Thousands of scientific papers are published every year about the nature of perception. The vast majority of those papers describe research conducted by people living at US universities, and in Western universities more generally. Which means that nearly all the subjects taking part in these experiments – as many as 90 per cent – are white, middle-class undergraduate students. From these observations, scientists (and the public) generalize their findings on these specific kinds of people to the whole of the human species.
While the science in many of these papers is of high value, the generalization of the findings is not. People are not all the same… or are they? Does the person next to you see the world the same way that you do? What about your child, what about children raised in the far North where the visual ecology – and culture – is mathematically very different from that experienced by children raised near the equator?
If we are truly to understand what it means to be human, and understand the three-way relationship between ecology, brain structure and behaviour – the ‘Holy Grail’ of neuroscience – then doing research in the conventional way will not give us the answers. Instead, if we are to understand the inter-personal differences between people, we must perform highly controlled experiments on thousands of subjects around the world.
Much like the ‘Human Genome Project’, then, the tremendous ambition of the (human) Public Perception Project is to discover the differences and similarities across all humans. Because perception underpins all human behaviour, in a very real sense, then, the ambition is to define human perception.
Given the potential importance of the vast amount of data we will obtain about human perception on a large-scale, we will make our ‘normative’ databases available to all researchers, since such a database has the tremendous potential for not only understanding how we see the world, but also as a diagnostic tool.
A thousand…million subjects?
The ambitions of the Public Perception Project are one of the key reasons why Lab of Misfits is located at the Science Museum, since the Science Museum attracts literally millions of people from all over the world into its space. Which means that all these visitors become our potential subjects.
But then this location and endeavour raises another question. Which is this… how do you run valuable, controlled experiments on thousands of people in a public space? How long do the experiments have to be? How ‘noisy’ is the data? Does it require different experimental methods and statistics? What do your visitors/subjects/participants want or need in return to feel engaged? At this level, is there a meaningful boundary between science research and art, since science approached in this way becomes both research and performance, data-gathering and a sensory experience.
In short, our public perception project is itself a research programme into public engagement, which explores our hypothesis that the best form of engagement is science itself. It’s also a critical aspect of our ‘Science in the Museum’ initiative, as it demonstrates explicitly the scientific merit of using public spaces as a place for doing real science (if only one knew what was required to do it well), which could tour nationally and internationally.
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