Like humans do

David Byrne and co. blend science and art in Menlo Park

You may find yourself living in the body of a doll. And you may find yourself behind the podium of a moral-dilemma game show. And, to quote David Byrne, you may ask yourself, "Well, how did I get here?" Probably via El Camino Real, in this case, where musician/author/artist Byrne, technology investor/nonprofit founder Mala Gaonkar and the team at Pace Art + Technology have created "The Institute Presents: NEUROSOCIETY," an "immersive theatrical experience" based on real neuroscience and psychology experiments.

"The Institute Presents: NEUROSOCIETY" is housed in the building adjacent to Pace Art + Technology's popular teamLab installation. Visitors are admitted in groups of 10 (tickets to the 80-minute experience are sold by timeslot) and greeted by guides wearing stylish mint-green lab coats sporting the project's logo of a question-mark face (15 actors were hired to serve as "The Institute's" pseudo-scientific docents, mostly recruited from postings in local theater groups). After putting on a pair of clean-room booties, it's time to enter the lab.

The first room looks like a futuristic sci-fi film set (jokingly referred to as "Barbarella's nail salon"). In the center of the room sits a doll with an electronic device where her head should be. Take a seat in the circle of chairs, put on some goggles, look down and suddenly you've become the doll, your body -- and your view -- replaced by hers, tiny plastic torso and legs where yours should be. If a guide manipulates the doll -- say, by poking her leg -- you may just feel it, too. And perhaps most disconcertingly, when you look around with the doll's perspective, you also see your real human self sitting across the room. Trippy.

The exhibition, which is reminiscent of San Francisco's beloved Exploratorium, includes other optical illusions, too, such as hands appearing to grow, and moving objects becoming frozen with a change in light.

At a recent event at Stanford University (part of Stanford Arts' new "Makers" series), Byrne and Gaonkar, along with professors from the music and psychology departments, discussed their inspiration for the project, what they've learned and what they hope participants will get out of it.

An overarching lesson from the experience is the realization that "context determines much of how you see the world," Gaonkar said.

The pair was introduced by their mutual friend, visionary musician Brian Eno, and found they shared an interest in neuroscience and "similarly odd ideas" about how art and science could intersect. Both disciplines involve improvisation and "creative thinking: 'Where does this lead? Let's follow that direction,'" Byrne said. "There's a real parallel there in the way of working."

The two visited a range of working laboratories and eventually designed "The Institute Presents: NEUROSOCIETY" with a certain theatrical framework and narrative in mind. The series of experiments included at the Pace venue purposely go from those involving basic perception and sense of self to those that deal with bias, game theory, social interaction and moral choices.

In a space staged to resemble an "old-school" classroom -- little desks, chalkboards and all -- you'll be given a tablet device and asked to predict the outcome of U.S. senate elections based on a few seconds of seeing the candidates' photos. According to a guide (playing the "teacher") people tend to get the answers correct about 60 percent of the time, due to society's response to and favoring of certain facial characteristics.

"We thought, it's a show of some sort, it needs to have an ending," Byrne said, explaining why they chose to leave the moral and social aspects for the grand finale. The last room deals with, "how we relate to other people and the rest of the world ... if people actually cooperate, that's a happy ending."

In that final room, you'll become a contestant in a game show, where you and your group mates will play for "brain cells" ("Institute"-branded plastic coins). It's here where you'll be presented with various shifting moral dilemmas, as well as have a chance to work together cooperatively with the hope of managing resources successfully.

The dilemmas, "get tweaked in different ways," Byrne said. "Now what would you do if it were this many people? If it happened five years from now, or 10 years from now?" The idea is to see if people change their decisions depending on context, he said, "and we notice that it happens in the strangest ways."

In one example, you're a drone operator. You know a terrorist has planted bombs all over the city and you can take him out easily, but in doing so you'll also kill a friend and colleague who happens to be nearby. Hardly any of the "guinea pig" contestants so far, Byrne said at the Stanford discussion, are willing to pull the trigger, so to speak, in that scenario. Next, you're shown an image of an unfamiliar child selling lemonade on University Avenue, where friends of his dad are making pipe bombs in the garage behind him. Would you take out the kid? Yes, Byrne said, in this case, a death of an innocent stranger seems to be more palatable than the death of a friend.

"It's really interesting, really fascinating. It shows that your moral values shift. We're not trying to prove that you're a monster because you would take out ... the kid with the lemonade stand," he said. "The point is the changes."

An area with umbrellas and picnic tables allows visitors to gather and discuss the experience afterward.

"It doesn't stop when they walk out the door," Byrne said. "They've gone through this experience as a group and they start to talk to one another."

Byrne and Gaonkar made clear at their Stanford event that the goal of the experience is to offer a fun, interesting, thought-provoking experience, not to collect scientific data, prove a particular theory or influence people into changing their behavior in some way.

"People will come to their own conclusions. Let them have those intuitions. It's a much richer and deeper realization rather than me ... saying this or that," Byrne said, adding that his own forays into neuroscience have given him a new awareness of his behaviors and biases.

"I see things through a different lens," he told the audience. "I don't think about things the same way any more."

What: "The Institute Presents: NEUROSOCIETY"

Where: Pace Art + Technology, 350 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

When: Through March 31, Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Cost: $45

Info: Go to Pace Gallery.

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