behavior · community · creativity · culture · environment · happiness · play

An Artist’s Quest: To Force Strangers In Cities To Talk To One Another | Co.Exist

Sometimes all it takes is one person to start a neighborhood to start talking and engaging with one another. Someone moves in and throws an open house. Or even a garage sale. So how can art, or an artist, inject “love and play” into a community, particularly when the younger generations trust each other less than ever before?

San Francisco-based artist Hunter Franks is on a three-week mission across several different cities to explore just that, and hopefully get some “creative intervention” going in these urban areas.

An Artist's Quest: To Force Strangers In Cities To Talk To One Another | Co.Exist | ideas + impact

One Franks’s planned activities is something called “Vacant Love,” which aims to transform abandoned or neglected buildings with messages of affection. Another, called the “Free Portrait Project” asks residents to sit for a Polaroid photo taken by Franks, and during the 120 seconds it takes for the picture to develop, entertain a brief interview about their lives. Other interventions include two-way advice booths, for citizens to both give and take advice from one another, as well as an activity that asks people to write sticky notes about their loves and fears on a public wall. Franks will also be expanding his SF Postcard Project, in which he gathered postcards written from low-income San Francisco neighborhoods and mailed them to homes in ritzier ZIP codes.

more via An Artist’s Quest: To Force Strangers In Cities To Talk To One Another | Co.Exist | ideas + impact.

What activities have you seen, or even been engaged in, that got a neighborhood members involved and communicating? For some, even a Little Free Library can get the ball rolling. Tell us your experiences in the comments below.


Primate metacommunication

Jonah Lehrer, mastermind behind Front Cortex, has “always been fascinated by tip-of-the-tongue moments. It’s estimated that, on average, people have a tip-of-the-tongue moment at least once a week. Perhaps it occurs when you run into an old acquaintance whose name you can’t remember, although you know that it begins with the letter “J.” Or perhaps you struggle to recall the title of a recent movie, even though you can describe the plot in perfect detail.
What’s interesting about this mental hiccup is that, even though the mind can’t remember the information, it’s convinced that it knows it, which is why we devote so many mental resources to trying to recover the missing word. (This is a universal experience: The vast majority of languages, from Afrikaans to Hindi to Arabic, even rely on tongue metaphors to describe the tip-of-the-tongue moment.) But here’s the mystery: If we’ve forgotten a person’s name, then why are we so convinced that we remember it? What does it mean to know something without being able to access it?
The larger question is how the mind decides what to think about. After all, if we really don’t know the name – it’s nowhere inside our head – then it’s a waste of time trying to find it. This is where metacognition, or thinking about thinking, comes in handy. At any given moment, we automatically monitor the flux of thoughts, emotions and errata flowing in the stream of consciousness. As a result, when a name goes missing we immediately analyze the likelihood of being able to remember it. Do we know the first letter of the name? Can we remember other facts about the person? Are we able to remember the first names of other acquaintances from high school? Based on the answer to these questions, we can then make an informed guess about whether or not it’s worth trying to retrieve the misplaced memory.
Interestingly, a new experiment with a variety of primates (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans) demonstrated that great apes also demonstrate some rudimentary metacognitive skills. The study, conducted by Josep Call at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, involved presenting the primates with two hollow tubes. One of the tubes came with a food reward, while the other was empty. The apes were then observed as they searched for the reward.

Read on for the results.


Monkey calls translated

Reported by Nicolas Wade, NYT:

Walking through the Tai forest of Ivory Coast, Klaus Zuberbühler could hear the calls of the Diana monkeys, but the babble held no meaning for him.

Today, after nearly 20 years of studying animal communication, he can translate the forest’s sounds. This call means a Diana monkey has seen a leopard. That one means it has sighted another predator, the crowned eagle. “In our experience time and again, it’s a humbling experience to realize there is so much more information being passed in ways which hadn’t been noticed before,” said Dr. Zuberbühler, a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Do apes and monkeys have a secret language that has not yet been decrypted? And if so, will it resolve the mystery of how the human faculty for language evolved? Biologists have approached the issue in two ways, by trying to teach human language to chimpanzees and other species, and by listening to animals in the wild.
The first approach has been propelled by people’s intense desire — perhaps reinforced by childhood exposure to the loquacious animals in cartoons — to communicate with other species. Scientists have invested enormous effort in teaching chimpanzees language, whether in the form of speech or signs. A New York Times reporter who understands sign language, Boyce Rensberger, was able in 1974 to conduct what may be the first newspaper interview with another species when he conversed with Lucy, a signing chimp. She invited him up her tree, a proposal he declined, said Mr. Rensberger, who is now at M.I.T.

But with a few exceptions, teaching animals human language has proved to be a dead end. They should speak, perhaps, but they do not. They can communicate very expressively — think how definitely dogs can make their desires known — but they do not link symbolic sounds together in sentences or have anything close to language.

Better insights have come from listening to the sounds made by animals in the wild. Vervet monkeys were found in 1980 to have specific alarm calls for their most serious predators. If the calls were recorded and played back to them, the monkeys would respond appropriately. They jumped into bushes on hearing the leopard call, scanned the ground at the snake call, and looked up when played the eagle call.

More details!


We got to play with Siamangs

Rafe and I visited the Woodland Park Zoo on January 2nd. We LOVE going to the zoo but rarely get to, so this was a big treat for us. What made it more exciting was that the animals hadn’t had many visitors in the past couple of weeks due to bad weather and holidays, so they were excited to see us too. Even on this freezing cold day any of the animals that had thick fur were out and about, lounging around on rocks or scrounging their habitats for food. We got to see animals that normally wouldn’t give zoo visitors so much as a glance: snow leopards, a wolf, wild dogs, even the gorillas seemed in a good mood. They viewed us from their side of the fence, totally comfortable with us staring back like the obsessed fans and paparazzi we truly are.

But the most exciting interaction that day was between Rafe and a siamang (a type of gibbon). They are tropical animals, and so were keeping warm inside their enclosure. They are typically friendly and interested in the humans that come by, and today was no exception.

As we walked up to peer inside their enclosure, the female siamang came over to look at us. Rafe, a large and fairly intimidating figure, got down to a crouching position in hopes the siamang would come over to see us. Instead, she hopped and shook at us. We weren’t sure if this was a threat behavior or not. The siamang shook and jumped again. This time Rafe tried it too. This frankly shocked the siamang, and so she did it a third time. When Rafe jumped a second time, she came straight over to the glass, as if to give Rafe a piece of her mind. She stared at him intently. Then, she turned her back towards him, almost as if a child does when pouting. She glanced over her shoulder at him. She reached out her right hand, one of her long fingers extended. Rafe pretended to grab it through the glass. She sort of wiggled her finger in response, and kept staring at Rafe. So Rafe tried something else. He started play-grooming her through the glass.

It looked very silly, this big man squatting down picking at the glass next to a siamang’s back. I expected the siamang to jump back from this weirdo (gently) tapping and scraping on her window. But instead, she seemed to relax into it. She put her arm down and turned away from Rafe so that she was no longer looking at him, but seemed interested in him continuing. He kept miming picking at her fur, even pretend ate a couple of mites he found.

This behavior went on for awhile. The siamang would look back occasionally to make sure Rafe was still going, especially if he paused for a minute, and so Rafe continued. The sight of a grown man grooming a siamang got the attention of a couple of other zoo goers, and they came over to watch. The siamang just stayed right there, being play-groomed.

Eventually Rafe stopped, and the siamang sort of looked up at him expectantly. Then she quickly jumped down from her side of the glass and swung off to explore other things.

Rafe and I giggled at this event and continued through the exhibit to see the other siamang. But the female wasn’t done yet, and found us at another window. Once again Rafe crouched on all fours to say hello again. She came over to the glass, and reached out a hand for Rafe. She then turned her back to the glass, again as if she weren’t interested in him. Rafe began grooming her. She looked over her shoulder at Rafe, and seemed content to continue this activity. Just to see what would happen, Rafe stopped and moved over to another part of the glass. The siamang followed, and repositioned herself against the glass. Rafe continued grooming.

This was an incredibly odd sight to see a human primate being allowed, nay, encouraged, to groom a siamang, even if it was through the safety of thick glass. It seems unlikely that she could have felt him as he gently tapped his two fingers against the glass as he grabbed at imaginary mites.

Again a crowd formed, and eventually one of them said he should turn around and present his back to the siamang to be groomed. He did. For a second, they just sat there, back to back. Then, she turned around and actually started to groom Rafe. A pick here, a pick there, through the glass she grabbed at invisible mites. After about 20 seconds though, she turned around and pressed herself back up against the glass, and it was once again Rafe’s turn. We all laughed, someone said she was being selfish, and Rafe went right back to grooming her.

Eventually the crowd dispersed, and it was time to move away from the siamang enclosure. Rafe stopped grooming her and sat back on his haunches. She was not looking at him but realized he had stopped grooming her, and turned to look at him. Rafe put his hand up against the glass to say good bye, and if I remember correctly she tapped at it, but almost as if to request more grooming. Rafe instead stood up and walked to the other side of the glass. The siamang followed him there, and when she realized their grooming session was over, hopped over to a branch in her enclosure and then ran off to find other exciting things.

As we walked away we couldn’t help but laugh in awe and amazement at this interaction. First, who thinks to play-groom with a wild animal, especially through practically bullet-proof glass? Apparently Rafe does. And the fact that the siamang took to it was just amazing, and almost unreal to see. Let alone that the siamang actually groomed Rafe back, albeit for only a short, half-hearted time. The inter-species interaction was completely surreal.

Did anyone else happen to be at the zoo that day and see this? What was your reaction? Have you ever seen this type of behavior before, not even from siamangs specifically, just other primates in general? After this event I almost wonder if this is something the siamang has tricked other visitors into doing, but again, who thinks to play-groom?

autism · cognition · language · psychology · youtube

Power of communication: "In My Language"

This video, which I found on the blog neuroanthropology, was created by a woman who is severely autistic. The first three minutes show the woman interacting with her environment, and then the woman, through typing on the computer, provides a translation of what she describes as her native language. She is severely critical of people who do not understand and appreciate how she views the world and who call her non-communicative.

This video is fascinating to me on so many levels (warning: possible spoilers). Watching her behavior from a psychologists’ standpoint is interesting with observing her self-stimulating behavior and how her mind is processing all this. But it also from a visual anthropology perspective. She chose to include these specific examples of her language in the movie, and even though she explicitly says they do not symbolize anything in particular, I wonder why these were chosen. Why did she choose to use a visual format to explain herself? Was this video made originally for Youtube, or some other audience? There is obvious editing, and not so much a storyline but definite parts to the movie. How did she decide on this structure, and who helped her, if anyone? Did anyone else film her (from what I can tell I don’t think so). How was she aided in this project? She gives credits at the end of her film, but they’re all thanks as opposed to assigned jobs.

From a communication studies and linguistics perspective, she’s challenging the definition of language. She argues that she has a discourse (several, actually) with her environment, with the objects in her house; they even get a credit at the end of the film. She also uses the “dominant language,” as she describes it, to explain herself and language and berate those who do not appreciate hers for what it is.

She also points out that most of us would probably not look at her on the street, or deliberately look away, which is absolutely correct, which makes a great statement about humans’ fear of the different, “disabled,” and unknown.
(end spoilers)

So a really interesting video on many levels, and I’m sorry my visual anthropology class is essentially over this quarter because I think it’d be great to show to the class and have them discuss it.


For the Orangutans, it’s all a charade

Doctoral student Erica Cartmill found that Orangutans communicate with each other using gestures, and when their point isn’t getting across, they’ll adapt their gestures to try and better explain themselves:
Orangutans have been taught sign language before, but Cartmill showed that this is how Orangutans normally speak to each other, or at least to humans who have a tasty-looking banana. These Orangutans had not been taught sign language, and two separate case studies were done at different zoos, so this was really Orangutan improv.
My first thought upon reading this was, “this is is a great demonstration of ape intelligence and how they function together in ape culture.”
My second thought was, “I would have loved to do this study if I wasn’t so worried about getting my arm ripped off if I didn’t give them the banana.”