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How PEARL thinks

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

In creating the PEARL facility, we have created a building in which we can express and develop our thinking about how to design, create and implement environments that are better for both people and planet. So what does this mean for users of the facility? First of all, PEARL is much more than just a building and equipment - it is a way of working and thinking about how people interact with the environment.

Creating Contexts

We start with the idea that we, as human beings, create contexts in our minds based on our lived experience and the current sensory data describing both the environment around us and within our body. These contexts are based in part on our perception of the world, and these perceptions are based in turn on our brain's processing of information from the world. The only information our brain has is the sensory data it receives through its network of sensors, including both exteroceptive (telling us about the environment around us) and interoceptive (telling us about the state of the various parts of our body) data. We refer to around 65 senses. The perception created at any moment is updated at the next moment on the basis of received data, and as a result we create a new perception of the world, which then stands as the base perception for the next moment. And so the process continues from before birth until the moment we die. Every action we make is based on the interpretation of these constantly updating perceptions. The brain's one job is to enable us to survive. It does this by preparing these perceptions based on the sensory data, predicting what the state of the world will be next, and then responding to that prediction by some sort of action - for example, by causing the release of a hormone to prepare the body to react.

The brain is therefore a predictor, and to understand how we interact with the world we need to understand how these perceptions and their updates are created. Perceptions and contexts are closely connected. Creating a context sets the framework for the next stage, where we analyse this context to see what it includes – the detailed concepts within it, the processes and procedures needed to understand and explain it to ourselves (and others, if necessary). Finally, we create the new updated perception where the analyses of all the various components of the context are synthesised to bring us to our updated perception.

Brain works

Recent thinking in neuroscience suggests that there is a constant information traffic between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and that this travels on both directions. Iain McGilchrist*, for example, suggests that the context creation and synthesis of all our sensory information is undertaken by the brain’s right hemisphere, and the analytical logical analysis is done in the left hemisphere. Crucially, the result is then passed back to the right hemisphere to determine the understanding and meaning of all that information. It is this passing of information from the right to the left and back again that gives us our meaningful perception of the world. Failure to pass the information from the right hemisphere to the left results in having only imaginary, creative, visionary approaches to the world. Failing to pass the information back to the right hemisphere results in a superficial logical, factual, but ultimately context-free and meaningless approach to the world.

The two hemispheres need to be kept in balance, otherwise our perceptions become very distorted. One result of this is that, by learning from people who have, for whatever reason, a reduced function in either hemisphere, it is possible to derive understanding about how we perceive the world – including other people. For example, the broader context, ideas, imagination, wider horizons, higher visions, and synthesising approach associated with the right hemisphere are also associated with the peripheral visual field, our understanding of emotion in other people (conveyed by eye movements and expressions), and musical harmony. On the other hand, more closely associated with the left hemisphere is a more logical ordered analysis of objects in the world, our high resolution highly focused central vision, melody and interpretation of mood in other people (conveyed by micro-gestures in the lower face). The key, though, is that these two approaches are combined in order to create our perception of the world: it is not the “either-or” of pop-psychology, but “both-and”, with each hemisphere needing the other to create the whole perception – neither is more important than the other. Their relationship is rather like Escher’s Drawing Hands, each coming from and initiating the other to create a whole image.

picture of two hands drawing each other
Escher's "Drawing Hands" (Image:© All Rights reserved)

What PEARL does to help

How do we study this? A big innovation brought about by PEARL is that it enables us to create a world designed to appeal to the two parts of this process, and this helps us to study how we create our understanding of the world around us. From there we can test how changes to that world might affect our perception of the environment. For example, the physical space in PEARL is large, but it is also designed so that the edges are not so detectable in the peripheral visual field. We achieve that by the space being basically black, setting the lighting system above the vertical peripheral vision line and not having straight lines at the edges. Into this space we can then insert the kinds of environmental features that are attractive to the more focused central vision.

But it is absolutely not all about vision! We process the environmental information from all our senses at the same time to create our perception – even though, for the most part, we often tend to think that we only pay attention to what we see. By altering the relationships between all our sensory processes, we can start to test how people create and update their perceptions of the environment around them. It is a bit like being inside the brain where the right-left-right information traffic colludes to update a perception, and our senses of hearing, balance, touch, smell, fear, justice, harmony, rhythm, sociality (and more) combine to enable us to understand the synthesis of both the big and small worlds we need to be able to thrive …

Picture of a space with black curved walls and curtains
Interior view of PEARL (Image: James Tye/Dezeen)

At PEARL, for example, we can also manipulate these processes through multiple senses under controlled conditions. This is because all our perception is continually being created by bringing together all the senses. By manipulating the stimuli across all the senses we can learn how those perceptions are assembled, and how they are combined to give us our impression of the world. For example, at a recent event, when we stopped playing the sound of air conditioning in the space (there is no actual 'air conditioning system' in PEARL), some attendees started to feel warmer. The extent to which the sound of air conditioning – of which they had been quite unaware – had fooled their perception system into persuading them that they ‘must be’ cooler became apparent (a typical left-hemisphere error?).

A picture of a cube with images of trees, grass and sky
Creating a new world in PEARL - in this case an urban park: inside this cube is a physical, aural, visual, tactile experience of an urban park

How we work at PEARL

But there is more to the PEARL philosophy than perceptual tricks. It is also all about how we work. It is clearly essential that we are beyond academic disciplines – there is no single discipline that holds all the information necessary for understanding how we understand our immediate environment. So we combine lots of disciplines – from architecture and anatomy to neuroscience and music, from engineering and psychology to acoustics and orthopaedics … and more. What is also unusual though is that we don’t conceive this combination as a Venn diagram with a sweet spot in the middle where all the disciplines coincide. Instead, we see it as a set of overlapping clouds where all the disciplines affect, and are affected by, all the others.

Image of clouds representing different disciplinary knowledge and an overarching cloud representing how they all combine with each other to create a greater whole
Transdisciplinarity is larger than each and all of its components: more than just a Venn diagram with a sweet spot…

Transdisciplinarity therefore includes all the other disciplines and enables each of them to change within itself, as well as to interact positively with all of the others. Transdisciplinarity extends to the whole team at PEARL: it requires a change in mindset. Whatever their role, everyone in the team contributes to everything we do – everyone has their own perspective and these are valued equally whatever the source of lived experience, previous knowledge or training, or formal job title within PEARL. So the team for each experiment includes enablers, technicians, researchers and academics so that we can benefit from having wide perspectives.

To make the transdisciplinarity work, we have designed the working space at PEARL so that it helps people to feel able to collaborate. This space is called the Riff, because this is where we come together to ‘riff’ the ideas that people bring. Part of the Riff is designed to make it easier for members of the public to come and talk to us about their ideas, and thus to help drive the research programme. We enable people to create the spaces where, when and how they want. All the tables are on wheels so they can be moved around and combined to make different working shapes. The tables are 6-sided (informal greetings are easier at 60° than at 90°, and all collaborations start with an informal greeting). We have a variety of different kinds of chair so that people can choose what they want to sit on – and change whenever they want.

Image of a space with soft furniture to the right and tables to the left
The Riffing space at PEARL (image: James Tye/Dezeen)

Throughout, PEARL helps us to contribute to designing a better world by enabling us to understand better how the fusion of the clarity and power of analysis (left hemisphere) and the evolving, interconnected synthesis of meaningful context (right hemisphere) drives the predictive power of the brain as a whole. This enables us to understand how to make environments work better for the way people respond to them, rather than how we - and they - think they do, and to convert that understanding into practice.

* McGilchrist I (2019) The Master and his Emissary, Yale University Press

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