In which I try to understand science

Yesterday we finally experienced David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar’s Neurosociety project in Menlo Park (some context). It was pretty fascinating: part art exhibit and part science lab – 80 minutes in small rooms with 8 strangers.

Here are my rambly, non-scientific observations, for anyone interested.

Disclaimer: We were 5 minutes late (because I wanted to eat an organic hot dog on the way to Menlo Park and the order ended up taking 25 minutes), so we actually didn’t get to participate in the first “experiment.” Meaning we could be in the room, but our answers wouldn’t get recorded with the rest of the group’s. The hot dog wasn’t even that good.

Anyway, the first study explored the effect of separation—geographical and emotional—on the ability to kill an innocent human being. (Fun Saturday afternoon activity, right?) The example used was this scene from the movie Eye in the Sky. Put in the drone pilot’s place, would you pull the trigger on the bombers in the building, potentially stopping the massacre of hundreds of innocent people but knowingly sacrificing the woman selling bread out front? We had 3 seconds to enter our answer. The question was repeated in a few different variations: same idea, but with the collateral damage becoming more personal each time (Taylor Swift eating at a food truck in Greece, a colleague inside a hamburger joint in Kentucky, your nephew selling lemonade outside your family’s house in Menlo Park).

Studies show that as the stakes get more personal and the environment more familiar, people are less likely to say they’d pull the trigger. I felt an odd sense of pride from choosing “yes” each time, sacrificing even the hypothetical nephew for The Greater Good (maybe that example would’ve been more effective if I actually had a nephew). But it was the last example that drove the point home for me, this scene from the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”:

In an alternate reality, McCoy saves the life of Edith Keeler, but as a result, drastically alters the course of history: allowing her to lead a pacifist movement and delay the US from entering WWII, which gives Germany enough time to develop nuclear weapons and win the war (11/22/63 much?). It’s up to Kirk to try and stop the doctor from saving her life.

If I were in Kirk’s boots, I found that I’d have no trouble wrestling McCoy to the ground or punching him in the face to prevent him from saving the girl, but when the Neurosociety host presented the idea of pushing him in front of the car or killing him with a phaser beam as the only means of stopping him, my Trek obsession momentarily rendered me unreasonable. “Kill Bones?! NO!” It seems silly and with one more second of rational thought, I’d of course remember that doing so would save thousands/millions of innocent lives, but when there is no extra second, sometimes we make decisions fueled by emotion rather than logic. Unless you’re Spock, of course.

Another interesting experiment presented a landscape illuminated by a specific type of light (I can’t remember what it was, maybe a sodium lamp?). Trying to discern what the landscape looked like, all we could see was an unnaturally orange 2D hillside with vague outlines of windmills – kind of freaky, actually. But once we put on these special goggles that filtered out the orange light, the scene instantly became more realistic: the hills were grassy, the windmills and the clouds behind them were moving just as they would on a sunny summer day. Change one element, and our perception was drastically altered. Basically, humans can pretty easily be tricked into seeing something different from reality (although a major theme of the entire exhibition was to question what “reality” really is).

Anyway, the thing that stuck with me from that study was the consideration of how other living creatures perceive our world. Our living spaces and infrastructure are built based on how we as humans see things, but how different would our cities look if we had eyesight like bats, or dogs, or dragonflies?

We watched The Searchers the other night, and the whole time I kept thinking how breathtakingly beautiful the Monument Valley scenery was: those gorgeous red rock walls against a backdrop of billowy clouds, the long shadows they threw over the canyons at dusk. It’s devastating to think of such natural beauty being destroyed. But if an extraterrestrial being came to Earth on a mission to, I dunno, gather sandstone, they’d probably have no issue upheaving those rock formations, which to them, may very well look ugly and strange. It ties in nicely with that first experiment: the less attachment you have with something, the more unfamiliar it is, the easier it probably is to destroy.


Side note: The Searchers is a fascinating movie…I first watched it in film class years ago, and my initial takeaway was the same: such beautiful scenery! But watching it again, especially now, is much more difficult. The main character’s racism is off the charts, which you could chalk up to a very believable script and performance by John Wayne, except Ford’s depiction of the Comanches is equally cringe-worthy. (Also, John Wayne was pretty racist himself.)

The rest of the Neurosociety experience was just as interesting (How likely are you to vote for a senator based on looks alone? Can VR effectively convince you that you are in the body of a doll?), but a day later, the idea of perception and distorted reality is what I’m still thinking about. Who’s to say we’re not in some giant social science experiment right now? Sometimes it sure seems like it.

To end with, here’s a somewhat relevant scene from Freaks and Geeks in which Lindsay questions her own reality. (I’m also including this partly because her line about how the house is “freaking her – OUT” is one of my favorite parts of the whole show).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s