Exploring fragments in the mind...

Potential Difference
September 20, 2017

When we first started working on Fragments, we knew we wanted to do something broader around the idea of how fragmentation is a human experience, but back in 2014 we hadn’t quite conceptualised how that would work. We spent a lot of time brainstorming and discussing ways in which our experience of the world is fragmented: from hearing one side of a phone conversation to seeing snapshots of someone’s life through a window. We knew that our own autobiographical memories felt like an important ingredient: We spent some time with actors talking through and reconstructing memories from their past such as a dramatic event that had happened to them and kept pushing at the points where contradictions started to emerge or things didn’t make sense. But it was only once we began conversation with neuroscientists that we realised exactly what it was that we needed to frame the concept of fragmentation and connect it to a wider human experience.

Over the course of 2017 we’ve been fortunate enough to have an ongoing collaboration with Mark Stokes of Oxford University, who works on memory and perception. Through conversations with Mark, we began to explore how the brain takes a constant stream of fragmentary information and converts it into what seems to us a coherent narrative. Mark also directed us to experiments or demonstrations that highlight the limitations of our brain’s ability to reconstruct the world around us. We talked a great deal about how memory and perception are deeply connected, and how it’s only our memories and experiences of the world that enable us to make sense of the (fairly poor quality) fragments of sensory information our brains receive.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was how to introduce these ideas into a performed piece in a way that made them clear to an audience, but without digressing into a science lecture. During our workshop week, we experimented with various techniques to represent memory or that could challenge our assumptions about our own perception.
A potentially exciting area is audio, and we did some work with ways in which speech could be distorted or interrupted in ways that make it initially incomprehensible. One of these is phoneme restoration, where a speech sample is chopped up, and white noise is gradually introduced into the gaps in the sample. When done right, many people are able to hear the speech once the white noise reaches a certain level, and then can continue to hear it once it is removed. You can see if this works for you, here. A similar idea, but with a very different effect, are distortion techniques like sine wave speech, where recorded speech is turned into something that resembles a science fiction sound effect. Here too, once people have heard the original, they can hear the sense within the distorted version when it is repeated.

Visual fragmentation was more challenging to represent, but one aspect we started to explore was what happens when you take an image and make it ultra high-contrast, such that it becomes very challenging to interpret. Here too, we were interested in the idea that you can’t unsee what’s been seen – once the brain has learned how to make sense of this confusing assemblage of bits, it does it effortlessly, such that you can’t understand why you couldn’t see it in the first place.

A high contrast "mooney figure"

Could you make out the image above? Click here to see the original

We’re also interested in looking into change blindness and inattention blindness– how our desire to create a continuous narrative out of the fragments of information we receive leads us to overlook important aspects of our environment, or changes that happen when we’re not looking. The most famous example of inattention blindness is the Harvard basketball player experiment, while for change blindness, this video gives a stunning demonstration of how much we fail to notice.

So if you’re coming to see Fragments at our work in progress showings in October and November, we hope to have some surprises in the show, and to make you think about how much you take in of the world around you.

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