Immersive Spaces and the Human Brain
- Among other stimulating things, Hue wrote:
> and I really believe that we are not just inventing... but RE-I like the phrase "pre-frame imagination." Very much.
> inventing how to tell a story (or poem, or idea, or exeprience)...
> getting back in touch with the pre-frame imagination...
I think it connects with another idea, expressed in much less poetic
terms, about the construction of our brains. Waaaaaay back in
October 2000, in the 32nd post on this list, I wrote (with somewhat
"...We have an evolutionary pathway directly from our optic nerves to
the superior colliculus, in the thalamus, near the top of our brain
stems. That's a direct pathway to visceral reactions from a human
audience! This 'older' route into your brain guides fight-or-flight
kind of reactions and helps you identify interesting objects in your
The context was my arguing for a full immersive space rather than a
partially immersive (front three- or four-channel) theater. Anyway...
The point is that immersive spaces have the potential to trigger
deeply-ingrained (call them animal) responses. Moreover, since most
domed spaces involve looking up, there's an aspect of having your
brain sloshed back in your head, or perhaps more reasonably put, of
replicating a situation in which we evolved to look for predators
rather than prey.
In New York, we of course have the 430-seat theater with the dome
overhead, but we also have the Big Bang Theater -- a 90-degree
section of a dome installed in the lower half of the Hayden Sphere,
affectionately called "the bowl." In the bowl, you look down on a
quasi-immersive space rather than up. I am amazed at the
difference. We've actually seen some of the same content in both the
bowl and the dome, and the sensation could not be more different.
Thus my analogy of looking for predator versus prey: looking down in
the bowl, one experiences a very analytic feeling along the lines of,
"hmmm, that might be good to eat," or perhaps, "I could scavenge
that," whereas looking up more often gives the sense of, "yikes, what
I'm inclined to believe that experiences of the sublime (cf. my spiel
about first experiences in a planetarium, which appeared in the June
2006 "Planetarian") originate in the intersection of the intellectual
and the visceral. Perhaps the viscreal aspect opens us up to the
intellectual experience, or maybe it just reinforces the memory.
Either way, an immersive experience affords greater opportunities for
an experience of the sublime.
To contrast this with cinema, particularly for those of us well-
versed in its vocabulary... I think framed experiences have evolved
to tell stories very efficiently, permitting greater affective effect
(however clumsy that sounds), so I think you're more likely to cry at
a movie rather than a planetarium show. The potential of an
immersive experience lies along a different vector.
Hmmm. Can you tell I'm writing this at 2:00 a.m.?
Ryan Wyatt, Science Visualizer
Rose Center for Earth & Space
American Museum of Natural History
79th Street at Central Park West
New York, NY 10024