How would it feel to see the world through someone else's eyes?
Tens of thousands of people around the world are taking part in The Perception Census, an ongoing scientific study aiming to uncover the fascinating but invisible ways that our minds are each unique - making it the largest study of its kind, and the first major citizen science project in the world into perceptual diversity.
The online study, led by world-leading researchers Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience Anil Seth from the University of Sussex and Professor of Philosophy Fiona Macpherson from the University of Glasgow as part of the Dreamachine programme and commissioned by UNBOXED Creativity in the UK, addresses questions about perception that have baffled, and divided, philosophers and scientists for centuries.
Since launching in July 2022, nearly 20,000 people have taken part in the study, and initial analysis of responses is demonstrating just how unique each person’s inner world can be. Professor Anil Seth and Professor Fiona Macpherson, along with the research team, believe that learning more about the science behind these differences could help cultivate humility and empathy for others, helping build new platforms for understanding and communication that are increasingly needed in today’s fragmented and polarised world.
Professor Fiona Macpherson, who is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience, said: “The study will help us reflect on what happens when differences in perception lead to apparent disagreement between people. In some instances, disagreement might mean some people are seeing the world correctly, and some incorrectly. Or one person might be accurately detecting one feature of the world, a second person another feature. Or perhaps no one is perceiving a shared objective reality, rather each of us is getting a glimpse of the creations of our own minds.”
Professor Anil Seth adds: “The Perception Census has the potential to rewrite our understanding of how we each experience a unique world, and to help society as a whole build new platforms for empathy and communication by embedding a recognition that the way we see things might not be the way they are, and that we all experience our shared reality in richly diverse ways. The Census will be an invaluable resource - providing us with a new map to this fascinating hidden landscape.”
Phil Batty, Executive Director, UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, said: “Dreamachine has enabled truly unique collaboration across science, art and technology. The Perception Census is just one element of the extraordinary Dreamachine audience experience, imagined through the innovative UNBOXED commissioning model. The results of this large-scale citizen science project will be part of a lasting legacy and valuable resource for future research.”
Perception is the process by which the brain helps create each person’s experiences of the world by processing sensory information, but little is known about how this process differs for each person. The Perception Census comprises a series of brain teasers, illusions and games that explore colour, sound, how we experience the passing of time, our beliefs about the world, and much more.
As well as contributing to this emerging field of science, those taking part in the Census will learn more about their own powers of perception and how they relate to others. To date, people aged 18 to 80 from over 100 countries have contributed to this growing body of scientific and philosophical data – from Shetland to the Scilly Isles, the US to Indonesia, on every continent except Antarctica, with over 50,000 research activities within the Census completed. Some participants have discovered new insights about their own powers of perception and their unique perceptual abilities, such as Synaesthesia.
- Do you see what I see? – Participants in the Census supported the Purves Cube finding that two identical brown squares on a Rubik’s cube appear to be different shades of brown, however they also revealed that we all experience this illusion differently.
- Where am I? – 31% of people who participated in the Body and Belief section of the Census reported having an ‘out-of-body’ experience at least once in their lifetime, and 66% of those people said they had such experiences many times. Reports of ‘out-of-body’ experiences – in which a person feels that their consciousness has left their body – have circulated for centuries but are usually confined to rare events such as moments of spiritual ecstasy.
20% of people experienced the illusion strongly, perceiving a much greater difference in the shade of brown than the average. However, another 20% of people barely experienced the illusion at all. This result provides fascinating new clues into how the human brain takes light and shade into account when perceiving colour, revealing that this process works in different ways for different people.
These findings could also help explain why the internet was intensely divided over the colour of “the dress” – which to some people appeared to be blue and black, while others were convinced it was white and gold. These newly revealed individual differences in visual perception echo the startling variation in what people experienced in the Dreamachine, forming the basis of a new major study on the nature and diversity of perceptual experience.
The number of people reporting this experience in the Census are surprisingly high. Further analysis and more participation from the public in the Census will help the team explain why.
- How do you view the world? – We asked people how much they agreed or disagreed with different statements about perception and consciousness. Questions which had not previously been asked to a public audience on such a large scale.
- How does it feel to be you? – Participants in the Dreamachine live experience reported a wide range of emotional reactions in response to the same white light. The most commonly reported emotion – by more than 60% of around 9,000 respondents – was peacefulness, other emotions expressed included amazement, anxiety, compassion, connection, euphoria, grief, isolation, love, optimism, fear, and surprise.
36% of people (out of nearly 6000) strongly agreed that the world might actually be very different from how they personally perceive it to be. This raises new questions about the relationship between perceptual experience and reality and when we can trust our experience.
92% of people (out of nearly 6000) think that a creature that can’t speak or understand language could be conscious, and about 42% think that computers or robots could someday be conscious - giving a fascinating insight into the current public view of the role of AI and technology in everyday life.
Many visitors described surprisingly profound emotional responses: one said that the experience had such a positive effect on his mental health that he came to the Dreamachine live experience in Woolwich Public Market in London 27 times.
Many participants in the Dreamachine reported increased wellbeing, and the University of Sussex is developing a new research programme to explore how the technology underpinning the experience could form novel interventions for mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
The Perception Census researchers are hoping that many more people from across the world will take part. As well as Professors Anil Seth and Fiona Macpherson, the research team includes Dr Reny Baykova, Dr David Schwartzman, Dr James Alvarez, and Trevor Hewitt – all at the University of Sussex.
About The Perception Census
The Perception Census is produced and managed by Collective Act as part of the acclaimed Dreamachine programme.
The Perception Census will be open into 2023, and as a major piece of research, the findings will be assessed over a 3-year period between 2023 and 2025. With support from Leverhulme Trust, the University of Sussex and the University of Glasgow, two dedicated PhD students will analyse the data sets generated by the Dreamachine Programme, conducting new studies to assess and corroborate their findings - leading into a major study on the nature of perception.
Dreamachine is one of 10 major creative projects commissioned as part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK. The UK’s most ambitious showcase of creative collaboration - across science, technology, engineering, arts and maths - includes free large-scale events, installations and globally accessible digital experiences, and an extensive learning programme reaching millions of schoolchildren.
The Dreamachine live experience invited audiences to explore the extraordinary potential of their own minds through light and sound, brought together as a collaboration between Turner Prize-winning artists Assemble, Grammy and Mercury nominated composer Jon Hopkins, and a team of leading technologists, scientists and philosophers.
UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK is funded and supported by the four governments of the UK and is commissioned and delivered in partnership with Belfast City Council, Creative Wales and EventScotland.
First published: 16 December 2022