A Theory of Action, In Action In the introduction to her book, A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman asserts, "The senses don't just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern." Absolutely ...assuming said senses belong to an active individual free to move and experience the world.
Consider the classic kitty carousel. (Forewarning: I'm almost certain a few of our furry friends were harmed in the process). Based on previous auditory and visual studies, cognitive psychologists Richard Held and Alan Hein believed human perception to be plastic, i.e. it can adapt. However, the extent to which perceptual adaptation relies on 'concurrent self-produced movements' was yet to be determined. Held and Hein designed an experiment to test if "being moved around and seeing the environment change was sufficient to develop visually guided behaviour, such as depth perception, or whether an individual needs° to experience self-generated movement in order to learn."
The kitty carousel was a black and white stripped metal cylinder. In the center was a roundabout to which two kittens were attached—one active (A) and one passive (P). Neither one can see the other. The movements of Kitty A propel the roundabout and hence Kitty P sits suspended in a basket. If Kitty A walks clockwise, so does Kitty P. Over the course of six weeks, 10 kitties spent 3 hours a day in the carousel. The result of this torture? Kitty A learned to see. Kitty P was effectively blind—its eyes could see, but its brain couldn’t interpret the sensory input.
The Held Hein experiment has never been duplicated; however, in 2002 an article in the popular science magazine, Discover, titled 'Sight Unseen' chronicled a similar scenario. This time the subject was not kittens, but a man by the name of Mike May. After a lifetime of being blind, May regained his sight…sort of. Doctors restored the sensory receptors in his right eye to provide crystal clear vision. However, because Mays had moved through the first forty-three years of his life—as a downhill skier, soccer buff, business man, husband, and father—without the means to see, his brain never processed visual input. Consequently, even though Mays can 'see' perfectly through his right eye, he still "travels with his dog, Josh, or taps the sidewalk with a cane, and refers to himself as "a blind man with vision."
Iain Kerr and Petia Morozov of the research and design collaborative, Spurse, introduced me to the Held Hein experiment. During a workshop, Producing Empathic Fields, Iain and Petia asked participants to navigate Seward Park, in the Lower Eastside of NYC, with earplugs and blindfolded. Fortunately, we were afforded a partner who was tasked with insuring our general safety as well as recording our route and any memories the experience precipitated along the way. It was a phenomenal experience! Literally. My perception of self and the city was transformed in the moment that put the blindfold on (earplugs were already firmly lodged in place).
I was reminded of this experience when planning the Physical Training workshop. I wanted participants to experience the space within which they were going to design from multiple perspectives. I expected the disorientation might challenge⁄expand their assumptions of affordances embedded in the context. So I adapted Spurse's design for the purposes of our exploration:
1 sensor . 1 witness . 1 documentarian and tbd
What do you hear . feel . taste. smell?
Blindfold w. Sound Cone
What do you hear? Where are the sounds coming from?
What do you feel.taste.smell?
Blindfold, Ear Plugs & Dowel
What is the dowel telling you?
In groups of three, individuals were asked to explore their selected sites (in and around The New School on East 16th Street)—the sensor explored the space based on the given set of constraints; the witness insured the sensors safety as well as mark touchpoints with circular stickers (areas where the sensor came in direct contact with the environment); and the documentarian digitally captured the experience as it unfolded. Each group had some familiarity with the context having already explored the 'Site Seen' in the preceding exercise. Vision was the first modality impaired. With a blindfold (scraps of an old bed sheet I'd cut up the night before) securely fastened around their noggin, sensors where to navigate the space, while stating out loud events and corresponding feelings as they unfolded. This continued for five minutes. The exact same process, with the same individuals assuming the same roles, was repeated two more times—once with the addition of a sound cone designed (by fellow Transdisciplinary Design colleagues) to amplify audio input and again with ear plugs that eliminated audio input.
What transpired over the course of the next 30 minutes (the allotted 15 didn't cut it ) was nothing short of amazing! Watching the participants movements, listening to their thoughts and feelings unfold, and finally share in their disbelief, was an incredible experience.