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Institute of Philosophy’s collaborative projects offer opportunities for young researchers

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A good deal of the research carried out at the Institute of Philosophy (IP) is collaborative, involving a range of national and international partners at a number of different universities and cultural institutions. Its aim is to demonstrate the immense reach of philosophy by sharing research with as wide a set of audiences as possible.

This has been done by engaging the public in immersive, interactive experiences and experiments at spaces like Tate Modern through the Tate Exchange scheme, of which the institute is a partner. Now in its second year, the initiative was created by Professor Ophelia Deroy, who retains a part-time connection with IP alongside her role as professor of philosophy and neuroscience at Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich.

A team of junior and senior researchers from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience with artists and perfumers devised a series of fun and engaging experiments to help people learn how their senses work with and against each other. In addition to engaging the public, the results of these experiments have contributed valuable data for scientific inquiry, the analysis of which is looped back to the public.

To stage these popular events, early career researchers (ECRs) from IP, the Warburg Institute, the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Wellcome Functional Imaging Laboratory at University College London, joined researchers from the psychology departments at City University and Royal Holloway. Together, they enthusiastically set about creating ways to demonstrate and further their research.

It can be difficult to tell whether results produced in a laboratory can be scaled up, and whether the findings would still have application ‘in the wild’. Uncontrolled experiments tell us very little, but museum and gallery spaces offer a useful halfway house in which to test out the applicability of laboratory findings. They provide more immersive environments and attract people who are interested, attentive, and willing to participate in novel tasks. These remarkable spaces enable ECRs to road-test their ideas and give them an opportunity to communicate the importance and interest of their research to a wider audience.

A project carried out in 2016 at Tate Britain by Dr Deroy and neuroscientist, Merle Fairhurst led to a research publication demonstrating how the right conditions for delivery of information in museum audio guides can improve one’s ability to remember details of paintings and painters. In light of this research, Tate Britain is now preparing new kinds of audio guides to enhance the public’s experience and understanding of art.

In 2017, the institute and its partners ran 14 experiments called Taste at Tate, exploring everything from the shapes and sounds people associate with various tastes, to how they share (and argue about) their taste in art. Participation was expanded the following year to 21 experiments involving 2,300 people. These included tests of how well people identify themselves when not left-right-reversed as they usually see themselves in a mirror, whether they can use information about their heartbeats to guide emotional assessments, and  how they judge whether a portrait is a self-portrait by an artist. They also explored whether they read emotional cues predominantly from the left or right side of the face, how they communicate by means of smell, and how easily they adapt to alterations in their vision or touch induced by wearing perception- altering devices.

The success of the Tate Exchange experiments lies in bringing in a record number of visitors beyond typical museum-goers, in inspiring ECRs and artists who can see how enthused the public are by their work, and in opening up new opportunities for the institute and its partners to collaborate with museums and galleries.

In April 2018, the institute was invited to run two experiments at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and in 2019, it will work with Getty Center curators and conservators to develop a series of sensory experiments designed to help new audiences engage with the collection. The partnership will provide further opportunities for those at an early stage in their careers to present their research to a wider audience and to gain crucial data and feedback. This initiative grew out of the work of the institute’s Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Centre for the Study of the Senses, which attracted inquiries from artists, engineers, filmmakers, chefs, designers and perfumers.

These requests for collaboration fostered the development of a further centre, CREATE, which carries out research in experimental aesthetics, technology, and engineering. It is through CREATE and its partners that the institute has increased the scope of its activities and demonstrated the value of research in the arts and humanities to society.

Related information
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SAS research design audio guides to improve multisensory memories at Tate Britain
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Rising pitch: how sound can distort your sense of touch
EuroHaptics 2018 award for ground-breaking new deafblind communication device

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