For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a cognitive science research project that attempts to explore the question of how humans’ ability to actively control how we sense the world influences our sensory experience of it. The bulk of the project lies in several behavioral and physiological experiments testing if/how people can gain a “new spatial sense,” analogous to sight, using a sensory tool built by a laboratory in the OIST Graduate University of Okinawa, Japan, whose researchers I am collaborating with. Together, we’re testing the extent to which having active control over the sensory tool (versus passively taking in sensations from it) influences the quality of people’s sensations and sensory perceptions of their surroundings while using the tool. We also want to evaluate the extent to which having these more compelling sensory experiences allows them to better integrate the tool into their mental idea of their own body, much like an amputee might integrate a prosthetic device into their mental representation of themselves. For those outside of the cognitive sciences, these are important questions to ask, as they can help medical researchers better develop sensory tools that can enable sensory-impaired people (e.g., blind or visually-impaired people) to gain new senses that can act as a substitute for the sense they lost (e.g., sight).
In conducting this research, I initially became a permanent fixture in my cognitive science laboratory. I first believed this was to be the life for me—three months of fully immersing myself in my experimental work, human socialization be damned! After all, this was what had occurred in my previous internship with the same lab in 2021, which had been entirely remote, facilitated by the far reaches of Zoom.
However, my life as a perpetual lab fixture was not meant to be. You see, last week, I was much obliged to attend a small academic conference with my laboratory, one which aimed to further explore the interdisciplinary applications of the developing field of “embodied” cognitive science. For three days, the other conference attendees and I engaged in these scientific explorations, discussing and debating topics as familiar to me as new directions for the field of psychology, and as far from me as the development of self-conscious robots. After attending the conference, I felt as though my own mind had been cracked open. I was suddenly deep in the trenches of discourse I hadn’t even begun to consider the week prior. By the time we returned to the lab, one of our postdoctoral researchers joked to me, “It seems like you were the one who got the most out of this conference. You were so into it. I guess you must’ve just been dormant on Zoom.”
I was elated then very quickly irate. I hadn’t been “dormant” on Zoom—I had been the pinnacle of productivity! I had spearheaded two projects, and I’d been hardworking enough that I’d been invited for another internship, hadn’t I? But there was some truth to his comments, I realized. On Zoom, I couldn’t interact well with the other lab researchers because of time zone differences, so I was somewhat unknowingly trapped in the bubble of my own isolated project. I had also been thinking in a bubble without considering any topics or disciplines beyond the ones immediate to me. And that must’ve come at a cost, seeing as how after an only three-day conference, I’d managed to verbalize and expand my scientific ideas to an extent that I had yet to achieve after a year of solitary remote work.
Thus, perhaps, it was not so much the conference itself that opened me up, but the environment it conceived—physical rooms with a hundred other in-person scholars who were just as ravenous as I to interact and exchange thoughts about the mind and brain. Perhaps, in my days of remote work, I had underestimated the degree to which physicality and interactiveness were inherent to and necessary for truly meaningful human experience.
Now, I am actively striving to be a more collaborative researcher and treat my interactions with the other scientists around me as chances for me to broaden my perspectives on cognitive science, and perhaps life in general, as opposed to mundane happenings in the physical lab environment.
This experience also made me more carefully consider the role of human interaction in my own project. For instance, would those using the lab’s sensory tool develop the “new sense” more quickly if the learning process was a more social experience, with them and other tool users learning how to make sense of their new sensations together? It is certainly an interesting avenue for future iterations of the project, or perhaps it can be incorporated into the current iteration, if we have enough time and data.