National Geographic : 2017 Jun
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 Insti- tute 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 neurosci- ence 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 censor- ship going on. You put your hand over PHOTO: CATALINA KULCZAR 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 mo- ment 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, actu- ally. 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. Technologist and investor Mala Gaonkar (left) partnered with artist and musician David Byrne to create interactive museum exhibits based on neuroscience research. 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 Mondays at 9/8c starting May 15 on National Geographic. THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED FOR LENGTH AND CLARITY.