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Reflections: IP at the Cheltenham Science Festival

A Multisensory Maze developed by the Institute of Philosophy wowed visitors at Cheltenham’s annual science festival.

In June, visitors to the Cheltenham Science Festival were treated to a feast for the senses courtesy of the Institute of Philosophy.

The Multisensory Maze, which featured a range of mind-bending illusions and sensory experiences, welcomed thousands of visitors during the six-day festival. 

The maze sought to challenge the popular understanding of how perception is organised and how our senses function. Far from relying on just five independently operating senses – sight, audition, taste, touch and smell – our bodies in fact support many more senses, such as proprioception for telling where our limbs are, and balance for telling us which way is up.

The maze played on these senses to reveal how they work together to shape our experience of the world around us and ourselves, while sometimes fooling us.

Visitors were asked to compare the weight of containers of different sizes. Most people said that they found the smaller block to be the heavier than the medium and larger ones, when in fact they all weighed the same.

This shows the power of expectation on our senses. We expect bigger things to be heavy and smaller things to be light. When this isn’t the case, the surprise skews our perception. Consequently, the small object was expected to be lighter and so feels heavier, and vice versa. 

On the airwaves

Barry Smith gives BBC Radio Gloucester an in-depth tour of the Multisensory Maze.

Other illusions included the Shepard scale, which is a sequence of sounds that seems to endlessly ascend or descend in pitch; an Inverted T, in which a vertical stick feels longer to the touch than a horizontal stick, despite both being the same size; and a mirror illusion, in which a shape appears radically different in a mirror depending on which way it is turned.

The maze is the result of a collaboration between philosophers and scientists, architects and designers. The maze was designed by Professor Ophelia Deroy (IP and LMU Munich) and Professor Barry Smith, and brought to life by Spanish architect, Sergio Cobos. The maze draws on work carried out at the Centre for the Study of the Senses based at the Institute of Philosophy. 

Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy, said:

“The Multisensory Maze lets us experience for ourselves how our senses work, it is also a great opportunity for science communication.

“The Maze makes a lasting impact on people. While we forget what we have heard or seen in the weeks after attending a museum or talk, exploring though experiencing an effect on us has real grip. People learn more when they experiment and discover by themselves!”

The maze, which was first exhibited at Biotopia Museum in Bavaria, will be exhibited next in Los Angeles at the Getty Foundation's 2024 Pacific Standard Time Arts festival on the theme of Arts and Science.  

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