I’ve been reading The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger (recommended by the back matter in Peter Watt’s Blindsight). It’s been working through the parts that make up consciousness, but what caught my attention was the discussion on mirror neurons, specifically about how they are probably tied into our own self model, but when we consciously “put ourself in someone’s shoes” we are focusing on our self model, but having it simulate someone else. In more hardware speak, we seem to only have one available hardware model of a person that we usually route all our senses through, but when interacting with others, we can use it to simulate them. This can lead to empathy, because we are “feeling in ourselves” what they are (or at least what we suspect they are), but to a bit lesser extent, since we don’t actually have any of the antecedents (other neural signals in the other person that spawned the feeling in them) re-enforcing it. But this also happens passively and unconsciously, it’s how we can learn actions, and also unconsciously understand other people’s intentions as we view them acting.
The book drops off just as it starts to discuss the possible social implications, in that this system is what gave rise to human social society and culture, and our storey telling and learning from it and “folk psychology”. Then it moved on but it made me think about more current video media and possibly why we and especially I like it so much. In watching characters act out lives on the screen, it is probably largely being interpreted and run through our mirror neuron / self model system in a deep way, then this is actually creating bits of feelings of what it would be like to be that person in us. It allows us to actually lightly feel like being someone else, explore other ways of being, and also usually lot’s of excitement and action (because TV). And also then the other neural and chemical side effects from that experience (adrenaline, dopamine etc). So it’s no wonder we as a society lately and again me especially find this experience so intoxicating and addictive. It gave me some interesting insight into the process we may be going through watching tv and why I keep coming back for more (even reruns of things I enjoyed, because memory is not the same as “reliving” it). It also may explain different taste in viewing choice, because different people want to feel different things, “try feeling like other people” or have other experiences they may feel are missing in their lives.
We are weak willed and media has given us a very addictive tool we don’t entirely understand to get a lot of different and often strong experiences and stimulus, it is no wonder we find these things addictive. Maybe a little understanding will help me temper that a bit in the future.
An example of the dangers of this: when I come home tired from a day at work, why try and get a feeling of further accomplishment by expending lots of effort hacking on my personal work when I can fire up an episode of Elementary or a movie like Iron Man and get a bunch of that feeling “simulated” into me. We have a dangerous rabbit hole here we could all loose our selves down.