We are not in control. In fact, we’re far from it. The digital world is designed to keep us passive yet engaged, insatiable yet entertained, impressionable but sure that our decisions are self-motivated.
Let’s face it — they’re usually not. Algorithms tell us what to watch. News feeds press headlines into our minds. So-called celebrity “influencers” hawk shiny objects and dictate what we desire. Forget religion; cell phones and social media are the opiates of the masses. Nowadays, even tech giants are worried about tech addiction.
Much of this happens on a subconscious level. Stimuli seep through sense organs, tap into our primal side. Ad agencies have used these insidious tricks for years. Facebook’s infamous social experiment illustrated the terrifying potential of this low-key manipulation in the Information Age.
Part of the problem is we consume so much data that it’s practically impossible to process it all. Our brains do their best to filter the noise but we don’t make it easy for them. Fake news, never-ending notifications, subliminal signals hidden in clickbait thumbnail images. The average person’s media diet would glut even Andre the Giant. We’re big and easy targets for propaganda artists.
In an effort to explore how technology can influence us in unseen ways, Xin Liu, an artist and recent graduate of the MIT Media Lab, created a high-tech carnival mask that wraps around a person’s face and changes the way she perceives her own breathing.
Using a respiration sensor placed under the nose and bone conduction headphones near the ears, the device, which she’s calls Masque, allows a wearer to hear her own breathing through slightly skewed auditory feedback. The effect of this feedback may surprise you.
In a pair of recent studies described in Liu’s Master’s thesis, Masque caused wearers to feel more stressed and more sexually aroused, despite no registered change in their physiology. The research highlights just how sensitive we can be to the invisible influence of technology.
A different kind of bodyhacking
Liu’s interest in the topic started with an academic focus on introspective observation or, more simply put, how a person perceives themselves.
“It’s a little like how you sometimes hear yourself talking on speaker phone.”
In the digital age, that often amounts to a mosaic of various online profiles, blended with the features and functions of her real-world body. Liu wondered how she could use a person’s own bodily processes to regulate their emotions and even change their behavior — all without the participant’s awareness. Our body is full of functions we can’t easily control. Hunger, heart rate, digestion, etc.
“Respiration is one of the only things people can easily change themselves,” Liu told Digital Tends. So, she set out to develop a device that could pick up on a person’s breathing patterns and relay those sounds back to them.
Drawing inspiration from Italian carnival masks, Liu worked with industrial designer Hongxin Zhang to create the device, which hides all its electronics inside a serpentine frame. A small temperature sensor located just under the nostril is used to detect the wearer’s respiration rate.
Masque then plays that sound back at an adjusted rate, using bone conduction headphones located at the wearer’s cheekbones. The auditory feedback responds in real time, fluctuating as a person’s breath fluctuates.
“It’s a little like how you sometimes hear yourself talking on speaker phone,” Liu said. “You know it’s your own voice but it sounds different because it’s coming through other devices. You just suddenly register that as your own voice because it’s synchronizing with you through your actions.”
Masqued men experiment
Through a series of pilot studies, Liu discovered that Masque caused people to experience a change in their psychological state, causing them to feel stressed or sexually aroused depending on their task.
“[Participants] cognitively thought they were more excited or more aroused than they actually were.”
In one of the studies, participants were asked to take a common test used to measure stress before and after completing a short version of the GRE. They were divided into two groups, both wearing Masque but hearing different rates of respiratory feedback. At the end of the study, participants from the group that heard the faster and louder feedback reported experiencing more anxiety.
In a second study, twelve straight men were each shown fourteen photos of women for 30 seconds and asked to rate them according to how attractive, exciting, and friendly they appeared. Liu’s results showed that as participants heard faster and louder feedback of their own breathing, they reported higher levels of attraction to the women in the photos.
These results may seem uncanny, but they aren’t all that peculiar. Faster breathing circulates more oxygen to your brain to help handle high-intensity situations. For our ancestors that meant chasing down prey or escaping predators. For us, it more likely means stressing over an interview or rushing to a meeting.
So, even though the participants’ own breathing and physiology didn’t change, it makes sense that they felt more anxious when they heard a higher respiratory rate.
As for the sex study, Liu found an explanation in a psychological term called misattribution of arousal. When put into a stimulating situation (for example, when walking across a rickety rope bridge) people have been shown to mistake the source of their arousal.
In a classic study from the 1970s, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron asked straight male participants to walk across either a suspension bridge or a sturdy bridge before speaking to a female experimenter. Men who walked over the suspension bridge reported more sexual content related to the encounter with the female experimenter, which Dutton and Aron attributed to the men mistakenly assuming she was the subject of their arousal, when it was, in fact, the rickety bridge.
In the MIT study, “people’s physiological activity did not actually change but they perceived it,” Liu said. “They heard a heavier breathing sound and cognitively thought they were more excited or more aroused than they actually were. Then they started to behave differently.”
It’s probably comforting to hear that Liu has no plans to commercialize her tantalizing device, and sees the project as more critical research than product testing. She does, however, think that the concept could be applied to help people meditate by adjusting to a slower respiratory rate or to get people more engaged in movies, virtual reality, and video games.
More importantly, Liu hopes her work helps illuminate how easily we can be influenced without our awareness and be more cognizant of the manipulative forces around us.
“It’s fascinating to think about how the sense of self is constructed,” she said. “Our image of who we are is in flux, it’s always changing, which is good and bad at the same time. The good thing is that means we’re more flexible and we’re growing constantly and adapting to the world. The problematic part is we’re able to be manipulated. We really need to learn how to be more sensitive, to feel our body signals and make decisions consciously rather than live with the flow. We’re actually very easily manipulated.”