Wireheading, Faith Healing, and Why the Placebo Effect is the Most Important Thing in the World

    If you could flip a switch and experience more pleasure than you have ever felt in your entire life—would you do it?

    What if that switch also made you feel incredibly happy and joyful? What if it made you feel contented and successful and accomplished and creative? What if that switch made you feel loved?

    It would be hard to resist flipping that switch, almost by definition. We’re wired to seek pleasure—Just think about how hard it is to turn down your favorite mouth-watering snack. Of course, we work hard to balance our pleasure-seeking with other forms of satisfaction. Diet promoters try to sell us on the good feelings of accomplishment, victory, or impressing our peers. But what if all of those feelings were available at the flip of a switch as well?

    Could we resist flipping it on?

    Maybe more importantly, once we had turned that switch on, would we ever turn it off?

    This is what we might call the Wireheading Problem, and it’s the kind of question that keeps futurist types up at night. We already know that a wire implanted in the brain can trigger intense feelings of happiness, pleasure, even spirituality. These days, it doesn’t even need to be a wire—you can just put on a helmet, and experience a feeling of oneness with everything.

    Eventually, this technology is going to make it to kiosks at your local mall—and then the privacy of your own home. As that technology gets better, more pervasive, and ever more precise, what’s to keep us all from vanishing into a world of exquisite happiness?

    How long will future generations be able to avoid the temptation to simply short-circuit their brains—and in so doing, bring about the end of the human race?

    Actually, of course, we already struggle with the beginning stages of this problem today. I recently read the novel Fiend, about a zombie apocalypse where the only survivors are meth addicts. The book is written first-person, and over and over the main character describes the feeling of shooting up, in incredibly poetic and beautiful prose. As I progressed through the book, it occurred to me that the author was writing from experience—and sure enough, when I looked him up, I discovered that the author was a former meth addict himself.

    What I heard in his prose was a sadness and a longing for this experience that he could no longer allow himself to have. Even knowing that this experience was producing deep ugliness in himself and the world around him, for him, the experience itself was an experience of deep beauty.

    Once you’ve tasted that, how do you walk away?

    This is a problem for drug addicts today, but it will be incredibly more problematic in the future. Wireheading promises (threatens?) to be able to deliver everything that is delivered by drugs, but to remove any sense of remorse or guilt or regret that goes along with it.

    If you think deeply about that, I believe you’ll realize there’s no foolproof way out. You can avoid going down that road, but once you’re there, how do you escape? And how do you stay strong enough to never dip your toe into those waters? How do you live an entire lifetime, and not have a moment of weakness where you are inclined to kickstart that feedback loop to immeasurable bliss?

    Right now, we are constrained by a number of factors. Drugs are actually kind of difficult to use, don’t produce reliable results, and come with all kinds of negative feelings. Wireheading promises to remove all the negative side effects, produce dramatically more results than any drug has done to date, and make good feelings as easy as flipping a switch.

    Assuming we want to avoid humanity going down in a blaze of blissful addiction, what is the solution?

    I think there’s only one answer: We have to let someone else control the switch.

    By definition, we’ll be unable to make good self-control decisions from the inside. Everything you might use to resist the urge toward switched-on happiness will itself become the engine of your downfall. Desire self-control? You can feel like you’re exercising self-control with a simple flip of the switch. Desire the well-being of others? You can feel like you’ve insured their well-being with the simple flip of a switch.

    So if nothing internal will work, then we need something external.

    You might say, well, we should just permanently ban this technology. But that’s easier said than done. Most strong drugs are illegal, and yet we still produce them for their helpful medical uses. We’re not willing to give them up completely, and for good reason—used properly these drugs can do a lot of good, and relieve a lot of unnecessary suffering.

    The same will be true for the technologies that will enable wireheading. There will be many good uses for them, that society will not want to abandon. And so we will need to find a way of moving some control over these technologies from the individual to external society.

    Our approach to drugs illustrates one way of handling this. We allow them to be dispensed only by qualified medical professionals, who determine the correct dosages and timing.

    But there are other possibilities. Perhaps we will want to give our families, our churches, our communities some kind of “override”—the ability to jump in and break us out of a runaway bliss process.

    Perhaps our fate will hang on what kinds of groups we give this to.

    But in some way or form, it is clear to me that we will need to have a “switch” located on the outside—where we ourselves can’t reach it. Some amount of pleasure, and some amount of pain, need to be permanently outside of our own control, or we are doomed.

    I find it interesting, then, that this seems to be what Mother Nature herself has done.

    Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about the placebo effect. We tend to think “placebo effect” means something isn’t really working—but that’s completely backwards. The placebo effect actually means something is working, when we expected it not to.

    The typical example is sugar pills. A doctor gives a patient sugar pills, and the patient, thinking they’re medicinal, gets better.

    In this example, we recognize that it isn’t the pills that have healed the patient—it’s something inside of them. Perhaps it’s their desire to get well, or their belief that they have a cure, or their trust in the doctor. Somehow, they’ve tapped into some latent healing potential by virtue of this placebo treatment.

    Religious people have a term for this. We call it “faith healing”. And it shows up on almost every medical study in history.

    But the placebo effect can get even more bizarre. Sometimes, the patient knows they are being given sugar pills, and still gets better.

    The placebo effect has a dark side too: its inverse, the nocebo effect. Instead of getting sugar pills intended as medicine, these patients are given sugar pills intended as poison. And they get worse.

    Religious people have a term for this too. It’s called a curse.

    Lest you think I’m leading you into a whole world of superstition here, let me point out that I’m not saying that dark spirits are emerging from the forest to enact curses on the unsuspecting population.

    I’m saying that we have a medically demonstrated phenomenon, where individuals seem to heal or poison themselves, by virtue of externally-issued commands.

    It seems likely that the human brain is capable of vastly more than we see on a regular basis. Flow states and extreme situations bring out capabilities we didn’t know we had; near-death experiences demonstrate a broader range of mental states than we normally encounter.

    Physicist David Deutsch tells us that the human brain is universal—that it is physically capable of solving any kind of problem that can be solved in our universe, that it can run any algorithm that can be described, that it can figure out how to construct anything that can be constructed. This doesn’t mean that any given person can do all those things now, but it does mean that given enough time and desire, any finite project is achievable.

    More to our point, it means that the human brain can take on any configuration—and that everything in human experience is a small part of what our brains can do.

    One of the things we know that the brain can do, is manufacture powerful drugs. This drug-production capability is needed on a regular basis, as the brain wakes us up, puts us to sleep, heightens our alertness, calms us down, punishes us when we mess up, and rewards us for a job well done.

    Many synthetic drugs work by simply hijacking the brain’s drug-production system, and getting it to spit out drugs when it wouldn’t otherwise do so.

    This indicates something counter-intuitive to many people: the brain is constantly controlling and suppressing many of its own capabilities. Just because the brain can do something, doesn’t mean that capability is under our conscious control.

    In fact, that capability may be specifically denied to our conscious minds. Most of us can’t simply choose to put ourselves into a psychedelic trance, or to move from sadness to extreme euphoria. These are clearly things our brains are capable of, and yet these are things that take a lot of work, or external stimuli, to accomplish.

    The reason for that seems fairly straight-forward: the brain needs ways of correlating good internal states with good external states. Put another way, if it’s going to survive for very long, the brain needs to make us work for our rewards. 

    The simplest example is eating. For most people, eating is incredibly pleasurable, and for good reason: it’s historically a good survival mechanism. If you eat, your brain knows it can survive for another day, and it rewards you by turning on your pleasure centers briefly.

    If your conscious mind were able to simply turn on those pleasure centers at will, you might lose all interest in eating, and eventually, your brain would die. Since it doesn’t want to die, your brain has a lot of interest in keeping a tight grip on who gets to turn on the pleasure centers.

    Like a doctor with a locked medicine cabinet, your brain tightly controls who gets to dispense its drugs.

    With all of its immense powers and abilities, with all of its profound capability for self-modification and reprogramming, it seems likely that the brain long ago faced a wireheading problem of its own.

    It would have addressed that in a variety of ways, almost as diverse as the brain itself—establishing tight internal controls, checks and balances, separation of powers, and so on.

    But ultimately, it needed a fail-safe switch. And the only way to get it was to put a switch on the outside.

    This switch would serve a particular function. While many drugs and resources were available to different systems in the brain, some amount of them would be locked up and unavailable. Thus, the internal systems would be prevented from overclocking things in normal situations.

    But in extreme cases, they might need more juice, and they would have to appeal for access to the emergency reserves. And they would be denied. Unless the external switch was engaged.

    This external switch was the ultimate defense against self-addiction. It would need to be placed within the larger community—most likely in the hands of trusted members who had good insight into whether the individual was spiraling into self-destruction, or working towards being productive.

    If these trusted external voices “signed off” on the request, the brain could then unlock its resources, and get to work. If they did not sign off on it, the brain would keep the extra resources locked up. And if things had already gone too far, these trusted external voices could signal the execution of emergency punitive measures to curtail runaway processes, and bring things back into line.

    Humans are social creatures, and for most of our history, our survival has hinged on nothing so much as our local tribe or community.

    One way to think about that is to look at how much of our behavior and feelings of well-being are mediated through other people. Self-esteem, pride, honor, dignity, trust, morality, truth—all of these are things we experience to some degree through the eyes of others.

    So I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that happiness is a social project.

    And this makes sense. To survive, we needed to get good at living in communities. We needed to develop deep internal systems of coordination and cooperation. We needed to measure ourselves by how well the community was doing, and how much we were contributing to the community.

    This meant putting lots of influence over our internal states into the hands of others.

    I’m suggesting that this influence extends even to life and death.

    Ancient blessings and curses weren’t superstitious nonsense—they were social signals that kept a well-regulated society. And they most likely had powerful effects, potentially enabling vast capabilities within individuals, or dramatically shutting them down.

    The placebo effect may just be the tip of the iceberg. But it’s notable that when we see it, it’s typically associated with people our society looks to as authority figures (doctors) and mechanisms our society ascribes immense symbolic power to (pills and medicines).

    In our rapidly changing society, trust and social power are distributed much differently than they were in the world of our ancestors. Perhaps we haven’t yet figured out where we left the “keys” so to speak. Perhaps we do not yet know who can wield that power most effectively.

    But maybe instead of working around things like the placebo effect, the society of the future should be looking for ways to amplify it as much as possible.