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Premise:

Suppose sometime in the future you have an evil empire (morally ambiguous scientocracy) with the capability to rapidly induce extremely potent and enduring psychological conditioning in human subjects; let's call this hyperconditioning (HC). The mechanisms of this are not important (though you can comment on them if you'd like), but it seems feasible.

In most conditioning paradigms, extinction happens relatively quickly and easily once, for instance, the bright light stops being accompanied by an electric shock and the conditioned stimulus (CS) returns to its unconditioned state. However, we know that some conditionings can endure very strongly for many years and perhaps even lifetimes, such as phobias and taste aversions. I also recall the example of a man who (I believe for the rest of his life) could not bear the sound of hard shoes on concrete, after having been tortured for some time and always alerted to the arrival of his torturer by the sound of his shoes.

In wondering about the usefulness of this, I've tried to come up with several methods of accelerating extinction of forced hyperconditioning.

Method 1. Drugs

For HC involving the association of a fear conditioned response (CR) with a CS, it seems to me that sedatives could very simply overpower this. HC is not too effective if it can be overcome with a moderate dose of Xanax, but I'm not sure to what extent this would be feasible.

More interestingly, psilocybin treatment may be especially effective. The reason psilocybin therapy works seems to revolve around a cognitive restructuring of statistical learning that has induced certain patterns of anxiety in a patient; in other words, psilocybin enables one to "relearn" things about reality in a more productive and healthy way. There's still a lot of research to be done in this field, but given the initial therapeutic data (the extinction of phobias seems particularly relevant here), I wonder if this might work.

Method 2. Misattribution of Arousal

Misattribution of arousal (MOA) literature (e.g., Scary Bridge Experiment) suggests that MOA can be effective in alleviating fear induced by a CS. One study [1] found that telling participants they would feel various psychophysiological symptoms of fear due to noise bombardment caused those participants to misattribute their fear/CR (as a result of the CS: electrical shocks paired with a bright light) as being a product of the noise bombardment rather than the CS. MOA might not seem especially therapeutic, but it has been used to treat insomnia (by telling insomniacs that a pill they take before bed [a placebo] may induce a particular set of symptoms [those experienced by insomniacs trying to fall asleep], causing the insomniacs to misattribute their restlessness to the pill rather than their insomnia).

Method 3. Other Altered States of Consciousness

If my Method 1 ideas have any credence, I wonder if other altered states of consciousness might suffice to extinguish (at least temporarily?) a CR. Drunkenness often gives people a temporary bravado, but does this have any effect on phobias or taste aversions, for example? Would intense sleep deprivation or intense sickness--arguably quite altered states of consciousness--impact these at all? Again, if so, HC does not seem especially useful.

My understanding of HC is that it would require reconditioning every so often, so as not to allow the normal non-association of the target stimulus with whatever's inducing a fear response to cause extinction.

My main question (in 2 parts):

  1. Do these methods make sense? Are there things I'm overlooking or don't understand?
  2. Are there other methods that might allow one to extinguish psychological conditioning that has been forced upon them?

Thank you in advance, and please let me know if anything is unclear.


[1] Loftis, J., & Ross, L. (1974). Effects of misattribution of arousal upon the acquisition and extinction of a conditioned emotional response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(5), 673.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting post, but please note that the rule is one question per post. Q1 and Q2 can be kind-of legitimately combined into a "are there any other methods or problems with the methods I've suggested?" but Q3 is definitely separate and probably unanswerable. (Or if Q3 is answerable, they'd have to kill you after answering it.) $\endgroup$ May 10, 2023 at 4:52
  • $\begingroup$ In addition to just one question per post (a literal reason to close questions is asking multiple questions), the help center prohibits giving your own answers and asking for more. Further, if you roll your mouse over the science-fiction and science-based tags, you'll discover they're mutually exclusive. You're required to delete one of them. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 10, 2023 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for letting me know about this. I've removed the third question. I view the three methods I've proposed as ideas more than answers, but I see how it could be interpreted either way. $\endgroup$
    – 40EridaniB
    May 10, 2023 at 16:34

2 Answers 2

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Frame Challenge

I was going to add this as VTC (Vote to Close) but the comment grew.

Whether any of these methods work or not in a story setting should be driven by what the Story requires.

For example - Your hero is paralyzed due to the conditioning, but in the moment, he spies a Vodka bottle in a liquor cabinet - he's able to muster enough courage to grab it and take a drink, this gives him enough dutch courage to do XYZ.

With humans, what works/doesn't work is highly dependent on the individual and their mental characteristics. Case in point - two people can be in the middle of a war and see something extremely traumatic. Person 1 suffers a PTSD episode when they smell a particular scent - which no therapy thus far has been effective at stopping. Person 2 doesn't.

If you want to have some form of mass de-programming of a populace, I think that is ultimately a flawed theory, the process of conditioning someone successfully will be as unique as the process of de-conditioning them.

So instead - ask yourself what your Story needs - it can be as complicated as some elaborate series of procedures to complete it, or it could be a special box that you press a button on and you are 'cured'.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some of the best frame challenges grow out of an original impulse to VTC. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 10, 2023 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! This is a nice way of reframing it. $\endgroup$
    – 40EridaniB
    May 10, 2023 at 16:35
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My answer is based on "The Rest Principle" by Dr. J.D. Sinclair. This is the guy that basically cured alcoholism. Spoiler: the cure is cheap and easy, so doctors can't make a living off of it, so they don't use it in the US.

His position is an extension of state-based learning. If you study drunk, you'll do better on the test if you're drunk. He extended this to identify that we don't unlearn behaviors unless we're in the same mental state as when we learned those behaviors.

Let's take PTSD as an example. You have a person in a loud, exciting environment, under constant fear. When they later spend time in a loud, exciting environment, that fear comes back out, making them act irrationally.

His work suggests that, if the person spends their entire life in a calm environment, that fear response will continue to lurk under the cover. The trick is to put a person in a loud, exciting environment, but with nothing to trigger the fear, and let the fear leak away. This is considered unethical by some people because you're putting people in a situation where they are uncomfortable, but the science works.

The one exception to the "put people in the same state of mind" rule is endorphin/dopamine. These chemicals are learning shortcuts that teach us that things like exercise and sex are things we should do more often. The endorphin is what re-wires your brain towards behaviors, so you put someone in an environment with those behaviors, and you BLOCK endorphin with something like naltrexone.

This technique has allowed people to overcome gambling addiction, cutting, kleptomania, gaming addiction, alcoholism, and many, many other endorphin based "bad habits".

With classical movie brainwashing, you put a person in a heightened state of agitation, pump them full of endorphin, and then present them with scenarios for which they only way out is to behave the way they want you to. Call this "Skinner box addiction." The "cure" for that would be to put them back in the state of agitation without the endorphins and present them with similar scenarios, but no forced outcome.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice answer! Reminds me of the central principle of psychotherapy: show people they can be courageous against a dangerous world, rather than that the world is safe (since it is certainly not). $\endgroup$
    – 40EridaniB
    May 11, 2023 at 14:51

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