The brain makes associations automatically. That’s why aversion therapy works. For example, if you want someone to avoid watermelon, inject a foul smelling chemical into a number of slices and have your subject bite into the slices repeatedly. In time, if your subject is willing to continue the experiment, he will develop a strong aversion to watermelon, and you will have successfully programmed him to avoid that particular food in the future.
Associations don’t have to be negative. People will enjoy working if they expect it will help them later experience some good feelings in the form of praise or respect. The limit on this form of positive programming is that we mistakenly believe it is a conscious phenomenon, in which people reason that a certain activity will produce a certain positive outcome. I believe rationality is overrated, and thus we miss a huge opportunity. If we could accept that humans are fundamentally irrational, we could program ourselves for higher levels of happiness and productivity than we currently enjoy. Here’s how.
Take a volunteer and ask him all of his favorite sensations. This could range from the taste of his favorite food, to foot massages, to sexual stimulation, to warm baths, to his favorite song. Then spend a few weeks showing the volunteer a particular and not-too-common object whenever the positive sensations are applied. For example, you might pick a sock monkey as your object because you don’t see them often, and they don’t carry with them any sort of special association beyond generic fun. After two weeks of intensely associating sock monkeys with favorite sensations, the volunteer’s brain would make a permanent connection. Thereafter, any time he wanted to turn a bad mood into a good mood, he would look at his sock monkey and his brain would execute its happiness subroutine. It’s safer and quicker than pharmaceuticals. The only risk is that the volunteer might fall in love with his sock monkey. But I’m not judging.
People who have favorite sports teams know how powerful this sort of programming can be. If you wear the jersey of your favorite team, your brain associates the colors and the logo with the good feelings of watching a game. The rational part of your brain might tell you that you wear the team jersey because you look good in those colors, or you support the team. But I think the real reason is a simple association with the stimulation you feel when watching your team compete. It’s an accidental subroutine.
Society would never accept any sort of rigorous programming of humans in the fashion I have suggested, even if the process were fully supported by science. To do so would be to accept a view of ourselves as irrational. And so we miss an easy opportunity for much greater happiness and productivity.