With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility—A Personal Philosophy for Communicating Science in Society

by E. Paul Zehr

Many think that communicating science is a necessary and rewarding activity. Yet finding compelling, relevant, and timely points of linkage between challenging scientific concepts and the experiences and interests of the general public can be difficult. Since science continues to influence more and more aspects of daily life and knowledge, there is a parallel need for communication about science in our society. Here I discuss the “ middle-ground hypothesis ” using popular culture for science communication and applying the “ FUNnel model, ” where popular culture is used as a lead – in and wrap – up when discussing science. The scientific knowledge we find in our hands does not belong to us—we just had it first. We can honor that knowledge best by sharing it as widely as possible using the most creative means at our disposal.

Source: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility—A Personal Philosophy for Communicating Science in Society

Significance Statement

Using popular culture in science communication can allow the sharing of knowledge to the largest audience.

“Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.”
-Albert Einstein

“…With great power there must also come—great responsibility!”
-Stan Lee

There And Back Again: A Neuroscientist’s Epiphany

Back in 2005 I began to question the broader societal impact of my work as a neuroscientist. At that time, my most heavily cited paper had ∼150 citations, and, although I realized this was a harsh interpretation, I asked myself, what if that number meant that only 150 people read my paper? Was 150 readers an acceptable impact for me in the “traditional” academic sense? My answer then and now—that same paper has over 400 citations and my body of work ∼4000 total citations—was “no.” I decided to make conversations with the general public, in addition to the community already engaged in academic literature, a stronger emphasis in my activities.

Since that time, I have been involved in many “outreach” activities focused on a general public audience—writing books, blogs, media, and talks for science promotion. I have also worked to encourage my students and colleagues to get more involved in science communication. When I compare other attempts to quantify impact in my communication activities, they contrast sharply in numbers. For example, my blog at Psychology Today magazine has over 250,000 page views.

Many think that communicating science to the public is a necessary and rewarding activity; however, finding compelling, relevant, and timely points of linkage between challenging scientific concepts and the experiences and interests of the general public can be difficult. Despite these challenges, science continues to influence more and more aspects of daily life as knowledge and communication about science continue to increase in necessity and importance in our society. In his amazing book “The Demon Haunted World—Science as a Candle in the Dark,” the late Carl Sagan wrote about the lack of understanding of science and described it as “…a prescription for disaster…sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces” (Sagan, 1995).

There are many problematic consequences of a society at large that remains without scientific knowledge, has little understanding of the scientific process, or feels segregated from the concepts. For example, elected officials may not fight for and lobby for providing funding for research and may be elected on platforms based on gross inaccuracies and flawed logic. Others include the antivaccine movement, and concussion in children’s activities and their long-term impact.

This commentary is based mostly on my own experiences using icons in popular culture to serve as vehicles for communicating science. For example, I used the Walking Dead to illustrate human motor control in a zombie context (Zehr and Norman, 2015), and Darth Vader to consider phantom limbs, embodiment, and neural prosthetics (Zehr, 2015a). The bulk of my work in this area, though, has been to use superheroes. These efforts have also led to advances in my own approach to undergraduate education. At the University of Victoria, I now teach a 100 level courseThe Science of Batman that is open to students from all faculties and departments with an interest in science and superheroes.

I explored themes of plasticity in biological systems in Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero (Zehr, 2008), and the enhancement of biological function with technology inInventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine (Zehr, 2011b). Here, I will not talk much about the need for Science Committee—please see David Eagleman’s essay on its importance (Eagleman, 2013). Instead, the focus is largely on examples of science communication using pre-existing elements in society and popular culture.

Previously, I outlined some of my early efforts (Zehr, 2011a) and advanced the “middle-ground hypothesis” using popular culture for science communication (Zehr, 2014a). Here, I extend that concept and describe some strategies that form the central core of my philosophy of science communication. To resonate with this colloquial approach, the structure of this commentary is deliberately written in a journalistic style using the first person voice.

Understanding The Needs Of Your Audience Is The Key To Effective Science Communication

Science often makes audiences uncomfortable because it forces them outside their base of knowledge. So, I try to make things as pleasant—and as fun—as I can. This maximizes the likelihood of my audience engaging with the science concepts I have chosen because they want to do so. To facilitate this engagement, I use popular culture as the link between science and the general public. Taking something the audience is familiar with (e.g., superheroes) and linking it with something they are not (e.g., neuroplasticity) allows them to enter a conversation without putting up barriers.

Although there can be many other approaches, I strongly encourage using popular culture because it is, as the name says, already popular. Superhero movies and television shows continue to have extreme popularity and represent excellent opportunities for exploring scientific concepts in a middle-ground mental “landscape” that is comfortable and familiar.

Communications guru Marshall Mcluhan said that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964) to highlight the importance of both knowledge and the manner in which it is presented. We must combine the medium and our message to truly communicate with our audiences. I strongly urge the use of ready-made vehicles, such as popular culture icons, because they represent the most seamless access to the interests of the general public. For me, superheroes are perfect for this since they afford well known examples of exploring the truth and fiction of science that underlie their fictional powers.

In the approach I favor, the medium becomes the middle ground for the message. Popular culture as both medium and content becomes the connecting point between the science and the audience. This middle-ground hypothesis is shown in Figure 1 and is meant to apply widely to communication among all groups and ages. This illustration shows how a common middle ground can facilitate the movement of ideas. Around the folks shown talking together are science concepts that I have addressed in my books and blogs using superhero popular culture icons.

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Communicating science using popular culture as the “middle ground.” This basic illustration shows the idea of a conversation between scientists and the general public. Information is exchanged using the bridging afforded by popular culture icons in the “middle ground.” The words and phrases found around the figures represent science concepts used in this way in the books “Becoming Batman,” “Inventing Iron Man,” and “Project Superhero.” In the process of writing these books and selecting concepts for discussion, I consulted “Neuroscience Core Concepts: The Essential Principles of Neuroscience” (Society for Neuroscience, 2016) and core principles in physiology (Michael et al., 2009).

Some Examples Of Using Popular Culture As The Middle Ground

 In “Becoming Batman,” I used the well known superhero Batman to represent the ultimate human produced by physical and mental training (Zehr, 2008). The key point was for readers to better understand their own bodily function while thinking about that of Bruce Wayne. To evaluate what parts of Batman’s mythology might or might not be grounded in science, I surveyed neuroscience, genetics, biomechanics, psychology, physiology, and pathological outcomes. This involved comparing the representation of Batman’s skills and abilities shown in comics, graphic novels, TV, and movies to what might be found in real occupations that contain those same elements.

The result suggests that DC Comics’ Dark Knight is a mix of a NASCAR driver, NFL running back, mixed martial artist, Parkour expert, and Cirque du Soleil gymnastic acrobat. Importantly, acquiring the skills and abilities necessary for all these activities means Batman is also subjected to all the associated physical stresses and strains that produce negative outcomes in the form of injury and illness.

Using this popular culture middle ground scaffolding I addressed the many scientific components and concepts underlying the adaptations that would be needed to actually produce the Caped Crusader. The overarching concept was to view all of Batman’s training and actions as challenges to homeostasis and balance in his body.

The key culmination of this analysis was that with the necessary genomic attributes, mentors, teachers, training opportunities, time to commit, the psychological commitment and drive, and money to afford all of this, portions of Batman’s mythology do resonate with reality.

In “Inventing Iron Man” I borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and asked readers to use a “willing sense of disbelief” and imagine that Iron Man’s exoskeletal suit of armor actually existed. Then I used the structure of the book to explore how such a suit of armor could actually work in connection with the body. The main focus is considering Iron Man as a biological control problem of human ability enhanced by technology (Zehr, 2011b).

Where Batman represents the ultimate in human conditioning by training, Iron Man becomes the ultimate in brain–machine interface. The suit of armor can also be considered a form of advanced “tool” for Tony Stark’s brain to use. Pathological outcomes are also raised when discussing the implications for adding another tool to the body schema. This brings out issues like phantom limbs and cortical plasticity in both beneficial and pathological outcomes, which were also explored in posts at Scientific American (Zehr, 2012a). Thus, much of the content in “Inventing Iron Man” centers on the engineering and neuroscience concepts contained in the rapidly expanding field of brain-machine interface.

In addition to extreme performance, superheroes can also be used as metaphors for “normal” and pathologically reduced performance. For example, in “Inventing Iron Man” I suggest that the habitual use of a real Iron Man exoskeleton would result in extensive physiological deconditioning effects and negative health implications. These examples are paralleled with real-world examples of deconditioning found after physical inactivity and long-term space flight.

The implications of concussion and mild traumatic brain injury were addressed in my first three books (Zehr, 2008, 2011b,2014b) and also in blogs (Zehr, 2012b). I was careful to highlight the dysfunction that occurs with increased energy demand and neuronal metabolism along with decreased supply and how that gives rise to concussion symptoms. This leads to discussions about secondary impact syndrome, the importance of protecting the brain from future concussive incidents, and how such exposure may lead to increased symptoms and susceptibility with lower impacts occurring over time.

I have not only focused on Batman and Iron Man, though. Using other superheroes I have explored the genetic regulation of human muscle strength via myostatin in considering Superman (Zehr, 2013b), tissue repair and enhancement after orthopedic injury when considering the “healing factor” of Wolverine (Zehr, 2013a), and considering the creation of neurological chimeras with enhanced hippocampal processing in the form of Rocket Racoon from “Guardians of the Galaxy” (Zehr, 2014c).

My biggest challenge, however, was writing a book for young adults. Project Superhero distills the main themes in “Becoming Batman” and “Inventing Iron Man” but puts them in a context for young adults (Zehr, 2014b). My first attempt to do this was an incomplete failure. I tried to take the content from my first two books and just write it using simpler language. My agent was quick to let me know that this would not be very interesting for young readers, and that I should do a bit more reading of my own in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

The first-person diary-style narrative was (and is) hugely popular with younger readers. Examples abound, but one of the most well known is the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney. After reflecting on the needs of this new audience I was trying to reach out to, I decided to adopt the popular diary style but also chose to combine commentary from real people in creating a hybrid fiction/nonfiction book.

Project Superhero includes many of the concepts in neuroscience, physiology, martial arts, and nutrition I wrote about in “Becoming Batman” and “Inventing Iron Man,” but which were now recast in a format that was more accessible for a younger age group. This also required me to produce a fictional story and narrative arc in the book to follow my protagonist Jessie and her friends across their eighth grade year.

While this book was my most challenging, it has also been extremely rewarding. I have received many letters and e-mails from readers, but the review I treasure most is one posted on Goodreads by teen “Daniel” (Goodreads, 2016):

When I pick books up from the library, I usually sort them into three piles, based on how much I want to read them. This is one of the few books from the third (least want to read) pile that I gave 5 stars. I seriously loved this book. It is amazing, from interviews with actual heroes, to the facts it blends in, to the story that is amazing. The book is themed on superhero comics, but have not read any comics and I still grasped the story good. Jessie is a quiet introvert that loves reading superhero comics with her friends. When she starts 8th grade, she is ecstatic to hear about the Superhero Slam debate competition, but can she overcome a fear of public speaking to become her own superhero? Overall AMAZING book!

My next book, “Creating Captain America: The Possibility of Enhancing Our Evolution” will be published in 2017 (Zehr, 2017). This book completes the trilogy I began with “Becoming Batman” by considering how much we can now alter our own biology using science and engineering. This book has a much larger philosophical focus, and a major theme is considering what we will accept as a society when it comes to the functional abilities of “normal” humans, a concept I have also written about in several journals (Zehr, 2015b,c).

Others have used James Bond to explore chronic alcoholism (Johnson et al., 2013) and Star Wars (in the form of Sith Lord Darth Vader) to explore respiratory disease (Plovsing and Berg, 2014; Berg and Plovsing, 2016). Popular culture for science communication can be found in the excellent “Physics of Superheros” and “The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics” by James Kakalios (Kakalios, 2006, 2010), and “The Science of Superheros” by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg (Gresh and Weinberg, 2003).

Another great example of fusing popular culture with science—physics in this case—is “The Physics of Star Trek” by Lawrence Krauss (Krauss, 1995). In the foreword to “The Physics of Superheroes,” Krauss nicely captured the idea of using the popular culture middle ground with “…few things are more memorable than confronting one’s own misconceptions… if you want to reach out to understand popular misconceptions, then exploiting where we get our cultural perspectives from is a good place to start. And if that means borrowing from Superman, or Star Trek, I am all for it!”

Of course, it is not necessary that popular culture examples be drawn solely from comic books or science fiction, as in many of the above examples. Other examples might be using past or present sports figures, applying famous historical events (e.g., the moon landing or the Battle of Troy) or using current news stories (e.g., Zika virus, water treatment, and the Olympics; vaccines and vaccination). With a little thought and planning, almost anything can be used to make science fun and accessible.

Effective Communication Is All About Accessibility And Fun

 In seeing the effectiveness of others’ science communication activities and reflecting on my own experiences in this area, I came to realize that the approach I took could be conceptualized as a dual funnel—wide at both ends and narrowing in the middle. The end portions represent engaging the general public with relevant examples, and the narrow bit in the middle is where all the science content finds a home. This is shown graphically as the FUNnel model for science communication in Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

The FUNnel model for science communication. The simple concept here is to use popular culture as the lead-in and the summary for science concepts. For example, borrowing the approach I took in “Inventing Iron Man,” at Step 1 you might begin with Iron Man as a topical example of a human being with abilities amplified by technology. Then, asking how could this work, in Step 2 begin to lead into robotics, neuroprosthetics, and the brain–machine interface. This leads to a discussion about the organization of the brain and spinal cord, and how this allows for the ability to extract information about movement and movement planning that could be used to control an advanced prosthetic in the form of Iron Man. This leads into Step 3, where you return to the Iron Man armor and briefly summarize the level of technology currently available to support (or not) the comic book icon.

Our Knowledge Is Power That We Do Not Own

 I think we need to really ask, how effective do we actually want to be with science communication? Do we want to go through the motions of communicating or do we want to be truly effective? I suspect most of us do want to be effective and are intrinsically motivated to be so. If that is indeed true, then making all efforts to be maximally effective should be encouraged.

We scientists really do have a powerful role to play in our society. The science superpowers we possess include discovery, creation, synthesis, and dissemination of knowledge. For the last in that list, dissemination, it is critical to appreciate that this includes conversation with society at large, not just among our academic colleagues. That is the hidden science superpower that most of us have to work to realize. Yet, it is important work.

For we scientists to be effective, it is not sufficient to simply translate what we want to communicate into simpler words and concepts for nonspecialists. Instead, we need to put our concepts into the context the target audience is ready to receive. To be effective, this means going outside our comfort zones to more effectively enter the comfort zones of our audiences.

We need to go beyond simply asking what we think our audiences should need or ought to know. Instead, the real questions are how will they know it, what is the medium through which they are ready to know it, and how do I translate the scientific messages into a comfortable message for them?

There is a famous phrase from a very famous comic book written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko. That comic book gave us the debut of a certain “Spider-Man” (Amazing Fantasy #15, published August 10, 1964), and in it Peter Parker learns an important lesson about responsibility. After failing to act to subdue a criminal, that criminal goes on to kill Parker’s Uncle Ben. Peter reflects that “…all my fault! If only I had stopped him when I could have! But I didn’t!” Stan Lee’s last words in the final panel of the comic states that “with great power there must also come—great responsibility!”

I propose that we all have our own superpowers of communication that we can use to stop misinformation and poorly conceived ideas that many may have about science because they are not engaging in our “traditional” outreach activities. We use our “powers” by stepping up and communicating with the other members of our communities and our society who are not scientists. Of course, to make increased advocacy activities sustainable in science, academic institutions and funding agencies must also demonstrate the value of these activities by tangible action.

To paraphrase Sir Frances Bacon, “knowledge is power.” It is time to accept that our efforts to create and generate scientific knowledge put great power into our hands. This also obliges us to exercise great responsibility. For that knowledge to have any value, it is our responsibility to affect the largest audience by communicating as widely as we possibly can.

The scientific knowledge we discover does not belong to us—we just had it first. We can honor that knowledge best by sharing it widely using the most creative means at our disposal.


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What Technology Can’t Change About Happiness

As pills and gadgets proliferate, what matters is still social connection.

Source: What Technology Can’t Change About Happiness

In 2014, researchers at the University of Warwick in England announced they had found a strong association between a gene mutation identified with happiness and well-being. It’s called 5-HTTLPR and it affects the way our body metabolizes the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate our moods, sex drives, and appetites. The study asks why some nations, notably Denmark, consistently top “happiness indexes,” and wonders whether there may be a connection between a nation and the genetic makeup of its people. Sure enough, controlling for work status, religion, age, gender, and income, the researchers discovered those with Danish DNA had a distinct genetic advantage in well-being. In other words, the more Danish DNA one has, the more likely he or she will report being happy.

This tantalizing piece of research is not the only example of the power of feel-good genes. One body of research suggests we are genetically pre-programmed with a happiness “set point”—a place on the level of life satisfaction to which, in the absence of a fresh triumph or disappointment, our mood seems to return as surely as a homing pigeon to its base. As much as 50 percent of this set point, some researchers have demonstrated, is determined genetically at birth. The genetic determinants of a higher set point may be what the Danes are blessed with.

Neuroscientists are also studying a gene variant that leads to higher levels of a brain chemical called anandamide, which contributes to a sense of calm. Individuals with mutations that cause them to make less of an enzyme that metabolizes anandamide are less prone to trudge through life with the weight of the world on their shoulders. In 2015, Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, lamented in a New York Times op-ed “that we are all walking around with a random and totally unfair assortment of genetic variants that make us more or less content, anxious, depressed or prone to use drugs.” “What we really need,” Friedman continued, “is a drug that can boost anandamide—our bliss molecule—for those who are genetically disadvantaged. Stay tuned.”

“Close relationships and social connections keep you happy and healthy. Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.”

Some scientists have already tuned in to the future. James J. Hughes, a sociologist, author, and futurist at Hartford’s Trinity College, envisions a day not too far from now when we will unravel the genetic determinants of key neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, and be able to manipulate happiness genes—if not 5-HTTLPR then something like it—with precise nanoscale technologies that marry robotics and traditional pharmacology. These “mood bots,” once ingested, will travel directly to specific areas of the brain, flip on genes, and manually turn up or down our happiness set point, coloring the way we experience circumstances around us. “As nanotechnology becomes more precise, we’re going to be able to affect mood in increasingly precise ways in ordinary people,” says Hughes, who also serves as executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and authored the 2004 book Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.

It would be easy to conclude the redesigned human of the future will be able to pop a mood bot and live in bliss. But not so fast, say psychologists, sociologists, and neurologists who study happiness. Just because scientists have decoded some of the underlying biology of this ineffable state of being, paving the way for a drug to stimulate it, does not guarantee that our great-great-grandchildren will live happy and satisfying lives. Human nature is more than biology, the scientists assure us. And generations of happiness research offer a clear window into what it takes to live a long and satisfying life.


TOGETHER: Strong personal relationships lead to better health outcomes, and can shift the architecture of the brain.   (Constance Bannister Corp / Getty)


The squishiness of the term “happiness” has long caused problems for those who study it. To gauge happiness and sidestep semantic problems, many of the psychologists who have tried to quantify it have used a measure called “Subjective Well-Being.” This measure, as its name implies, relies on individuals themselves to tell researchers how happy they are. Ed Diener, a University of Virginia psychologist nicknamed “Dr. Happiness,” pioneered the approach in the 1980s. Today, Diener serves as a senior scientist at The Gallup Organization, which provides a key survey used in happiness indexes put out by most groups compiling such lists, including the United Nations.

But in recent years, a growing number of researchers have begun to acknowledge that this isn’t a particularly good fix; maybe a little more refinement is needed. What we really mean when we tell a researcher from a place like Gallup that we are “happy” can vary widely. If you ask a teenager or young adult to rate his happiness, he’s liable to base his answer on his weekend plans, how much money he has in his pocket, and how his peers treated him during lunch break. If you ask somebody with a little more mileage—someone with children, for instance—they are liable to look at a bigger picture, even if they have a bad back that’s been acting up, no babysitter for Saturday, and an appointment that afternoon for a colonoscopy.

Over the past decade or so, a growing number of researchers have begun to rethink exactly what happiness is and distinguish between two types: “hedonic” happiness, that positive mental high, and “eudaimonic” happiness. Aristotle was referring to this second kind when he wrote 2,300 years ago: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” This is the kind of happiness that qualifies a life well-lived, time on this planet well-spent. Medical technology may soon be able to engineer a momentary absence of fear, or the presence of a moment-to-moment sense of well-being, but engineering this second kind of happiness would be far more difficult.

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist and author of the best-selling Stumbling On Happiness, suggests humans are already hardwired to raise their own hedonistic happiness, and we’re pretty good at it, without resorting to mood bots. Gilbert has spent his career studying the way we convince ourselves to accept our external circumstances, and return to a hedonic equilibrium, no matter what comes.

In a 2004 TED talk, Gilbert powerfully demonstrates this by displaying two pictures side by side. The picture on the left depicts a man in a black cowboy hat holding up an oversized lottery check. He has just won $314.9 million. The picture on the right displays another man, approximately the same age, sitting in a wheelchair, being pushed up a ramp. “Here are two different futures that I invite you to contemplate, and you can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer,” Gilbert says to the audience. Data exists, he assures them, on how happy groups of lottery winners and paraplegics are. The fact is, a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners are only slightly happier with their lives than paraplegics are.

The findings are unequivocal: Online connection decreases depression, reduces loneliness, and increases levels of perceived social support.

The reason people fail to appreciate that both groups are equally happy is a counterintuitive phenomenon that Gilbert calls “impact bias,” a tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events. We see this tendency, he notes, with winning or not winning an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, winning or not winning a promotion, passing or not passing a college exam. All these events “have far less impact, far less intensity, and for much less duration than people expect them to have.”

It’s that happiness set point again, returning to its base. But surely some things affect happiness? In fact, Gilbert tells Nautilus, “Much of our happiness is produced by things that have long evolutionary histories. I will place any wager that in 2045 people are still happy when they see their children prosper, when they taste chocolate, when they feel loved, secure, and well fed.”

These are the “staples of happiness,” he continues. “It would take an evolutionary change on the order of species to even consider the possibility that those would change too. This question could have been posed a few years ago, 300 years ago, 2,000 years ago. It would never have been wrong to say, ‘You are the most social animal on Earth, invest in your social relationships, it will be a form of happiness.’ ” It’s an answer that is so obvious that most people dismiss it.

“There is utterly no secret about the kind of things that make people happy,” Gilbert says. “But if you list them for people, they go, ‘Yeah, that kind of sounds like what my rabbi, grandmother, my philosopher have said all along. What’s the secret?’ The answer is there is no secret. They were right.”


WHO’S HAPPIER?: The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has pointed out that lottery winners are only slightly happier a year after their win, than paraplegics are a year after losing the use of their legs.     [Keystone-France / Getty (left) and Barcroft / Getty (right)]

erhaps the most compelling evidence on the importance of relationships stems from a study of a cohort of people who are today mostly grandparents themselves. The information is stored in a cramped room in downtown Boston, lined with file cabinets that hold the details of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies on the development of healthy, male adults ever compiled: the Harvard Study of Adult Development, previously known as the Grant Study in Social Adjustments.

In 1938, researchers began conducting tests and interviewing carefully selected college sophomores from the all-male Harvard classes of 1939, 1940, and 1941. The men were chosen not because they had problems that made them likely to fail, but because they showed promise. (The cohort included, among others, future president John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, who would lead the Washington Post during Watergate.) The original intent was to follow these men, who seemed destined for success, for perhaps 15 to 20 years. Today, more than 75 years later, the study is still going. Thirty of the original 268 men in the study are still alive.

In 1967, the files were merged with the Glueck Study, a similar effort that included a second group of 456 poor, non-delinquent, white kids who grew up in Boston’s inner city in the early 1940s. Of those, about 80 are still around, though the ones that aren’t lived, on average, nine years less than those in the Harvard cohort.

In 2009, the study’s longest-serving former director George Vaillant was asked by Joshua Wolf Shenk of The Atlantic what he considered the most important finding of the Grant study since its inception. “The only thing that really matters in life are your relations to other people,” he responded.

After Shenk’s article came out, Vaillant found himself under attack from skeptics around the globe. In response, Vaillant created what he called the “Decathlon of Flourishing,” which included a list of 10 accomplishments in late life (60-80) that might be considered success. They included earning an income in the study’s top quartile, recognition in Who’s Who in America, low psychological distress, success and enjoyment in work, love, and play since age 65, good physical and mental health, social support other than wife and kids, a good marriage, and a close relationship with kids.

High scores in all of these categories turned out to be highly correlated with one another. But of all the factors he looked at, only four were highly correlated with success on all the measures, and those all had to do with relationships. Once again, he proved that it was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted success in all aspects of the men’s lives.

“Mood bots,” once ingested, will travel directly to specific areas of the brain, flip on genes, and manually turn up or down happiness.

However, Vaillant, who detailed his findings in the 2012 book Triumphs of Experience, objects to the term “happiness.” “The most important thing in happiness is to get the word out of your vocabulary,” he says. “The point is that a great deal of happiness is simply hedonism and I feel OK today because I’ve just had a Big Mac or a good bowel movement. That has very little to do with a sense of well-being. The secret to well-being is experiencing positive emotions.” And the secret to that, Vaillant argues, might sound trite. But you can’t argue with the facts. The secret is love.

“In the 1960s and ’70s, I would have been laughed at,” to suggest such a thing, Vaillant says. “But here I was finding hard data to support the fact that your relationships are the most important single thing in your well-being. It’s been gratifying to find support for something as sentimental as love.”

Robert Waldinger, the psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor who currently leads the study, notes that it is not just measures of material success and psychological feelings of well-being that are linked to good relationships. It’s also physical health.

“The biggest take home from a lot of this, is that the quality of people’s relationships are way more important than what we thought they were—not just for emotional well-being but also for physical health,” he says. Marital happiness at age 50, he says, is a more important predictor of physical health at 80 than cholesterol levels at 50. “Close relationships and social connections keep you happy and healthy. That is the bottom line. People who were more concerned with achievement or less concerned with connection were less happy. Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.”

Not only did strong personal relationships lead to better health outcomes, it affected the architecture of the brain. People who feel socially isolated get sicker earlier, their brains decay earlier, their memories are worse, Waldinger says. Using brain-scan technologies, Waldinger and his team discovered that those who were most satisfied with their lives had greater brain connectivity. Their brains lit up more robustly when they looked at visual images than people who were less satisfied.

“The people who were most engaged were the happiest,” Waldinger says. “They could be raising kids, they could be planting a garden, they could be running a corporation. If you really care about something, if it means something to you, and particularly if you have meaningful engagement with other people when you do these things—those are the things that light you up.”

Even Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist, who coauthored a seminal study of twins that demonstrated a 33 percent variation in life satisfaction could be attributed to the 5-HTTLPR gene, agrees that the key component to happiness is social. “I’m very skeptical that technological advances will affect what I regard as foundational features of human nature,” he says. “So I don’t think that any technological developments or futuristic things are going to fundamentally affect our capacity for happiness.”

Christakis, who studies social networks, says the influence of genes like 5-HTTLPR on happiness is less direct than a straight subjective feeling of well-being (though that may be part of it). Instead, he suggests, it’s their effect on our behavior that may be key—and the effect that has on our relationships. “It’s not just what genes do inside our body, how they modify our neurophysiology or transmitters, but what genes do outside our body, how they affect how many friends you make, or whether you will pick happy or sad friends, which also affects happiness,” Christakis says. “Even if you have genes that predispose you to pick happy friends, the unavailability of them may make you unhappy.”


DIGITAL BOND: Some scholars now argue that social media and the Internet draw people close together, enhancing already existing relationships.  (Hero Images)


enerations of happiness research, stressing the importance of personal relationships, drops us into the middle of a surprisingly contemporary debate. We live in an increasingly networked society, and the rate of us in social networks, and the amount of time we spend online, continues to grow each year. Vaillant, of the longitudinal Harvard study, has no hesitation in saying what our lives online are doing to us.

“Technology drives us up into our cortex away from our heart,” he says. “What makes the world go round is not technology. It’s not having a better and better iPhone; I’ve got a fancy new phone and I just hate it. The technology is just going to distract us back into our heads so that my daughter feels it’s cooler to text someone than it is to talk to them on the telephone. That doesn’t bode well for happiness in 2050.”

The fears of a dystopian new world, where we all text at the dinner table and have problems making eye contact, were perhaps most articulately summed up by Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the science, technology, and society program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She explores the paradox of how technology connects us, yet also makes us lonelier, in her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

“Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding,” she argues passionately in a 2012 TED talk. “And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring.”

Some of the earliest studies on the use of the Internet and technology supported the idea that the networked age was driving us toward a sad, lonely future. In a groundbreaking 1998 study, Robert E. Kraut, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, recruited volunteer families with high-school-aged children, gave them computers and Internet access, and then tracked their usage. The more his participants used the Internet, he found, the more their depression increased, and the more social support and other measures of psychological well-being declined.

Since then there have been other negative studies and a spate of bad press. One widely cited 2012 study conducted by researchers at Utah Valley University of 425 undergraduates found that the more they used Facebook, the more they felt that others were happier and had better lives than they did. The researchers named the study, “They Are Happier and Having Better Lives Than I Am: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives.”

Even the Vatican has expressed concern. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI warned in one of his messages to the world that “virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact.”

But in recent years, a more nuanced consensus has begun to emerge—a consensus that suggests technology is not such a bad thing for human relationships. Carnegie Mellon’s Kraut now argues that his 1998 study might tell us about the present. The problem, he says, was there were comparatively fewer people on the Internet at the time. The individuals who participated in his study were forced to communicate with people they did not know in far-flung places, what Kraut calls “weak ties.” “What we realized is that by necessity they had to talk to relative strangers,” he says. “But that was the early days. Now virtually everybody you know is online.”

Kraut’s more recent research has found that today most people spend their time online communicating with people with whom they already have strong ties. In those cases, he argues, the findings are unequivocal: Online connection decreases depression, reduces loneliness, and increases levels of perceived social support.

It does so by enhancing offline relationships. Online interactions, like offline ones, are more fulfilling if they are with people with whom we have strong ties. They mean a lot less if they are with strangers. But most of us use technologies to communicate with people we already know. And that helps relationships grow stronger. “Communication online has the same beneficial effects that communication offline would have if we already know people,” Kraut says.

Keith Hampton, an associate professor of communication and public policy communication at Rutgers University, has conducted a number of studies in collaboration with the Pew Research Center measuring the effects of Internet use on relationships, democracy, and social supports. The idea that we interact either online or offline, he argues, is a false dichotomy. Through his studies, he too has become convinced that social media and the Internet are drawing us closer together—online and off. “I don’t think it’s people moving online, I think it’s people adding the digital mode of communication to already existing relationships,” he says.

In fact, his research has found that the more different kinds of media that people use to interact, the stronger their relationships tend to be. People who don’t just talk on the phone but also see each other, and email each other and communicate through four or five different mediums, tend to have stronger relationships with one another than those who communicate through fewer mediums, he has found.

Facebook, he argues, is fundamentally changing the nature of relationships in ways that have been lost since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when people began leaving their native villages behind to head to cities for new opportunities, and lost contact with the people they grew up with. “Thanks to social media, those types of relationships are persistent,” he says. “Now we may be connecting with people over the course of life that we didn’t before.”

Of course, Facebook and technology, Hampton argues, are not sufficient in their own right to fend off loneliness. But in conjunction with other modes of interaction, they can bolster existing relationships, contribute to diverse relationships, and keep dormant relationships alive. The overall effect of technology is to overcome the constraints of time and location that would have proven insurmountable before. Instead of Christmas cards, we get a constant stream of information. We can share in triumphs and know when to offer solace during tragedy. We are less isolated.

Hampton has heard the assertions by Turkle and others that technology is atomizing us and killing traditional interactions. So he decided to examine that contention too. In a 2014 article in the journalUrban Studies, Hampton and collaborators reported that they had studied four films taken in public spaces over the course of the last 30 years. For their study they observed and coded the behavior and characteristics of 143,593 people. They analyzed that behavior to see if, in fact, we really are “alone together” in a crowd.

In fact, Hampton found the opposite. There was, in the same public spaces, a notable increase in the numbers of people interacting in large groups. And despite the ubiquity of mobile phones, the rate of their use in public was relatively small, especially when individuals were walking with others. Mobile phones appeared “most often in spaces where people might otherwise be walking alone,” he wrote. “This suggests that, when framed as a communication tool, mobile phone use is associated with reduced public isolation, although it is associated with an increased likelihood to linger and with time spent lingering in public.”

None of this surprises Amy Zalman, president and CEO of the World Future Society, who spends her days organizing conferences, conducting research, and speaking with people who try to predict what society might look like a few decades in the future. She expects that technological tools to pursue human relationships will continue to evolve in unexpected ways. But she doesn’t expect them to change human nature. Human relating, she argues, has always been a highly mediated activity—even language can be seen as a tool on the same spectrum as technologies like social media or cell phones, a spectrum of tools we use to interface with others. It’s just that we notice these tools more. But that too will change. “Technology is going to get closer and closer, it’s going to get invasive—we are going to wear it; it’s going to be inside of us—and then it’s going to disappear and we are not even going to notice it,” Zalman says.

Some futurists believe we may plug into a matrix and communicate through a hive mind. Or perhaps we will relate through personal avatars, robots that resemble us, which we occupy remotely. Maybe our brains will be uploaded to computers. But whatever happens, in the end, the verities of happiness will remain the same as they were in the days of Aristotle. It’s never a mistake to go out and play, make friends, make love, and make an impact on society. Happiness is and has always been about our relationships with other people.


Adam Piore is a freelance writer based in New York.


16 basic principles of mass indoctrination

Source: 16 basic principles of mass indoctrination

Aspie Savant

Sep 10, 2015


1. Start while they’re young.


2. Create the illusion of political freedom.


3. Use simplistic stereotypes to sway public opinion.

4. Mix facts with lies.


5. A big lie is more convincing than a small lie.


6. Give the masses “bread and circuses” to keep them well-fed and distracted.


7. Simplify complex issues by portraying them as dichotomies. Eliminate nuance.


8. Spread propaganda by all means possible.


9. Ostracize dissident voices through ridicule or defamation.


10. Faith in the correctness of a religion or ideology is more powerful than force.


11. Manipulate history records to support your religion or ideology.


12. Control different sides of the same debate and you control the outcome.

13. The masses are less swayed by reason than by stirring their emotions.

14. Drive the opposition in a corner. When they fight back, act like a victim.


15. Label all non-conformistic behavior as pathological and promote “cures” for them.


16. Use rituals and mass events to keep people occupied and strengthen their faith.

How the Brain Separates Relevant and Irrelevant Information


Researchers have developed a new theory that outlines how the brain separates relevant from irrelevant information.

Source: How the Brain Separates Relevant and Irrelevant Information


Imagine yourself sitting in a noisy café trying to read. To focus on the book at hand, you need to ignore the surrounding chatter and clattering of cups, with your brain filtering out the irrelevant stimuli coming through your ears and “gating” in the relevant ones in your vision—words on a page.

In a new paper in the journal Nature Communications, New York University researchers offer a new theory, based on a computational model, on how the brain separates relevant from irrelevant information in these and other circumstances.

“It is critical to our everyday life that our brain processes the most important information out of everything presented to us,” explains Xiao-Jing Wang, Global Professor of Neural Science at NYU and NYU Shanghai and the paper’s senior author. “Within an extremely complicated neural circuit in the brain, there must be a gating mechanism to route relevant information to the right place at the right time.”

The analysis focuses on inhibitory neurons—the brain’s traffic cops that help ensure proper neurological responses to incoming stimuli by suppressing other neurons and working to balance excitatory neurons, which aim to stimulate neuronal activity.

“Our model uses a fundamental element of the brain circuit, involving multiple types of inhibitory neurons, to achieve this goal,” Wang adds. “Our computational model shows that inhibitory neurons can enable a neural circuit to gate in specific pathways of information while filtering out the rest.”

In their analysis, led by Guangyu Robert Yang, a doctoral candidate in Wang’s lab, the researchers devised a model that maps out a more complicated role for inhibitory neurons than had previously been suggested.

Of particular interest to the team was a specific subtype of inhibitory neurons that targets the excitatory neurons’ dendrites—components of a neuron where inputs from other neurons are located. These dendrite-targeting inhibitory neurons are labeled by a biological marker called somatostatin and can be studied selectively by experimentalists. The researchers proposed that they not only control the overall inputs to a neuron, but also the inputs from individual pathways—for example, the visual or auditory pathways converging onto a neuron.

This was thought to be difficult because the connections from inhibitory neurons to excitatory neurons appeared dense and unstructured,” observes Yang. “Thus a surprising finding from our study is that the precision required for pathway-specific gating can be realized by inhibitory neurons.”

The study’s authors used computational models to show that even with the seemingly random connections, these dendrite-targeting neurons can gate individual pathways by aligning with excitatory inputs through different pathways. They showed that this alignment can be realized through synaptic plasticity—a brain mechanism for learning through experience.




The study’s other co-author was John David Murray, a postdoctoral researcher at the time of the work and now an assistant professor at Yale University.

Funding: The work was supported by grants from the National Institute of Health (R01MH062349) and the Office of Naval Research (N00014-13-1-0297).

Source: James Devitt – NYU
Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research:Full open access research for “A dendritic disinhibitory circuit mechanism for pathway-specific gating” by Guangyu Robert Yang, John D. Murray and Xiao-Jing Wang in Nature Communications. Published online September 20 2016 doi:10.1038/ncomms12815

Study: We understand that social media does not equal social interaction | PsyPost

Source: Study: We understand that social media does not equal social interaction | PsyPost

BY ON AUGUST 11, 2016

If you worry that people today are using social media as a crutch for a real social life, a University of Kansas study will set you at ease.

Jeffrey Hall, associate professor of communication studies, found that people are actually quite adept at discerning the difference between using social media and having an honest-to-goodness social interaction. The results of his studies appear in the journal New Media & Society.

“There is a tendency to equate what we do on social media as if it is social interaction, but that does not reflect people’s actual experience using it,” Hall said. “All of this worry that we’re seeking out more and more social interaction on Facebook is not true. Most interactions are face to face, and most of what we consider social interaction is face to face.”

According to Hall, social media is more like old-fashioned people-watching. “Liking” something is similar to a head nod. It’s not social interaction, but it’s acknowledging you are sharing space with someone else.

“Keeping tabs on other people sharing our social spaces is normal and part of what it means to be human,” Hall said.

Hall is no stranger to research on social media. New Media & Society published an earlier study of his that found people can accurately detect the personality traits of strangers through Facebook activity.

In his current paper in the journal, Hall details three studies. The first demonstrates that when using social media, most of us are engaged in passive behaviors that we don’t consider social interaction, like browsing others’ profiles and reading news articles.

The second diary study demonstrates that most of what we consider social interaction with people in our close circle of friends happens face to face. When interaction with these close others is through social media, it’s not something passive like browsing or “liking” but rather using chat or instant message functions.

Here’s where it gets interesting, Hall said. The first study found that chatting and commenting — things that we would even consider social interaction — are but 3.5 percent of our time on social media.

The third study had participants contacted at random times throughout the day. This study drives home how adept we are at separating social media use with social interaction. People reported 98 percent of their social interactions took some other way than through social media.

“Although people often socially interact and use social media in the same time period, people understand they are different things,” Hall said. “People feel a sense of relatedness when they’re interacting face to face, but using social media does not make them feel connected.”

All three studies, Hall said, circle around the idea that we still value face-to-face time with close others for the purpose of talking.

“If we want to have a conversation, we’re not using social media to do it,” he said.

The findings speak to a broader anxiety that many still have regarding social media.

“There’s a worry that people are seeking out more and more social interactions on Facebook and that social media is taking over our face-to-face time,” Hall said. “I’m saying, ‘Not so fast.’ People use social media to people-watch and still seem to enjoy a good face-to-face conversation.”


What Is a Constant Cycle of Violent News Doing to Us?


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Nothing good. Experts suggested limiting your exposure to violent imagery and social media.

Source: What Is a Constant Cycle of Violent News Doing to Us?

How Computers are Learning to Be Creative

TED Talk by Blaise Aguera y Arcas

We’re on the edge of a new frontier in art and creativity — and it’s not human. Blaise Agüera y Arcas, principal scientist at Google, works with deep neural networks for machine perception and distributed learning. In this captivating demo, he shows how neural nets trained to recognize images can be run in reverse, to generate them. The results: spectacular, hallucinatory collages (and poems!) that defy categorization. “Perception and creativity are very intimately connected,” Agüera y Arcas says. “Any creature, any being that is able to do perceptual acts is also able to create.”

Can Neuroscience Make Your Message Stickier?

A cutting edge technique pinpoints how our brains react to fear appeals in marketing.

Source: Can Neuroscience Make Your Message Stickier?

Several years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a national advertising campaign highlighting the grisly dangers of smoking. “Tips From Former Smokers” featured stark, disturbing imagery of real former smokers and the toll that tobacco addiction has taken on their bodies. Some had amputated fingers; others revealed a gaping hole in their throat.

The campaign successfully reduced the number of smokers. But while such fear appeals can be effective for public health, environmental awareness, or political campaigns, the method comes with both risks and limitations.

For one, overly strong fear appeals in advertising sometimes backfire, causing viewers to mentally and emotionally withdraw from the message—a phenomenon known as the “boomerang effect.” Moreover, some of the biggest risks humans face, like climate change, are very abstract in nature—and try as we might, it is hard to get people to engage at all.

But what if there was a way to avoid the boomerang effect and also persuade your audience to engage with an abstract fear?

“Most of our brain is hidden from us. … Normally, we have no access to whatever is happening under the hood.”

New research from the Kellogg School uses a cutting-edge neuroscience technique to identify the sweet spot where fear-based campaigns have the utmost impact. It finds that people can increase the level of fear they experience while watching a piece of content if they imagine a specific scary aspect of it before they start watching. This in turn increases the likelihood that content, such as an ad’s message, will register, be remembered, and potentially affect future behavior.

“If I show you an ad against drinking and driving, will that really make you do it less? We do not know,” says Moran Cerf, an assistant professor of marketing and neuroscience at the Kellogg School.

“As a start, we decided to investigate your ability to control your own experience of fear,” he says. “We wanted to see if you yourself can identify the things that will help the message influence you the most.”

Watching Brain Cells Fire

Previous neuroscience research in the area of fear control has focused extensively on studying people’s ability to reduce negative emotions. Less attention has been paid to the opposite phenomenon, a voluntary increase in negative feelings. This is likely because fear and sadness are generally undesirable and are often intense enough as is.

However, when it comes to persuading the public, increasing fear in viewers has the potential to save lives.

Cerf collaborated with Eric Greenleaf, Tom Meyvis, and Vicki Morwitz at New York University. They recorded, in real time, how frightened a person was—not by asking them but by actually eavesdropping on the inner workings of their brain using electrodes implanted in their heads. The process, called single-neuron recording, tracks the firing activity of brain cells linked to fear.

Single-neuron recording is typically used only in animals. But the technique can be used for human studies in unique situations where the research is conducted during brain surgery for epilepsy treatment.

In such a treatment, physicians surgically remove the area of the brain where seizures originate to cure patients whose epilepsy cannot be successfully treated with medication. To find the correct region on which to operate, neurosurgeons implant thin, hollow electrodes directly into the brain. A set of even thinner wires can be inserted through these electrodes to detect firing from individual neurons. The patients can then participate in research studies while they wait in the hospital for doctors to identify the exact onset source of their seizures.

“Most of our brain is hidden from us. It operates, and we see the output. Normally, we have no access to whatever is happening under the hood,” Cerf says. “Now with single-neuron techniques, we do have access.”

Single-cell recording gathers different data than other techniques like fMRI and EEG that look at brain activity—and is particularly ideal for studying feelings, says Cerf.

“What we can see when we are using single-neuron recording is how emotions are coded in the brain,” Cerf says. “We can not only see where you feel things like sadness and anger— but can also see them as they dawn on us, sometimes even earlier than your subjective experience occurs.”

Increasing Fear

In their study, Cerf and his colleagues measured fear responses in neurosurgical patients who had undergone the brain electrodes implantation. The patients watched a number of video clips, including one from Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” to test their emotional response. Climate change was deliberately chosen as it is an abstract and distant fear—something humans have difficulty imagining and feeling viscerally scared of.

Each patient watched the clip in two conditions: as they naturally would and again immediately after mentally focusing on the aspects of climate change that frighten them—like seeing loved ones hurt.

While watching the clip as they naturally would, fear-responsive neurons fired at a rate comparable to baseline levels. In other words, the subjects did not feel particularly scared. However, when they imagined specific aspects of climate change that were tailored to their own fears, the firing rate of these same neurons increased.

But critically, not all threats are created equal, and not all can be controlled. The researchers find that this tactic is most useful when addressing fears that are abstract rather than more instinctual or innate.

To demonstrate this, the researchers showed the patients another clip, one that was inherently terrifying—a large spider crawling towards the camera. Right off the bat, this clip elicited a much sharper fear response than the climate change video ever did—the type of response that might be expected to spur a boomerang effect. Asking the patients to imagine something even more frightening about spiders beforehand did not increase their fear.

Implications for Marketers

The results suggest that we can enhance fear response to an otherwise abstract threat by identifying an aspect of the threat that is particularly scary to us. Tailoring the experience around that threat makes the content more likely to be remembered as a threat, potentially allowing for a change in our behavior without enhancing the threat too much—which would cause us to recoil in disgust.

And if enough people are frightened by the same aspects of an abstract threat, it may be possible for marketers or those making public service announcements to tailor the original message accordingly.

“With the help of these patients, we actually learned what techniques and thoughts they triggered to enhance their climate-change fear,” Cerf says. “Now that we have identified the optimal ways to increase fear across individuals, we can calibrate the message to make sure an ad or a speech by Vice President Gore has a stronger effect.”

However, Cerf does not see single-neuron recording becoming a widespread method of measurement for market or consumer research any time soon, as it requires the participation of patients and a hospital’s neurosurgery department. But he thinks organizations and marketers can gain business insights from scientific studies that employ this and other neuroscience methodologies, perhaps by hiring a neuroscientist to interpret the often-impenetrable scientific literature.

“Leaders should read up on the latest discoveries in the popular press on fundamental topics like memory, persuasion, self-control, and emotion regulation—subjects that appeal to both neuroscientists and marketers,” Cerf says.

“The reason I’m at Kellogg is that there is a movement—a trend of neuroscientists who try to bridge this gap between neuroscience and marketing,” he says. “I think that we are in a state right now where neuroscience is answering a lot of the questions that marketing practitioners care about and were unable to fully address quantitatively for years. It was hard because of the difficulty of quantifying our psychology. Now, with the help of neuroscience, we can start looking at ways to break down complex psychological phenomena using tangible, testable metrics.”

Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

From the BBC: The Psychological Tricks Behind Pokeman Go’s Success


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Nintendo’s latest video game has become an overnight sensation. What’s the appeal?

By Chris Baraniuk

“Basically the reason I downloaded it is because a lot of my friends in the States have been going mad for it,” says Jon Norris. “They’re quite sensible adults but they were absolutely freaking out about it.”

Norris, head of content at Brighton-based digital agency Rocketmill, is talking about Pokemon Go. It’s a new augmented reality mobile game – and it’s taking the world by storm. The title, which has been available in the US for less than a week, has racked up millions of downloads already. The app lets players track down and “catch” virtual Pokemon that appear somewhere in the world around them.

Although not yet officially available in the UK, eager players like Norris have been able to install the app via some technical workarounds. The app has not risen to fame without controversy, though. For one thing, some have raised concerns over the fact that it can have very broad access to user data – from emails to search history and Google Drive – when users give it access to their Google accounts on iOS devices.

So what is the big attraction? And could its success have been predicted?

Admissions tests

Psychologist Andrew Przybylski at the Oxford Internet Institute has studied what attributes are essential for games to have the chance of being successful. These range from whether they are pitched at the right difficulty for players to how much they build in, or foster, social interaction with others, and he thinks one important factor is the ‘barrier of admission’ to having a good time.

A crucial feature of Pokemon Go, for example, is that it relies on technologies many people have and are already familiar with – their smartphone and GPS. Contrast this with geocaching, for example, which requires a more advanced knowledge of GPS (and even an array of physical equipment).

Many of the games that have enjoyed surprisingly broad appeal in the past – from Snake to Angry Birds and many of the original Wii titles – also married highly accessible gameplay with technology that was relatively new but easy to use, adds Przybylski.

“People have already learned how to use their phones – just like they know how to use their bodies for Wii Tennis,” he explains. “The work has already been done.”

“You can dive into it very easily,” agrees Norris.

Another factor is nostalgia. While Norris, for one, never played any of the previous Pokemon games, many Pokemon Go fans have fond memories of titles dating back to 1996, when the first instalments in the series were released. Even the very fact that people are talking about Pokemon more than usual again has prompted reminiscences among some older fans.

But for Przybylski, if a game tries to use nostalgia as part of its appeal, it must also deliver on its promise of novelty and fun. Pokemon Go, at least, certainly seems to have done so for some.

“The only way to deliver fun is to have players feel confident, give them a sense of exploration and connect them socially to others – on those three very important counts, the game looks like it’s succeeded,” he says.

Indeed, Norris immediately points out an unexpected benefit of wandering around Brighton, Pokemon Go app in hand.

“All the little Pokestops [where players collect in-game items] are associated with various pieces of street art in Brighton,” he comments. “It’s actually shown me a couple of pieces of street art I haven’t seen before.”

People have apparently been willing to wander around outside late at night in search of that elusive Squirtle or Meowth – or even make a catch while they wait for their wife to give birth. This has turned Pokemon Go into a bizarre phenomenon that has helped provide the game with its other, perhaps most important, dimension of success: it is excellent fodder for social media.

In 2013, British writer and TV presenter Charlie Brooker cited Twitter as one of his top 25 video games that changed the world. How is Twitter a video game? By Brooker’s logic, it has a graphical interface and a points-based system of competition (number of followers, for example). The idea that social media is a game, or that it can be played like one, is provocative – but with an app like Pokemon Go in mind this seems to make sense. Part of the game’s appeal, whether its makers intended this or not, seems to be the opportunity to meme-ify and share experiences about it on sites like Reddit, Snapchat and Imgur.

Thus, Pokemon Go plays out not just within the official app, but via these social networks too.

Psychologists are beginning to understand why using social media is so enjoyable, and one aspect of particular interest is the opportunity to craft and experiment with one’s sense of self. We do this offline too, but online we are offered different possibilities – and different potential rewards, such as new friends or increased levels of interaction.

Interestingly, there are many stories online of Pokemon Go players bumping into each other while on the hunt – the game clearly encourages social interaction both via the web and face-to-face, which is unusual.

Pokemon Go, then, may well be the perfect game for the social media age – we’re primed for it, argues Przybylski. Using social media has, he suggests, readied us for this sort of experience.

“The modern era has trained people for playing Pokemon Go,” he says.

Indeed, the way the game is being played and talked about online certainly seems to capture the essence of Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra that social media should enable “frictionless sharing” – activity that happens naturally and that appeals directly to the needs and desires of users.

Of course, it’s not clear how long players will remain enthralled by Pokemon Go. It’s still very new. But as with all overnight successes, this is another phenomenon that has managed to tap into some fundamental desire shared by many.

In doing so, Pokemon Go might just have revealed a little bit more about what motivates people. Whether or not you enjoy playing video games yourself, that’s certainly something worth thinking about.

Chris Baraniuk is a freelance science and technology writer. He Tweets as @machinestarts.