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Five Lessons From Seven Years of Research Into Buttons

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You know you want to push it. (Credit: luckyraccoon/Shutterstock)

All day every day, throughout the United States, people push buttons – on coffee makers, TV remote controls and even social media posts they “like.” For more than seven years, I’ve been trying to understand why, looking into where buttons came from, why people love them – and why people loathe them.

As I researched my recent book, “Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing,” about the origins of American push-button society, five main themes stood out, influencing how I understand buttons and button-pushing culture.

1. Buttons Aren’t Actually Easy to Use

In the late 19th century, the Eastman Kodak Company began selling button-pushing as a way to make taking photographs easy. The company’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest,” suggested it wouldn’t be hard to use newfangled technological devices. This advertising campaign paved the way for the public to engage in amateur photography – a hobby best known today for selfies.

kodak

Just give it a try. (Credit: George Eastman Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

Yet in many contexts, both past and present, buttons are anything but easy. Have you ever stood in an elevator pushing the close-door button over and over, hoping and wondering if the door will ever shut? The same quandary presents itself at every crosswalk button. Programming a so-called “universal remote” is often an exercise in extreme frustration. Now think about the intensely complex dashboards used by pilots or DJs.

For more than a century, people have been complaining that buttons aren’t easy: Like any technology, most buttons require training to understand how and when to use them.

plane cockpit buttons

It takes a lot of training to know what all those buttons are for. (Credit: U.S. Air Force/Kelly White)

2. Buttons Encourage Consumerism

The earliest push buttons appeared on vending machines, as light switches and as bells for wealthy homeowners to summon servants.

Tide button

It’s almost too easy. (Credit: Alexander Klink/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY)

At the turn of the 20th century, manufacturers and distributors of push-button products often tried to convince customers that their every whim and desire could be gratified at a push – without any of the mess, injury or effort of previous technologies like pulls, cranks or levers. As a form of consumption, button pushing remains pervasive: People push for candy bars and tap for streaming movies or Uber rides.

Amazon’s “Dash” button takes push-button pleasure to the extreme. It’s tempting to think about affixing single-purpose buttons around your house, ready to instantly reorder toilet paper or laundry detergent. But this convenience comes at a price: Germany recently outlawed Dash buttons, because they don’t let customers know how much they’ll pay when they place an order.

3. Button-pushers are Often Seen as Abusive

Throughout my research, I discovered that people worry that buttons will fall into the wrong hands or be used in socially undesirable ways. My children will push just about any button within their reach – and sometimes those not within reach, too. The children of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the same. People often complained about children honking automobile horns, ringing doorbells and otherwise taking advantage of buttons that looked fun to press.

Adults, too, often received criticism for how they pushed. In the past, managers triggered ire for using push-button bells to keeping their employees at their beck and call, like servants. More recently there are stories in the news about disgraced figures like Matt Lauer using buttons to control the comings and goings of his staff, taking advantage of a powerful position.

4. Some of the Most-feared Buttons Aren’t Real

Beginning in the late 1800s, one of the most common fears registered about buttons involved warfare and advanced weapons: Perhaps one push of a button could blow up the world.

This anxiety has persisted from the Cold War to the present, playing prominently in movies like “Dr. Strangelove” and in news headlines. Although no such magic button exists, it’s a potent icon for how society often thinks about push-button effects as swift and irrevocable. This concept is also useful in geopolitics. As recently as 2018, President Donald Trump bragged to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over Twitter that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

5. Not a Lot Has Changed in More Than a Century

As I completed my book, I was struck by how much voices of the past echoed those of the present when discussing buttons. Since the 1880s, American society has deliberated about whether button pushing is a desirable or dangerous form of interaction with the world.

Persistent concerns remain about whether buttons make life too easy, pleasurable or rote. Or, on the flip side, observers worry that buttons increase complexity, forcing users to fiddle unnecessary with “unnatural” interfaces.

car button

Buttons can be hard to resist. (Credit: apiguide/Shutterstock)

Yet as much as people have complained about buttons over the years, they remain stubbornly present – an entrenched part of the design and interactivity of smartphones, computers, garage door openers, car dashboards and videogame controllers.

As I suggest in “Power Button,” one way to remedy this endless discussion about whether buttons are good or bad is to instead begin paying attention to power dynamics – and the ethics – of push buttons in everyday life. If people begin to examine who gets to push the button, and who doesn’t, in what contexts, under which conditions, and to whose benefit, they might begin to understand buttons’ complexity and importance.

 

Rachel Plotnick, Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ecology

What if a jolt of electricity could make you happy?

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Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using joly of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using jolts of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

People all around the world (or at least where Netflix is available) have been exhausting themselves of late trying to “spark joy” in their lives. The urge comes from cleaning guru Marie Kondo, whose philosophy rests on the principle that we should rid our homes and minds of things that don’t inspire bursts of pleasure.

The message resonates, in part, because it ties positivity to the world of material things. Happiness is in our minds. So having a tangible mechanism for producing joy is understandably comforting.

But there’s a simpler way to spark joy, if we really want to get literal about it. Any emotion we feel has a physical cause inside our brains. Electrical charges pass from neuron to neuron, spreading ripples of thought and feeling. What we call happiness is just electricity. And now researchers say they’ve found a remarkably specific means of triggering the electrical fireworks that add up to happiness in our brains. By electrically stimulating a brain region known as the cingulum, scientists created spontaneous laughter and a sense of calm and joy in three different patients.

The find could lead to treatments for anxiety and depression, and it hints at insights into the very roots of our emotions themselves.

An artist's illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Credit: From Bijanki et al, J. Clin. Invest. (2019). Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

An artist’s illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

Unexpected Bliss

The young woman is clad in hospital garb, sitting upright in a bed. A white hospital cap mushrooms above her head, wires splay from its rear. She’s due for brain surgery in a few days to treat a difficult, disruptive kind of epilepsy. She’s been worried and anxious.

She breaks into a radiant smile, laughter flowing uninhibited.

“I’m kind of like smiling because I can’t help it,” she says. A bit later, “Sorry, that’s just a really good feeling. That’s awesome.”

Neuroscientists just administered a tiny jolt of electricity to wires threaded through her skull and into her brain. The wires are there to guide surgeons to the source of her seizures. But before the procedure, she’s agreed to play guinea pig to a team of Emory University researchers.

Patients like her offer an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to test the workings of various brain regions with unparalleled specificity. By delivering targeted bursts of electricity through the electrodes, they can watch what happens when specific neural circuits are activated.

The team was sending small bursts of electricity to her cingulum, a horseshoe of brain matter that links to regions associated with emotion, self-assessment, social interaction and motivation, among other things. It’s also known to regulate anxiety and depression.

This kind of research, though hardly common, is not new. The patient’s reaction is.

“It was really exciting,” says Kelly Bijanki, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies behavioral neuromodulation. She was one of the scientists working with the young woman, whose name was not given for privacy reasons, that day. She says the kind of spontaneous joy she saw was unprecedented.

Experiments with brain stimulation have elicited laughter and smiles before. But those responses seemed mechanical. Bijanki says the patients usually described it as a purely motor response. “Their body has laughed, but there’s no content to it.”

This case was different. There was real warmth behind the laughter; true happiness in her voice. At one point, the patient reported she was “so happy she could cry,” the researchers write in their paper.

“The way she was laughing was really infectious,” Bijanki says. “The whole room felt different: she was laughing, she was having a good time, and not afraid. Just that social, emotional contagion took over.”

Further tests confirmed the response. They conducted sham trials, telling the patient that they were providing stimulation when they weren’t. She didn’t react. They tested various levels of stimulation and saw that the more electricity they delivered, the stronger the joyous reaction was. The pattern remained the same: An initial burst of exultation faded into a state of happy relaxation after several seconds.

The researchers found no drawbacks to the treatment, either, they report in a paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Her language skills and memory remained perfectly intact, and they saw no ill aftereffects of the stimulation.

In a screengrab from the scientists' experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit:)

In a screengrab from the scientists’ experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit: Bijanki et al, Journal of Clinical Investigation)

Put to the Test

The woman’s impending surgery would require her to remain awake while surgeons probed inside her skull. Their goal was to cut out the tissue responsible for her epilepsy, but it’s a game of millimeters. Doctors must remove enough to ensure that seizures don’t recur, but without causing permanent harm. The patient’s seizures appeared to emanate from a region near to language processing centers. Her job was to stay awake while surgeons worked, reading and talking to ensure they wouldn’t excise anything important.

The brain stimulation turned out to work so well that doctors were able to cut out completely the drugs used to manage anxiety during this type of brain surgery. Those medications can make patients sleepy and unresponsive, so the anesthesiologist decided to stop them midway through. The young woman, her skull opened to surgical tools, breezed through.

“During the surgery … she was telling me jokes about her dad, where prior to turning on the stimulation she had been crying and hyperventilating and right on the edge of panic,” Bijanki says.

To confirm their findings, the researchers performed the same tests with two more epilepsy patients with electrodes similarly implanted in their skulls. They got the same results. Jabs of electricity literally sparking joy inside their heads.

Putting Happiness to Work

It’s too simplistic to say the researchers have stumbled upon the place where joy hides within us. The brain is complex, and emotions well up from more than just a single place. Multiple brain regions are involved, and each contributes a facet to the emotion that we come to know as happiness.

In fact, researchers have found joy in another place in the brain as well. Sameer Sheth, a neurosurgeon at the Baylor College of Medicine, says that he’s had patients report feelings of euphoria during the course of his own work with brain stimulation as well. He was working with the ventral striatum, a region separate from the cingulum, though the two are tightly connected.

Stimulation to the ventral striatum has also produced the same sort of laughter and mood elevation that Bijanki saw, Sheth says.

But just because emotions are neurologically complex doesn’t mean there’s no value to understanding their origins.

“The more we understand this circuitry, the more we can fine tune how to harness that capability within an individual and the better we’ll be able to treat patients with mood disorders,” Sheth says.

Bijanki sees a range of applications for brain stimulation aimed at specific targets, beginning with the kind of surgeries the young epileptic was undergoing. By precluding the use of sedatives, the find might give brain surgeons new options when performing the kind of procedures the young woman went through. Allowing patients to give more feedback could make brain surgeries more targeted. It might also expand the scope of neurosurgery.

“The definition of what is an inoperable tumor is in some circumstances related to what is the surgeon reasonably comfortable with removing that isn’t going to ruin the patients life,” Bijanki says. “If the surgeon could know that in real time, then the surgery could proceed a little bit differently.”

More broadly, it could also find use as a treatment for mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD. Bijanki imagines electrodes powered by a pacemaker battery delivering continuous, low-grade stimulation to patients with depressive disorders.

In the future, we may not even need wires to spark such emotions. Scientists are developing means of activating brain regions with pulses of light, or with ultrasound. Flashes and vibrations could one day deliver ease to the afflicted.

There are drugs that accomplish similar things today, of course, but those often have side effects, and the treatment isn’t always as direct. Brain stimulation could offer a better path.

Banish the Sadness

Bijanki was also struck by an odd side-effect of the stimulation. Though patients had no trouble recalling sad memories during treatment, the recollections were wholly powerless to make them feel unhappy.

“I remember my dog dying, and I remember that it was a sad memory, but I don’t feel sad about it right now,” the young woman said, as reported by the researchers in their paper. Another patient concurred, unable to recollect a tragic memory without smiling. The effect is slightly jarring, but it could provide a shield of sorts to those overcoming trauma.

Those suffering from PTSD often go through what’s called exposure therapy, where they are asked to repeatedly sift through memories of a traumatic event. The goal is to drain those memories of their fearsome power over time, but it is difficult, frightening work.

Paired with temporary brain stimulation that elides sadness, Bijanki thinks PTSD patients might be far better equipped to tread through painful memories.

Finding Balance

Ultimately, however, the goal of therapies involving brain stimulation isn’t to wipe out negative emotions.

Anger, sadness and fear are not without their merits, and banishing them could have unintended consequences. Sadness sits at the other end of the spectrum from happiness, for example. Taking away any of our emotions would be removing an aspect of our humanity. What’s more, we have emotions for a reason.

“Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us,” Bijanki says.

That’s not the goal here, of course, though discussions about the ethical use of such technologies in the future is certainly warranted. Bijanki says that we’d need to be careful about applying things like brain stimulation that could be abused.

But, she’s not very worried about electrodes and electric shocks becoming the next designer drug. It’s just too technically demanding, she says. And the potential benefits for those with depression and other conditions are great.

Sometimes the bad can outweigh the good. In those cases, sparking a little joy might be what we need.

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NASA Picks Science Experiments to Send to the Moon This Year

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Just Made its Second Trip to Space

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SpaceShipTwo under rocket power

SpaceShipTwo is carried into the air on the back of a plane, but then takes off into space under its own power. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flew in space for the second time, taking off from Mojave, California after days of weather delay. SpaceShipTwo took off at 8:07 a.m. PST carrying two pilots, a crewmember, and a nearly full weight of science projects from NASA.

Unlike most spaceflights that fire rockets from the ground, SpaceShipTwo is carried on the belly of a plane named WhiteKnightTwo before being released to propel itself into the upper atmosphere. After being carried 45,000 feet into the air, SpaceShipTwo successfully fired its rocket engine and reached suborbital space at approximately 8:55 a.m. PST. It coasted there for only a few minutes before heading back toward the ground, where it landed much like any other plane, roughly an hour after takeoff. Like all of SpaceShipTwo’s planned flights, this one was suborbital, meaning it does not reach orbit, and attains weightlessness for only a few minutes during its trip.

SpaceShipTwo made its maiden space voyage in December 2018, and today was its fifth powered flight in total. Unlike other private spaceflight companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic has made their main goal ferrying private citizens into space, and have been taking reservations for years.

The third crewmember today was Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor and cabin evaluation lead. Her job today was to see how SpaceShipTwo feels from the cabin. Eventually, Virgin Galactic hopes to seat six passengers in place of the science payloads – or alongside them.

The spacecraft today also carried research projects from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which pairs research institutions with private companies who can fly their projects into space. The combined weight of the payloads put SpaceShipTwo at close to, but just under, the requirements for the commercial launch weight that NASA has specified. One of Virgin Galactic’s goals during this flight was testing how the vehicle flies with a greater weight distribution. Details will likely come later, but the flight was successful, which bodes well for the craft’s future in ferrying cargo as well as passengers.

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