Friday, August 03, 2007

the science of passive pleasure

Earlier on, while checking out, I was reminded how much more I enjoy music when it's not me that initiates it. You must have experienced the same thing: a song is played at work - a song you own but never listen to - and you find yourself really enjoying it. It almost sounds different, even new!
Apple smartly hijacked this thought with its iPod shuffle, but what is the secret behind the randomness? And do opportunities extend beyond music?

Pondering this, I was reminded of Jeff Hawkin's On Intelligence, a book I've mentioned before, which attempts to unravel the workings of the human brain. Hawkins offers enlightening thoughts on the relationship between action and perception. He suggests that for all intents and purposes, motor commands can be seen as our sixth sense:
"There are no pure sensory or pure motor areas in the cortex. Sensory patterns simultaneously flow in anywhere and everywhere -- and then flow back down any area of the hierachy, leading to predictions or motor behavior. Although the motor cortex has some special attributes, it is correct to think of it as just part of one large hierarchical memory system. It's almost like another sense. Seeing, hearing, touching and acting are profoundly intertwined."
Seeing motor commands as a sixth sense goes a long way to explaining why self-initiated stimulus could differ so much from the exact same sensory input when initiated by another force. To put it simply, 'doing' is a part of 'feeling'.

This helps us to understand, for example, why passive music consumption can breathe new life into an old song. The very act of selecting and playing a song confines us to auto-associative memories of it. When it plays without warning we are freed from our own predictions to enjoy it very differently.

There are other simple examples where sensory input is very different - often magnified - when we do not initiate them ourselves: When someone else tickles us; when an old movie is played unexpectedly in a bar; eating a meal cooked by a friend.

As our level of consciousness develops and while we tire of being able to have 'anything, any time, anywhere', I think there is more and more need for these unpredictable experiences. What opportunities are there for brands? Restaurants without menus? Nike runs that don't share the course beforehand? New clothes you don't see until you get home?

I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on existing examples or potential ones.


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