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Why do we do what we do?

Updated: Oct 18, 2021


A picture of the PEARL Space with smoke and coloured lighting
Using the lighting system to illustrate the reduction of visibility in PEARL using one of our smoke machines

The philosophy that drove the design of the PEARL facility is that we act based on our perception of the world. PEARL was designed to enable us to study this process of perception so that we can understand better how people come to make the decisions they do - and thus how they live within the changing world.


All of the information we know about our immediate environment comes to us through our sensorial pathways. The incoming data from each of our senses are then pulled together and blended with our lived experiences in order to create our perception of the world. We have some preferences and biases that are driven by our genes, so some of the data we use are actually generated before we were born. We must also not forget that some of our sensorial information comes from within the body - the interoceptive data - to add to the exteroceptive information from the exterior environment. This difference between our body as a living organism and our body as a compilation of lived experiences is encapsulated in the German language by two distinct words - the 'lived body' is called 'der Leib', and the 'living body' is called 'der Körper'. In English we have to rely on the use of adjectives to make this distinction, which might explain a bit about why we do not think about these so easily as separate elements of our daily life. The key to understanding how we act - and why we do what we do - is therefore this blend of lived experience and living organism, informed by the sensing of the immediate interoceptive and exteroceptive environments. This means that 'why we do what we do' is highly individual to each person, but also highly dependent on the moment - not only does the environment change from moment to moment, but our lived experiences increase as well - we are never the same from one moment to the next, however consistent we think we might be! Designing the environment for even one person is thus very complicated, but how do we do this for a number of people?


Designing for many people has often been taken as having to deal with the physical reality of many people trying to use the same space - street, station, train, bus - at the same time. However, if the actions taken by each of these people actually depend on their individual perceptions of the space - including of course the other people within it - and their own lived experiences, then the challenge has to be about how we understand these processes. This is what underlies the design of PEARL.


In PEARL we can remove sensory data from the environment - which leaves a person bereft of their immediate exteroceptive sensory stimuli, and thus dependent on just their lived experience and their interoceptive information. This leads to all sorts of strange and disconcerting experiences. You might have experienced something like this when in a dark foggy noiseless environment, but did you wonder about how your brain set about creating your understanding of that environment and thus drove what you did next? As we add sensory stimuli to this environment, we can learn how the person begins to make sense of their environment - they can use the combination of their lived experience and their sensory information to create their perception. The cross-modality between senses enhances how we perceive the world - what we see is affected by what we hear and smell, and vice versa. We can then test people with different actions, different stimuli and so on, in order to start to understand the process of creating and modifying perceptions, and thus how we decide to do what we do.

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