Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Philosophical Psychology Lab

Natalie Ferjulian ’10 (communication arts major, summer student worker) writes:


Though working for the Office of College Communications is always an adventure, I never imagined spending an afternoon rigged up with a light-sensitive backpack computer, light-proof goggles and buzzing headphones, all part of a research project called the Philosophical Psychology Lab, coordinated by assistant professor of philosophy Brian Glenney.“We’re researching philosophical perceptions which pertain to what it’s like to experience the external world,” said Glenney. "Practically, my hope is to develop a device for the visually impaired that informs them of their surroundings via sounds.”

The study mimics one done by Harvard professor Sean Kelly. My experience of the device consisted of trying to tag a heart-shaped light attached to my opponent’s chest by relying on the camera on my head, which transmitted sounds to my headphones. A sound in my left ear meant the light was to my left while a sound from my right ear meant the light was on my right.At the same time a low-pitched sound meant the light was below me, a high-pitched sound above me.


Aside from the confusion of signals from the necessary “exit” signs, my ears informed me well as I earned a six for six winning record (not to brag or anything). But upon completing the Marco-Polo-style experiment, Glenney said that my efforts had just been a warmup for the real experiment.“A little friendly competition is the best way to get you ready for the big game,” he said.

For the real deal I was put in a square room with push lights on three of the four walls. My task? To locate and shut off the three lights as quickly as possible by relying on my sense of hearing, not touch. It was frustrating until I made the connection that by getting the sound to play at equal volumes in both ears I would be on the longitudinal plane of the light. While I spent only one afternoon participating in the project, Glenney and four other students have been working on the project since spring semester and are now completing their four-week summer research.Student Zachary Capalbo, a sophomore computer science/philosophy major, has even programmed his own device that translates color into sound. Along with the experiment I participated in, “The Sensory Substitution Device,” Glenney is working with shape consistency, the moon illusion and double vision.

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