January 30, 2014

Fitting the Science to the Hype

This is a response to a recent article in Forbes by Steve Kotler [1], co-author of the book "Abundance" and techno-optimist. Even though it is intended as a blue-sky vision of an emerging technology, it also suffers from something I will call "fitting science to hype" [2], which happens a lot in media coverage of emerging technologies. That being said, I had a number of problems with this article, from its provocative title to its conclusions.


Point 1: It is actually inconclusive as to whether or not video games are addictive, at least in the same way as heroin. They may be addictive in the sense that a person prone to addictions will use video games as an addiction, but that is putting the cart before the horse (in a causal sense). To start off with this premise, and then build an argument off of this "self-evident truth" using an array of neurochemical facts (but not directly relevant evidence) is a bit misleading.

Point 2: The idea that "video games causes dopamine stimulation, therefore they are addictive" is likewise misleading. Aside from being a basis of addictive experiences, dopamine is also a very general signaling molecule for behavioral motivation. For example, dopaminergic signaling serves as the basis for economic transactions (e.g. rewards), so generalizing this to addiction is a large step indeed. Can we say then that because they are tightly associated with increases in dopamine, virtual environments will necessarily become essential economic tools? Probably not.

Dopamine machines, or dopaminergic-friendly activity (so to speak)? For more on the potential addictive aspects of financial trading and risk-taking, see [3].

Point 3: Video games are indeed dopamine-production machines. So are sports cars, jet skis, motorcycles, and guns. I'm not quite sure that one could make the argument that sports cars and jet skis cause the dopaminergic excesses associated with addiction. Aside from the dodgy reasoning of "machine-therefore-dopamine-therefore-addiction", human variation is an important determinant of addiction [4].

But the real problem here is that there is no null hypothesis to compare against. For example, the logical extreme of this argument would be that video games are always addictive. This, of course, would sound foolish. A proper way to disentangle this would be to look at dopamine production across the process of addiction, and then compare this with dopamine production in people who play video games but do not become addicted to them.

Point 4: Why will the our current lack of knowledge regarding how to control neurochemistry change? And why would we want to create virtual world addicts? This is how the sixth paragraph reads to me. There are areas of research such as Augmented Cognition [5] and allostatic regulation [6] and that would be relevant here, but alas nothing was discussed.

Addiction in the context of allostasis and allostatic load. COURTESY: Figure 5 in [6].

Point 5: As a source of explaining addiction as a result of over-allotted human cognition, Kotler's use of flow theory is oddly seductive. It allows for a higher state of awareness during focused activities (e.g. a magical mechanism) to be substituted for what is not well-known about cognitive processes like multisensory integration, attention, and memory. Or perhaps there is a selective interface between, say, flow and attention which allows for some "super" response. In any case, this is a unique form of inductive brain science, the ultimate result of which will be more questions than answers.

While this might be a bit of positivist bias on my part, it is worth keeping in mind that flow always needs to be rigorously defined in its application. Paragraph eight provides an example: the claim is made that flow results in (or from, which is not clear) an extremely potent neurochemical cocktail. This mimics a rapid hit of illicit drugs, and flow itself is the source of intrinsic motivation. A claim like this makes the direction of causality (e.g. enhanced neurochemistry result in flow, or flow results in enhanced neurochemistry) quite important.

Point 6: When I see the words "Moore's Law", I reach for my gun. Or my keyboard to protest. This is not an issue of too much dopamine production, but an issue of gross overuse. In any event, it's almost certain that Moore's Law does not apply here, as what is needed to understand the effects of video games on brains are better models to interpret the neurological data, not increasingly greater amounts of data on its own.

I think the idea of deep embodiment, while well-placed in this article, also masks the magnitude of challenges inherent in this type of work. From my own work, I would predict that deep embodiment might only be achieved through the use of a multivariate, closed-loop interface. Closed-loop control allows for entrainment between the environment and physiological dynamics.

The substrate involved with the setting of physiological state includes many moving parts, including nonlinear control components such as delays and superadditive responses. So take the latest hyperrealistic video game title. A human might experience deep embodiment for awhile as their physiology learns the intensity of the experience. This is a proto-learning that is similar to a more generalized plastic response. Yet, as with all forms of learning, there will be diminishing returns and acquisition will saturate. Thus, the person will adapt over time.

While one could say the person has been "sensitized" to the virtual environment, in reality we are witnessing a form of accomodation (complex as it is) mimicking the effects of addiction. Unless the person is explicitly trained, there will be a large effect between sensory performance in the real versus virtual world.

A model of brain-VR interactions without the pretense of parsimony.

UPDATE (3/1/2014): Here is a new paper [7] on the neural correlates of internet addiction. Given individuals who are identified as addicted to the internet, neuroimaging reveals the brain structures associated with addictive stimuli.

Neural Correlates of Internet Addiction. COURTESY: Figure 1 in [7].

[1] Kotler, S. and Edwards, L.A.   Legal Heroin: is virtual reality our next hard drug? Forbes, January 15 (2014).

[2] Fitting the science to the hype (or putting hype before the data) is much like putting models before the data, except that hype resembles an intentionally distorted model. On RationalWiki, this type of hype before the data is classified as "Science Woo". While I would not go that far, blue-sky hype is always something to be skeptical about.

[3] Coates, J.   The Hour Between Dog and Wolf. Penguin Books. YouTube video (2012).

[4] Volkow, N.D., Wang, G.J., Fowler, J.S., and Tomasi, D.   Addiction circuitry in the human brain. Annual Reviews in Pharmacology and Toxicology, 52, 321-336 (2012) AND Kuss, D.J.   Internet gaming addiction: current perspectives. Psychological Research and Behavioral Management, 6, 125-137 (2013).

[5] Schmorrow, D. and Fidopiastis, C.M.   Foundations of Augmented Cognition. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Volume 8027 (2013).

[6] Koob, G.F. and Le Moal, M.   Drug Addiction, Dysregulation of Reward, and Allostasis. Neuropsychopharmacology, 24, 97-129 (2001).

[7] Gallinat, J. and Kuhn, S.   Brains online: structural and functional correlates of habitual Internet use. Addiction Biology, doi:10.1111/adb.12128 (2014).


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