This story appears in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Pop star, multimedia artist, cycling activist—David Byrne wears a lot of hats. Now the 65-year-old has donned another one: virtual reality auteur. His recent work, “The Institute Presents: Neurosociety,” was based on research from some of the world’s top neuroscience labs. Actors led visitors through exercises in four immersive settings that posed moral, political, and perceptual questions. Call it a 21st-century psychology experiment, minus the laboratory.
National Geographic sat down with Byrne earlier this year to learn more.
What was the inspiration for this?
The inspiration started when a neuroscience lab in Sweden did an experiment that they referred to as “Being Barbie,” where you’re in the body of a doll and you rescale your view of the world—the room, the furniture—from a doll’s point of view. When I read about that, I reached out to them, and eventually they gave us their blessing to re-create their experiment.
What does this project help us learn about our everyday life?
Well, besides the experience being a lot of fun, there’s real science behind it. Our muscular sense of where our limbs are determines how we see other things—how we see the world, how we determine where we are when we’re moving about. We have to negotiate according to how big we think we are, how small we think we are, where we are.
It’s also surprising to experience things that aren’t there. You know they’re not real, but you still experience them, which is a fun way to get across the idea that our perception of the world is not really based on reality. It’s based on something we construct in our heads.
Like how we see our nose.
Yeah, we demonstrate in a supersimple way that your brain is filtering out part of reality for you, because it’s decided you don’t need to see this. There’s censorship going on. You put your hand over one eye, and you see your nose intruding into your field of vision in your other eye, and you realize your nose is always there. Yet unless you really look for it, your brain edits it out of what you see. You don’t see this big fleshy thing in the middle of wherever you’re looking, but it’s there.
It feels like a conversation between what our brain is deciding at the moment and what gets our attention.
And what the brain pays attention to is a huge thing. If you’re driving, are you paying attention? Not so much, actually. When you’re dealing with people, what things are you paying attention to? Magicians know a lot about that. They’re very good at misdirection.
Does having a different avatar change your perception of yourself?
We use streaming VR so that all the participants are streaming their vision, their view of the doll’s point of view. There’s no avatar in the sense that the doll doesn’t move when you move. So we ask people not to move their limbs. If you sense yourself moving and the thing doesn’t move, you get nauseous when those things don’t match up.
Experiences in VR actually form memories, as opposed to watching a film or reading a book. Can you walk us through the Barbie experiment?
We duplicated an experiment from the Ehrsson lab in Stockholm. They didn’t actually use a Barbie doll—Barbies are a little too small—and we didn’t either. We have a semicircle of chairs, and everybody sits on them. They put their feet up. A curtain parts in the middle of the room, and they see a little doll in a chair facing them. They’re told to imitate her body language—to put their arms and legs in the same positions that she’s in.
Then they put on some VR goggles, and they’re seeing from the doll’s point of view. You look down at where your body would be, and instead you see the doll’s arms and legs and little dress.
Then you see the doll’s knee touched with a little foam ball. The odd thing is that at the same time, you feel your own knee being physically touched. What you’re seeing is the doll’s knee being touched, but what you’re feeling is your own knee being touched.
When you feel what you’re seeing even though it doesn’t make any logical sense, that’s when you really feel like your body is a doll’s body.
How do these experiments challenge our perceptions?
One of the reasons that the doll thing works is because you have different senses reinforcing one another, telling you the same thing, even though you know it can’t be real or true. But as more senses start to reinforce that, you can’t mentally dispute the evidence. And you start to go with it. What you’re seeing is coupled with what you’re feeling. The touch aspect really helps cement it. You can add smell or something else in there too.
It’s amazing. To me it works every time, no matter how many times I’ve done it. It’s like a magic trick. You know how it’s done, and it still fools you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
See David Byrne, inventor Ray Kurzweil, sci-fi writer N. K. Jemisin, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, and a cast of futurists, scientists, journalists, and technologists in the six-part global miniseries Year Million. It airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on National Geographic.