Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sublim experiment rundown

Back in the day (2006 or 2007), after several years of experimentation, I coauthored a document about the use of visual subliminal messages (specifically those produced by the xscreensaver package's xsublim program) for cognitive enhancement. It hasn't aged terribly well, and I'm rather embarrassed now by the writing style, but every so often someone contacts me asking whether or not I have continued experimentation. The answer is yes. I figure now is as good a time as any to give you the run-down on my later experiments.

As a first note, I am not experimenting with subliminal advertising. If you are looking for something about subliminal advertising, rocketboom has a good video on the subject, after which you will require no other materials.

At the time of writing the original document, I had a model of the mechanism involving chain reactions of primed ideas. This may still be relevant, but there are other (more down-to-earth) attributes of the process with more literature within the field of cognitive psychology to back them up. While subliminal messages do not give a strong enough priming to significantly influence behavior in the context of advertising (or rather, they don't have the property claimed of homeopathy: subliminals are not more powerful the less they are observed), subliminal messages have been shown to affect the sense of familiarity. In situations where unfamiliarity with terminology, wording, or notation is a major stumbling block, being subliminally primed with the terminology in question can act as a gentle introduction, making the terminology no longer seem arbitrarily difficult and frightening. By producing a false sense of familiarity with the subject matter, the subject matter seems easier to pick up.

Another idea (which is strongly influenced by the excellent book The Art of Memetics) is that mental blinders (and other psychological biases that prevent the absorption of unfamiliar or conflicting information) can be modeled as the defense mechanisms of dominant memeplexes. These memeplexes subvert, assimilate, or deny newcomers since new ideas can compete with the old ones. Subliminal messages allow slow and subtle subversion by all memeplexes, regardless of whether or not they conflict with existing ones. As a result, use of subliminals can decrease the likelihood of decisions being unduly biased by unseen socially reinforced heuristics, so long as documents whose dominant underlying assumptions differ conflictingly have their words primed.

So, above we have some new models for the mechanism of action. Furthermore, new attributes have been discovered.

The physiological effects of sublims are highly dependent upon the novelty of the content. A single static document of arbitrary length will quickly cease to be enough for sublims, eventually giving none of the symptoms at all. As the use of sublims increases, necessary novelty does not increase linearly but exponentially. I currently use more than twenty gigabytes of static plaintext as a small part of my sublim input, balanced out by semi-static input (fortune databases), significantly more dynamic input (mostly via the random page feature in mediawiki installations), and less structured 'noise' input (text generated from markov models of other documents, text generated by piping other inputs through rhyme generators and other filters, text generated using context-free grammars). Too much novelty (trying to sublim with a four gigabyte video interpreted as ascii text, say) is not physiologically pleasant.

Sublims have different effective novelty ranges given different mental states. Stimulants appear to raise the required novelty level. Depressants appear to lower the maximum novelty level, but occasionally they cause the sublims to have absolutely no effect. Binaural entrainment at theta range frequencies appears to maximize the physiological effects for as long as the entrainment is occurring, but when the pattern stabilizes the physiological effects disappear.

Finally, there are a few technical updates.

Xsublim is no longer maintained by the xscreensaver project, and if you install a modern version of xscreensaver xsublim will not be installed. The last time I checked, the xsublim source was part of the source tarball but could not be trivially coaxed to compile. I have been using an old binary copied from an earlier release.

I have used the xosd package to write a clone of xsublim, called asublim. It does not operate precisely the same way. Where xsublim caches the full run of the program from which it takes its input before displaying anything, asublim caches each space-separated token smaller than 512 bytes (and cuts those larger into 512 byte pieces) and displays them in real time. As a result, asublim starts more quickly but is also more sensitive to load fluctuations. When I have used it, the asublim program itself is significantly slower than most of the programs feeding it, and so I have not had pipe underflows or noticeable delays. Asublim does not currently have support for the various command line options that xsublim supports, though support for most of them can be implemented. Asublim also has a few glitches: the self-erasing feature appears to operate differently from xsublim's implementation, and so on programs (such as firefox) that are slow to redraw their window bitmap there is a tendency for already erased tokens to obscure the contents of the canvas. I have not duplicated this problem on anything other than firefox.

If you have found this post by researching the terms found in the original Infornography document, please post your comments here rather than looking me up.

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