Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley

First published in 1932, Brave New World is a satiric and troubling description of a utopia, or perhaps a dystopia, where people are emotionally sterile, collectivism is a core value, and consumption is appraised.    

This world is governed by a World State - a unified government which administers the entire planet. The motto of the World State is "Community, Identity, Stability". Aldous Huxley describes several technological mechanisms that are being used to fulfill this motto. Among others, neo-Pavlovian conditioning and hypnopædia aim to directly manipulate the minds and brains of the World State's citizens.    

"Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks–already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder."

Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning

In Brave New World, citizens are engineered through conditioning into predetermined classes; a process that starts while still in their artificial wombs and throughout their entire childhood.  

In fact, what Haxley refers to as "neo-Pavlovian conditioning" adheres to the basic principles of Classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning. In classical conditioning, a stimulus that is biologically relevant to the animal is linked with a neutral stimulus, causing it to produce the same response. For example: 

Or another, more "classroom" example: suppose that a rabbit blinks when air is puffed into its eyes, but does not produce any response to hearing a tone. If we repeatedly display the tone every time we puff in its eyes, eventually the rabbit will start to blink when hearing the tone, even in the absence of puff. In this example, the tone is the conditioned stimulus (CS) because the rabbit learns to associate it with a conditioned response (CR), and the puff is the unconditioned stimulus (US), because the rabbit does not learn anything new about it.

There are several forms of conditioning, that involve different brain regions. For example, in delay conditioning, the CS (tone) remains on until the US (puff) is presented. Acquisition and retention of conditioned response under these settings require "primitive" brain structures, such as the cerebellum, but do not require forebrain structures, which are associated with higher brain functions.

Were Huxley's ideas on the implementation of conditioning inspired by real life events? In the video documenting the controversial "little Albert" experiment, held by John B. Watson, we see little Albert enjoys playing with a white rat. As Albert was playing with the rat, Watson made a loud scary sound behind his head. After several conditioning trials, furry animals were conditioned to become a trigger of fear for little Albert. 

"While the child was asleep, a broadcast programme from London suddenly started to come through; and the next morning, to the astonishment of his crash and crash (the more daring of the boys ventured to grin at one another), Little Reuben woke up repeating word for word a long lecture by that curious old writer ("one of the very few whose works have been permitted to come down to us"), George Bernard Shaw, who was speaking, according to a well-authenticated tradition, about his own genius. To Little Reuben's wink and snigger, this lecture was, of course, perfectly incomprehensible and, imagining that their child had suddenly gone mad, they sent for a doctor. He, fortunately, understood English, recognized the discourse as that which Shaw had broadcasted the previous evening, realized the significance of what had happened, and sent a letter to the medical press about it. 


The principle of sleep-teaching, or hypnopædia, had been discovered"


In Brave New World, moral education is done during sleep: "The greatest moralizing and socializing force of all time." Statements telling right from wrong, good from bad, are repeatedly being played to young children while they sleep. Hundreds of times throughout their childhood.  

But can we actually learn this way?

In 1927, Alois Benjamin Saliger invented the Psycho-Phone, an Edison-style phonograph with a timer that played the contents from a wax cylinder during the period of sleep. He believed that the messages delivered during sleep can enter the unconscious and influence the person's behavior. He argued that "It has been proven that natural sleep is identical with hypnotic sleep and that during natural sleep the unconscious mind is most receptive to suggestions."[

Saliger was not able to provide reliable evidence that his machine actually works. In the following years, controlled studies that used EEG to monitor people's sleep while new information was presented to them, concluded that whenever new learning occurred during sleep, people were actually awake. For a while, sleep-learning was discarded due to lack of scientific evidence. 

Recently, however, exciting new findings indicate that discarding sleep-learning altogether was premature. In 2012, scientists revealed that people can associate a tone and a smell while sleeping. In 2017, another group of scientists showed that it is possible to learn acoustic sequences during sleep. 

No doubt - a Brave New World is fast approaching.     

On the other hand, in trace conditioning there is an interval that separates the presentation of the CS from the US. This form of conditioning further requires the hippocampus and the neocortex. This means that patients with amnesia, who suffer from damage to the hippocampus, will be able to learn via delay conditioning but not via trace conditioning.