Category Archives: Nerds

The Consciousness Prosthetics: The Multi-Billion Year Evolved Brain and how it Lies to You.

I attended the Quantified Self conference at Stanford University on Saturday and I wanted to digest and present some of my notes and observations, notes first.


The number one amazing person I saw was Nancy Dougherty, Senior Electrical Engineer at Proteus Digital Health. I embed her previous year’s talk below about MINDFULNESS PILLS

These pills talk to her cell phone when she swallows them, this is proteus digital health technology. She labeled these pills as antidotes for her negative emotions, as a way to graph those emotions. In addition, she wanted to measure the placebo effect, which research shows works even when the taker KNOWS they are taking a placebo.

Calming Technology

I was surprised by the number of meditators at the conference. In fact, Sunday opened with a group meditation led by The Calming Technology Lab.

Your brain’s multi billion year advantage

What struck me at the conference was how there was simultaneously

  • a deep reverence for and
  • a deep suspicion of

the brain and sensory system to explain reality. I believe this stems from thousands of hours logged on self quantification experiments that truly uncover how the apparently seamless image of reality produced by the brain and sensory apparatus is really fragmented, discontinuous and untrustworthy, and how flashes of insight can be created by use of what I’ve decided to call consciousness prosthetics.

The first premise of this is simple that the brain itself is just an evolved information engine, and that this engine is primarily designed to process threat, nourishment and reproductive opportunities, probably in that order. It’s been evolving for several billion years at a minimum, and these main processing engines are extremely powerful… powerful enough to override conscious thought patterns.

I use the term “prosthetic” instead of “cybernetic” because it plays with the fusion of human and machine. A Prosthesis essentially replaces a missing part of a person, and I am here making the argument that conscious awareness is frequently a missing part of every person thanks to the limitations of the evolved mind.

In any event, the properties of Consciousness prosthesis as a subcategory of Quantified Self is characterized by the following:

  • Automated or near automated recording
  • Raises awareness of unconscious behaviors or mental states
  • Wearable or ingestable or highly body integrated technologies

What makes 2012 an interesting year from this perspective is the explosion of “smart mobile devices” including smartphones. With the ubiquity of powerful computing devices everywhere, we gain the ability (as do the projects above, both the Mindfulness pills and Breathware work hook up to smartphones) to ubiquitize this kind of equipment at a very low cost to just about everyone.

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The Neuroscience of Mobile App Engagement

My old pal Dylan Tweney @Dylan20 at VentureBeat wrote this fun article about Why Instagram is Worth 1 Billion and Your Startup Isnt.

The crux of the article is that Instagram fits my neuroscience model for user engagement. This is based on the observation that the Limbic System is primarily focused on three “threads” that run continuously in the background:

  • 1) Can I Eat This?
  • 2) Will this Eat Me? and
  • 3) Can I reproduce with this?

These threads come on line at different stages of human development.

Can I eat this comes first… a newborn baby doesnt even have much of this, except for maybe the ability to nurse. But soon this thread kicks into gear and babies crawl around like mad stuffing things into their mouths.

Will it eat me (The threat processing thread) comes online next, but it’s highly dependent on a maternal threat coprocessor and the user interface is the mom’s face. If mom looks scared, watch out, otherwise everything is ok. Babies dont have enough hardware to recognize and process threats. If you watch TV this is recapitulated in the “reaction shot” where a car blows up and the camera does a close shot of Farrah Fawcett’s face looking all shocked. (1970s Charlie’s Angels reference)

The reproductive thread doesnt spin up until puberty.

It turns out that there’s also a subthread in high-investment mammals which is the “it’s cute so I should protect it” thread, which is primarily about defending the young. This thread seems to show up weirdly early, which perhaps is related to siblings protecting each other.

Social impulses are built on top of this limbic system “platform”, in the sense that the “village” of your social network (in the Robin Dunbar sense) is what provides you with nutrition, protection and even a supply of reproductive partners.

How does this relate to the world of Mobile Apps? Exactly as Dylan perceives in this article… the highest engagement apps appeal to the lizard brain. The limbic system sits very close to the hindbrain and spine and is the big driver of action.

The other day someone tweeted “Why does California spend N Billion dollars on prisons and so much less on Schools?” What they might not realize is that the neocortex (responsible for things like thinking) is about the thickness of six playing cards stacked on top of each other, and that the word cortex means “bark” which kind of shows you how thin it is.

This kind of deep engagement shows up in applications like Pinterest. For example my Pinterest board is filled with good things to eat. I independently discovered the “cuteness” thread because I was searching for a broccoli recipe and a bunny rabbit named “broccoli” showed up. Since then pictures of cute animals have been replicating on my pinboard like umm… rabbits I guess.

In any event, this is my neuroscientific analysis of user engagement in mobile applications. Thanks for reading.

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Escape Velocity — How Your App Can Survive the Coming App-ocalypse

So there’s an app for everything… and a ton of people putting apps into the app store… but of course this kind of onslaught of new apps is exciting for entrepreneurs–but not all of them will survive the upcoming culling…Peter Yared calls this the coming App-ocalypse.

Basically we see a lot of small one person mobile app startups who can get user traction but then the pull of “gravity” pulls them down to earth… paying the mortgage, the day job, building scalable backends and all of that gunk.

Kii uses venture capital, technology and distribution deals to help apps achieve global scale profitability.

The way booster rockets work is they provide the valuable extra thrust needed to get escape velocity, we kind of see ourselves that way.

I’ve been talking about how Kii Corporation is like a booster rocket for startups… and now this amusing article appears. Apparently Jeff Bezos from Amazon wants to fetch the Apollo 11 boosters out of the ocean.

Anyhow reading this article about Apollo 11 boosters made me think of this… a bit random but interesting to me anyhow.

Apollo 11

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