Lab of Misfits is the world’s first public perception research space.
In collaboration with the Science Museum, our work aims to deepen our understanding of human perception, advance personal and social well-being through perception research that places the public at the centre of the process of discovery, and create unique programmes of engagement that span social and personal boundaries between people, discipline and institutions. Here, we describe the key ideas that are behind everything that we do.
When we look out into the world, we see trees, buildings and fast-moving cars. We see faces and emotions displayed on those faces. We see all this, but none of these objects, emotions or concepts actually exists in the light that falls onto our eyes. So how do we actually see things?
What we see is shaped by experience, by interaction – which makes each of us an essential part of the process by which we ‘make sense’ of the world.
The fact that the patterns of light that fall onto our eyes are inherently meaningless – unless, that is, we are able to interpret them on the basis of previous experience – is fundamental to all our work. Resolving such uncertainty is the basis of all that the brain does. And understanding how the brain solves this problem is therefore the basis for understanding not only how and why we see what we do, but who we are as individuals and as a society. And while no one really likes uncertainty – it’s a bad thing both in evolutionary terms and emotionally – the irony is that only through uncertainty can we truly create something new.
Neuroscience research on the perception of light tells us that we did not evolve to see the world as it is, but to see a world that is useful to see, and to find patterns in information and imbue those patterns with a behavioural value. This means that in order to make sense of the world, we continually redefine normality, a normality that is grounded in our personal relationships, interactions and histories. This capacity is vital for our survival. Yet since our early experiences are what our brains use to develop context, it’s easy to imagine how we may be limiting ourselves by unconsciously filtering out lots of information. That’s essential when we are driving down the street, for example, but what about the emotional contexts we develop as children which we then assume are true in adulthood? Put another way, how can we avoid redefining the normality of the present through the limiting lens of the past?
Seeing myself see
As humans, our capacity to be an observer of ourselves – to ‘See Myself See’ – enables us to become directly aware of how intimately tied we are to our environment, and to our interaction with that environment — in other words, our ecology. To ‘see ourselves see’ is to understand the importance of perception, of experience and of imagination in shaping who we are as an individual. It is also the principle act of consciousness that has the power to transform our view of the world and of ourselves, since it creates the opportunity to find and create new relationships that will shape future behaviour. If we don’t understand that what we’re doing now is shaped by what we did in the past, then all we’re ever going to do is respond. The only way we can do something creative or innovative is to step outside and see why we’re doing what we’re doing.
In science, the answers to questions of perception reside in understanding how the architecture of the brain’s visual network – whether that of a human, a bumblebee or an artificial agent – represents its past interactions with the world. This is a question that we approach from different perspectives and at different levels of analysis.
Our research focuses on colour, and there are two reasons for this. Firstly, if none of our perceptions are things that exist in the world in any real sense, colour shows this in its most explicit form. Secondly, colour is the simplest visual perception that the brain generates.
All our research activities fall into one of three interrelated research themes: human systems (exploring perception at the psychological and social level), simple systems (exploring the behaviour and physiology of bumblebees), and synthetic systems (using computational science, artificial life and evolutionary robotics). The importance of uniting research on humans, bees and synthetic systems in parallel under the same theoretical framework is that our research collectively provides the first comprehensive explanation of how visual networks overcome sensory uncertainty at the behavioural, physiological and computational level.
Bumblebees - Our programme of research on simple systems. More
Human perception - Our programme of research focusing on human perception. More
Robots - Our programme of research using synthetic systems More
Perception, by its very nature, transcends the artificial boundaries within and between disciplines. Our work touches many fields, including art, design and education, as well as pure neuroscience. So on any given day, we are just as likely to be creating an art installation as running an experiment – and this could be happening inside the lab or in a public space. It is therefore critical that Lab of Misfits' research takes place outside typical academic environments.
What our lab does have in common with most other science labs is that there are both resident and external experts driving our research and other activities, except that they may come from a whole range of disciplines, particularly our external collaborators. However, our location in London’s Science Museum also enables us to create an innovative environment in which the public can be directly involved in and affected by the lab’s activities, bringing with it tremendous implications for scientific discovery, as well as for public engagement in science. This means that we can potentially run experiments on hundreds, and potentially thousands, of subjects – something which is almost impossible to orchestrate in a conventional lab – and in doing so discover the interpersonal differences between people.
So, Lab of Misfits in the Science Museum consists of a grey lab, where people can interact with the objects, sculptures and installations that we create; a black lab, where people can become subjects of experiments; and a white lab, where people can come and design experiments, by invitation. Access to the grey lab is largely open to the public, but given the nature of the objects and their need for interaction, numbers are limited – since our strategy is not about the quantity of observation, but about the quality of interaction.
We are developing a series of unique public programmes that span social and personal boundaries between people, disciplines and institutions and add an ambitious and challenging dimension to Lab of Misfits' scientific, artistic and educational work. These programmes – such as i,am…, i,maker, i,scientist and the public perception project – aim to give the public, from different walks of life and including schoolchildren, a range of opportunities to explore perception, and themselves, enabling them to take part in and even to create real scientific experiments.
The universality of perception allows us to directly resonate with (or, to put it another way, speak the language of) a wide variety of people, who can all talk in their own language – whether it’s fashion or art or education. The reason is that these are all perspectives on the same question: how do we make sense of ourselves in the world?
Our programmes seek to advance the concept of ‘science-as-a-way-of-being’ (as opposed to simply a process of investigation), result in novel – as well as publishable – scientific understanding, while at the same time having the potential to transform people’s own perception of self and the world, and in the process potentially transform people’s lives at a fundamentally personal level.
i,scientist - Engaging children with science and learning. More
i,am - Individuals working together to create original perception research. More
i,maker - Exploring perception through making. More
Public perception project - A programme of large-scale public experiments. More
My School - A perception-based educational framework. More
Two very significant public programmes, i,scientist and My School, are focussed around education, around the teaching of science specifically but also learning generally.
Children are in many ways more open than adults to transforming the way they think about the world, as they have shorter histories to influence their perceptions of themselves and the world. We believe that by using the neuroscience of perception and the concept of ‘Seeing Myself See’ it is possible to foster a different kind of learning. By supporting and guiding children in the idea that the same object can be perceived differently, children can be lead away from the more comfortable black and white view of the world, to the more challenging but more enlightening realisation of the greys in between. It’s about creating an environment where uncertainty is supported and celebrated, bringing with it an openness to discovery.
Science in school is often presented as a series of factual certainties, whereas in fact real scientific work is full of uncertainty – that’s why it’s so exciting. Furthermore, science shouldn’t be seen as something that is detached from the real world – it’s just a certain way of looking at things. Our aim is to approach science in a way that’s creative, daring and, above all, fun.