recreate a vivid memory. If you remember your mother spilling a glass of wine, for example, your brain doesn’t need to encode exactly what color the wine was, the pattern on the tablecloth, etc, because you KNOW what these things look like. When the memory is retrieved, the brain seamlessly regenerates all the missing details.

This space-saving evolution, however, makes us vulnerable to manipulation. A now-famous experiment involved showing a group of volunteers a video of Bugs Bunny greeting children at Disneyland, and then asking them if they had had the same experience. A number of them did. But then the kicker was revealed:the event that the experiment prompted them to remember never actually happened.(Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers, not a Disney, character). In other words, the researchers had  deliberately “implanted” an experience in the subjects heads, and made them think it was their own experience.

So what did happen? Basically, our brains aren’t evolved to deal with that kind of deception. Most of the subjects hadn’t specifically recorded the presence or absence of Bugs Bunny into their memories regarding Disneyland, so when it was presented to them on a video, they accepted it, and, in some cases, even drew on this “external” information when trying to remember their own experiences.

What’s more, the effect is not limited to trivial matters. Susan Clancy, a psychologist, found that false memories of alien abduction could actually cause symptoms similar to PTSD. In other words, people had emotional trauma from an event that never happened.

It seems that the most important factor of being able to implant a false memory is that the memory be plausible–not necessarily in an absolute sense, but in relation to the person’s other experiences. A person who experiences sleep paralysis can be manipulated into thinking it was an alien abduction. A person who regularly plays paintball can easily be made to believe something that never happened during a paintball game. By careful suggestion(i.e.”remember reading about how the analysts are saying to invest in Adobe?”), someone can influence another’s financial decisions.

Of course, if that doesn’t work, you can also try:

3.Plain old cognitive biases

Maybe for some reason you can’t get close to the person you’re trying to hack. No problem. In these cases, you’re not implanting your own idea in someone else’s mind, but instead merelly steering them to arrive at a conclusion that would further your idea. How? Well, what we consider “logical” reasoning n is full of biases and flaws for someone to hack. A few of the more interesting ones:

  • A person will want something disporportionatley if it has zero cost compared to something with an extremely minimal cost
  • If access to something is denied to a person, their desire and acceptance of it will increase(and access is valued more highly if it has been more recently lost than if it has been lost for a period of time)
  • If an authority figure or expert stresses that something is okay, a person will often suspend their own judgement about it.
  • If someone is given a free gift, or a favor,  even by a stranger, that person will lean towards a course of action that involves reciprocating towards the stranger–even if they have no idea as to their identity or motives.
  • Apples-to-oranges choices(where a direct comparison can not easily be made) can be biased towards one option by providing an additional option that is comparable to it, but by all measures an inferior choice

There’s a whole ton of these, check out the Wikipedia page on cognitive biases and the excellent book, Predictably Irrational. Plus you don’t need one of…whatever that thing is:

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