MENLO PARK, Calif. — The new immersive art installation here in the heart of Silicon Valley was dreamed up by David Byrne, the front man of the Talking Heads, and loosely modeled after the work of neuroscience and psychology labs at top institutions like Caltech and Harvard.
So when I showed up at a warehouse on a rainy Sunday morning earlier this month, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
What I experienced was light on science but heavy on amusing novelty. I trekked with a group of nine fellow visitors through four rooms, each the site of a quasi-scientific experiment. After an hour, I’d navigated moral dilemmas, got tricked into believing a moving object was standing still, predicted (with limited success) the winners of an election, and found myself experiencing life as though I’d been turned into a doll.
The vibe could hardly get more surreal.
At a point, one of our guides, cloaked in a lime-green lab coat, capped off a discussion about the unreliability of our gut instinct and our vision by musing: “Is it possible that we’re surrogate avatars walking around interacting with and processing data in our virtual reality? Do you think that I’m real? Do you think that you’re real? And what is reality?”
The installation, dubbed “The Institute Presents: Neurosociety,” was co-created by Byrne, a science enthusiast. For this project, Byrne and his collaborator, the technology investor Mala Gaonkar, went on something of a listening tour of research labs around the world to gather ideas, advice, and source material.
One of the researchers they consulted, the Dartmouth cognitive psychologist Patrick Cavanagh, told me that Byrne “is as curious and insightful as any scientist I have worked with.”
Byrne wasn’t available to talk to me, but has said he wanted to turn the experience of participating in a neuroscience experiment into a form of theater — and bring it to the public.
About 1,500 people have attended the installation since it opened at the start of this month, according to spokeswoman Florie Hutchinson. Tickets for the installation, which runs through March, were previously going for $45 but now go for $20.
I had the sense that I wasn’t in your average art exhibit as soon as I got to the lobby, which was lined with lime-green walls and bookcases stuffed with scientific props. A sign on the counter warned of a small risk of seizures for people sensitive to light. Eerie music interspersed with beeps played gently in the background as my fellow attendees and I pulled cloth booties over our shoes.
Then we became lab rats.
In the first room, arranged to resemble a game show stage with colored lights flashing over a half circle of podiums, we buzzed in our answers to a series of moral dilemmas: Would you tackle a man if you know doing so would prevent a future where the Nazis take over the world? How about punching him in the face? Or pushing him in front of a car? Or shooting him in the face? (The idea, our guide later explained, was to explore how our moral judgments can shift in response to tiny situational tweaks.)
Then we moved into a room drenched in orange light, where we gazed through a wall of glass into a diorama where miniature wind turbines sat motionless — or so we thought. It wasn’t until I strapped on a pair of special goggles that I could see that the turbines were actually spinning — a demonstration of how color contrast informs our visual perceptions.
Then it was time for a “pop quiz” in the third room, arranged like a school classroom. For each question, we were asked to look at head shots of two real politicians who ran against each other in Senate races between 1995 and 2005 — and make a snap judgment, based solely on their faces, about who actually won the election. (The idea was to test out how elements of facial structure, like the width of the forehead and the height of the eyebrows, factor into how we evaluate people.)
The final room was easily the most bizarre: Everything was completely white and reminiscent of Hollywood depictions of the great beyond. After we sat down on white leather couches, we were immersed in total darkness — and exposed to flashes of light that left me perceiving some strange images.
If that wasn’t weird enough, we then strapped on a virtual reality headset and experienced life as a doll — a demonstration of how our awareness of our own body informs our perception.
Alexander Todorov, the Princeton psychology professor whose research inspired the experiment involving the Senate candidates’ faces, told me he has continued collaborating with the organizers to help them respond to visitor feedback. “For me, this is really about the experience of the users and introducing them to interesting, counter-intuitive effects that influence many of our decisions,” Todorov said.
Two of the experiments in the installation — the one focused on moral quandaries and the one centered on predicting Senate election winners — involved collecting data from each visitor. Hutchinson said that after the installation closes, the data from those experiments will be made available to any interested neuroscience and psychology labs.
It’s not clear whether researchers will actually take them up on that offer.
Todorov, for one, doesn’t plan to. “As an experimental psychologist,” he said, “I prefer collecting data under tighter experimental control.”
This isn’t neuroscience, it’s psychology.
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