This is part of series of blog posts looking at People and Projects funded by the AHRC Science in Culture Theme.
This post is a question and answer feature with Dr Ophelia Deroy (Co-Investigator) and Dr Merle Fairhurst (Post-doctoral researcher), from the AHRC Large Grant ‘Rethinking the Senses: Uniting the Philosophy and Neuroscience of Perception’.
1. What excites you about the Large Grant project?
OD: The goals of the project – to unify neuroscientific and philosophical perspectives on perception and consider all the sensory modalities and their interactions, instead of focusing on one at a time – have prompted and continue to generate a lot of excitement, not only from academics, but also from a variety of collaborators in the arts, medicine, industry and design.
With the first phase of our project behind us, it is thrilling to realise how much has already been done, and to enjoy the momentum which we have built. Investigators and post-docs in the project are now making connections between the neuroscientific and the philosophical approaches on a daily basis.
MF: We are especially encouraged by the organic way in which common interests have come to light: This has sparked a burst of activity both in joint discussions and in the planning of new experiments. At the most recent team meeting, it was exciting to hear a common language being spoken about the work we are now doing together.
2. How is the project developing? What are you looking forward to working on over the next 3 years?
OD: The project is making progress in all three of the central mission statements we proposed in the grant. The first one was to transform the way researchers from the sciences and the arts and humanities approach perception, and to stress the interactions between the senses, rather than their distinction. The first part of the project has helped us to build a taxonomy of the kinds of interactions between the senses – from cases of integration to cases of influence or mere correspondence – and we now look forward to focusing on the way these interactions work, and how they shape our experience, as well as our memories and imagination.
Our second ambition was to remain aware of the pioneering character of these new interdisciplinary exchanges, and realise that our experience in promoting new ways of interacting across disciplines could be useful to other people animated by the same ambition. We had many opportunities to reflect on the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinarity, noticeably with the members of other projects and large grants. These meetings have been incredibly useful and it is great to know that we will keep hearing also about the progress these projects make in the forthcoming year. Finally, we hoped to reach out toward other disciplines and to partners outside academia – our collaborations with the anosmia association, Fifth Sense, the Tate Galleries, and educational programme SoundSense are now well in place and we cannot wait to see what tangible progress is made with them in the next years.
MF: The post doctoral research fellows now have a well established journal club that meets bi-weekly as part of their training and while establishing bonds that will allow for collaborations throughout the term of the grant, they are moving swiftly through important philosophical and scientific themes pertinent to the project’s mission. Recent meetings have led to discussions about the nature of attention and whether the way in which philosophers and scientists talk about this fundamental human function can be unified.
Summaries of discussions such as this as well as reports from the various workshops and seminars are added to the growing body of knowledge being accumulated in the project’s dedicated wiki that will serve as a record of the project’s progress.
Meanwhile the initial phase of the project has seen the steady growth of the new lab at the Centre for the Senses where the first behavioural empirical studies are now either well underway or in fact coming to a close. With the expansion of the lab expected in the new year, we look forward to adding new technologies including EEG, TMS and mobile eye tracking systems to our already large battery of psychophysical tools and techniques.
3. Can you explain how your project will be transformative?
OD: Perhaps the best way to explain is to take an example : Both philosophers and cognitive neuroscientists are interested in attention, and yet they often only focus on specific aspects (particularly visual) of this central, intrinsic mechanism underlying perception. Recent meetings have led to try and define the nature of attention, and whether the way in which philosophers and scientists talk about this fundamental human function can be unified. We also considered whether attention is the same across sensory modalities : Is attending to a sound the same thing for instance as attending to the position of your limb or your heart beat? And what happens in the arts, when one focuses on the music – is visual attention less easily captured by the physical movements of the performers, or does it contribute to the experience of the music?
I guess we all dreamed of a transformative project – what is fascinating now is to be able to explain concretely how transformations are achieved, starting from separate perspectives and unifying them through the formulation of shared questions and new ways to pursue them, both individually and together.
4. What do you think are the key challenges for researchers working between Sciences and Arts and Humanities?
MF: Language and method. Scientists and philosophers are most often motivated by similar thoughts and questions but that the way in which we discuss these as well as how we approach solving the mysteries of the human mind differs. However, This source of diversity of thought can only take one further than exploring this unchartered territory alone. Reading each other’s work is really important, but being involved in active discussions and finding good interlocutors is key: Researchers working between the Sciences and Arts and Humanities have to build a new community of researchers, who remain specialist in their field and yet know how to translate across disciplines or create a common terminology with others.
5. How did you start collaborating across disciplines?
MF: The nature of our research topic is multidisciplinary at the core. Philosophers over the last two millenia have created a strong theoretical foundation in perception that has been taken up, though somewhat in isolation, by interested psychologists and then neuroscientists. The Rethinking the Senses team is made up by empirically minded philosophers and cognitive neuroscientists driven by a desire to explore the theoretical framework that better explains their data.
OD: Our current work relies very much on crosstalk between the two disciplines. Like for many other things, the start can be explained by the reward one’s gets from the activity: Our collaborations have attracted the interest of a large community of researchers, across disciplines, and have a wider appeal to the public and other sectors. This is incredibly rewarding, and seems to distinguish collaborative research from more distinct streams of research.
6. How did you put together your current interdisciplinary research team? Do you have any tips for other researchers interested in working across disciplines?
OD: The Rethinking the Senses team was lucky enough to draw on the existence of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, which had pioneered collaborations between philosophers and cognitive neuroscientists for several years before the start of the project. The first advice to give to researchers interested in interdisciplinary endeavours could be to start looking at people who have had experience in the kind of cross-disciplinary interactions they are interested in, or in the topic. Interdisciplinary interest is more frequent than one thinks when seeing the disciplinary structure of departments and research – but with some effort, one can certainly identify existing groups and more or less informal networks of people engaged in a common entreprise.
The key point for the project was the recruitment of the post-docs: Besides their exceptional level of competence in their field, they are also animated by the interdisciplinary nature of the project and the potential to learn new research methods and tools. They all feel that they are contributing to building a new generation of researchers, better prepared to push topics forward and have a more integrated approach to their questions. When deciding on a collaborator, one should think of competence, as well as on enthusiasm and patience. A collaboration is not a one-off ; it is a continued state of conversation that can spread over decades.
Further information about AHRC Science in Culture Theme Large Grant ‘Rethinking the Senses: Uniting the Philosophy and Neuroscience of Perception’ is available here http://www.thesenses.ac.uk/ Join the team for a public event ‘The Hidden Senses: Taste and Smell’ that will change your understanding of the senses. This event featuring public lectures, and exciting interactive demonstrations takes place at the Science Museum Dana Centre on Friday 21st November 2014 from 2.00- 8.00pm. Register here for a FREE ticket.
The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers.
Follow us on twitter @AHRCSciculture for updates from the Theme.