Every day, we perceive the world around us through some or all of our senses—including sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, and balance. Every ring of the alarm clock, whiff of breakfast, or step on a cold tile floor—all are detected by specialized sensory cells that send nerve signals to your brain. But as it turns out, for humans “reality” isn’t ever exactly what it seems to be. In an upcoming highly experiential exhibition at the Museum, funhouse-like spaces will dare visitors to trust their senses—then show how or why what we perceive is not simply what is occurring around us.
Our Senses: An Immersive Experience delves into how our brains, adapted over millenia to help our ancestors survive their environments, work with sensory organs to shape and reframe our perceptions of everyday encounters. And it reveals how until recently in our evolutionary history, humans have been oblivious to nature’s other ubiquitous signals, including UV light, infrared sounds, and electrical fields. With the advent of new technologies, scientists now know those signals are all around us—just not perceptible to us through our senses alone.
Our Senses will let visitors explore eleven interactive galleries designed to test our perceptions. A room with changing lights will reveal a series of different images depending on which light—red, blue, or green—shines at any given moment. Another space—this time in black and white—will let visitors discover what happens when our senses disagree: the eyes will see walls and a floor that appear to curve and ripple but the feet will feel a flat surface beneath. (Some visitors may feel off balance, but will be able to bypass the gallery if they prefer.)
Other exhibition highlights include a garden that can be explored through the eyes of a bee or a butterfly, revealing what other animals see when they encounter flowering plants; an audio collage challenging visitors to test their skill at tracking individual sounds, a real-time demonstration of how your brain’s primary task is to sort through the stimulating world around you and select the right information on which to focus your attention; and a variety of experiences that showcase how our brains are wired to prioritize certain signals and focus on particular cues and details, such as movement or human faces. A smell test will invite visitors to unpack the fragrance notes in a complex scent, since what we perceive as a particular odor is actually a symphony of smells. A section on attention will focus on how seemingly unrelated information can shape what you see and hear—and how, when focusing on one item, other, obvious items may be missed. Other areas of the exhibition will delve into how our brain works to create our perception of “reality” by filling in gaps, resolving conflicts, correcting errors, and using scraps of information to trigger memories.
In addition, a live presentation will address why our senses are essential to our survival, how the senses and world views of other species differ from ours, and what’s truly unique about human perception, including sensory integration, language, art, and music.
Our Senses is curated by Rob DeSalle, a curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology who conducts research at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and whose recent exhibitions include Brain: The Inside Story, which explored how the human brain uses molecular, chemical, and electrical signals to interpret information and learn at every stage of life. Our Senses will be open to the public from Monday, November 20, 2017, to Sunday, January 6, 2019. Members will be able to preview the exhibition starting on Friday, November 17, through Sunday, November 19.
Our Senses is generously supported by Dana and Virginia Randt.
And IFF is a Corporate Partner. IFF Perfumer Patty Hidalgo worked on the scents in the exhibit.