A carnival of connectedness

Madeleine Pownall, an undergraduate at the University of Lincoln, visits the Edinburgh Science Festival.

A sign in the entrance of Edinburgh’s Summerhall reads ‘the integration and interpenetration of the characteristic human qualities of artists, scientists and technologists is a crying need of our time’. It’s a 1937 quote, from Charles Morris, yet surely it remains as apt as ever. Indeed, Edinburgh Science Festival sees a collaborative effort from scientists of all stripes to promote science to the wider community.

My three-day taster of the festival involved discussions, talks, exhibitions, taster events and conversations with many fascinating people. I was invited to eat burgers, smell books, play, discuss, and question. It was an all-encompassing, interactive and highly thought-provoking experience.

Throughout the festival, three clear themes appeared to emerge. Scientists discussed the need to become adaptable to an increasingly online world; to enjoy and experience life in a multi-sensory way; and to achieve interdisciplinary and interpersonal connectedness.

Life and death in an online world
Dr Aleks Krotoski starts Friday’s A Death Online discussion by explaining how vital it is that technologists and psychologists acknowledge the complexities that our increasingly online identities bring when it comes to death. After we die ‘we can linger on in cyberspace indefinitely’, explains Professor Wendy Moncur (Chair of Digital Living at University of Dundee). This brings a new age of unforeseen problems. In the distant time before everyone had a social media persona and a bank of online files, memories of the deceased remained in boxes of objects and photographs. Now, in an era where we all collate a ‘digital memory-bank’ of online content, both the grieving and memorialising process have been changed. It is argued that this must be reflected in psychology, technology and the legal system.

Indeed, Facebook and other online platforms allow us to connect with each other in ways previously unimaginable. However, Professor Moncur asked: how are we able to disconnect? When a large (and growing) part of our personal and social identity is represented and developed online, how does this online presence know to die when we do? Automatic birthday reminders, suggested friends, and ‘look-backs’ are all now integral parts of social media’s engagement strategy, and this poses some tricky scenarios for online profiles when the deceased continue to ‘live’ online.

However, Dr Stacey Pitsillides recognised some benefits of this growing online world. She considers the design aspect of posthumous online existence, and acknowledges the affordances that an online space can offer – which can be beneficial to the grieving process. These can take the form of futuristic tech-informed memorials. For example, Dr Pitsillides tells the story of how she was able to digitally embed selective narratives onto her Grandmother’s beloved thimble collection. But it’s not about choosing whether to have either physical or digital objects. Instead, Pitsillides argued, there should be ‘a hybrid’ of on and offline content. That being said, the complexities – often disregarded by the tech companies running social media sites – remain present. She explains that major online corporations such as Facebook and Twitter are guilty of ‘designing for life without death’: or, at most, designing for life with death as an ‘add-on’.

So how can we psychologically cope with this – when our loved ones die and we are left with the online illusion of eternity and immortality? Dr Elaine Kasket, counselling psychologist and head of counselling programme at Regents University, summarises the problem. ‘The dead make themselves seen and heard’, she explains, and this can be psychologically challenging for those left mourning their loss. Dr Kasket references her own research project in this field. Participants in her study claimed that sending a Facebook message felt the most ‘real’ way to connect with friends and family who were deceased (instead of talking beside their tombstone, writing letters and other previously conventional methods). This connection to death is a product of our increased ‘hyper-connectedness’, Kasket explains. Online spaces, instant messaging and the instantaneous nature of social media means that we have been somewhat conditioned to assume that when we send a message online, someone somewhere receives it. In other words, when we send information out into the digital stratosphere, our vast connectedness means that it will never go completely unread. This, in the context of posthumous online existence, proves incredibly problematic.

Dr Pitsillides stresses the importance of seeking alternative forms of rituals, and references recent statistics that show more than half of the UK population do not identify as ‘religious’. This means that traditional post-death ceremonies must be assessed in a context of contemporary culture. Dr Kasket also considers the legal and ethical aspects of online memorialisation. For example who acts as the ‘gatekeeper’ to the deceased’s Facebook profile? If family are not friends on Facebook, will they ever be afforded rights to view the profile? This may create a situation suggested by Dr Kasket whereby ‘the mistress has more access than the Mother’. Who controls the ‘digital legacy’ of the user? The answers to such weighty questions are so far unclear and may be psychologically challenging to cope with. Ultimately, Dr Kasket concludes, one day ‘we are all going to be ghosts in this big machine’.

Professor Andrew Hoskins (University of Glasgow) suggested that people may wish to exercise ‘the right to be forgotten’ on the internet not only after death, but also throughout their life. He highlights the fact that our growing exposure to the online world means that we now divulge a mass of information about ourselves to the internet. We also, he sighed, have a complete ‘compulsion’ to document every event on a smart phone or tablet. This means that ‘the smartphone is an extended avatar of the self’. Our definition of ‘true narratives’ is changing. The way we experience events is changing. And, crucially, the way we record our information is changing. The human mind is now deemed insufficient to accurately document and record memories. In a frightening statistic, Professor Hoskins claims that it takes 250 Facebook ‘likes’ for a computer to create an algorithm that is so in-tune with your beliefs and traits that it can predict your behaviour more accurately than your spouse can.

For Professor George Broch, City University, this leads to vast privacy compromises. One on hand, we battle for free-speech and freedom to post any (legal) content on the Internet. However, in stark juxtaposition to this, we all expect to have rights to online content posted about us. So how can the clash of these two interests be dealt with? With difficulty, it would seem. Professor Broch referenced a scenario where a convicted murderer appeals (upon completing a prison sentence) to have the details of the court case to be taken down from Google – who obliged. Suffice to say, the father of his victim took Google to court. It has now been estimated that there are over a hundred paralegals employed by Google to deal with applications to remove online content.

As technology progresses and we become increasingly digitally orientated, it is vital that psychologists stay up to date with this trend. The talks and discussions surrounding this phenomenon suggest an influx of new psychological problems, legal dilemmas and ethical considerations. The world – and especially the world of applied psychology – is changing.

The multi-sensory mind
In a lively beer-fuelled Friday night of the festival, we considered the psychology behind Burger Evolution. ‘What is taste?’, asked former chef and scientist Charles Michel. The audience erupted with suggestions, most of which involve the physical mechanisms of the mouth, tongue and palate. Michel explains that taste is in fact a ‘multi-sensory’ experience. Professor Charles Spence – researcher and sensory expert at University of Oxford – echoed this, stating that we taste first with the eyes, then every other sense individually. With this in mind, the researchers take to answering the serious question at hand: how can we construct a (psychologically informed) recipe for the perfect burger?

Physical taste is only one aspect of the eating experience, Professor Spence explained. He suggested that burgers may be so popular due to their sensory element. By design a burger is a hand-held food, meaning it gets a big tick in the ‘touch’ sensory box. This is categorically distinct from other foods, which require – either by design or our own imposed bizarre rules of etiquette – the use of cutlery, limiting the sensory sensations of the food. As Professor Spence put it, why would anyone want to eat with ‘cold horrible stainless steel’ cutlery? According to science, the perfect burger ideally must be between 7-8cm (calculated to be just above the average mouth circumference), with at least two sauces, crunchy lettuce (to satisfy the sound sense) and have a pungent, runny cheese (for the olfactory sense). 

From an evolutionary perspective, Professor Spence explains that we get ‘excited’ by foods which give us all the necessary nutrients and energy that we require. We are implicitly neurologically stimulated when we look at foods which can offer us all of these things – which means, he laughs, that ‘food-porn’ is very much a real phenomenon. Indeed, even more interestingly, we are programmed to pay particular interest to protein and are constantly seeking protein-rich food. This explains advertising companies use of often dramatic, slow-motion images of dripping egg-yolk, dubbed by Professor Spence as ‘protein in motion’, or – to the childish delight of the crowd – ‘yolk-porn’.

The conversation turned to the sustainability of the humble burger. How can we maintain the beauty of the burger whilst being environmentally conscious? The answer for Ben Reade, from the Edinburgh Food Studio, is the promotion of other beef alternatives. He then, grinning, flicked the slideshow onto a photograph of a skewered barbequed rat (predictably, the audience gets even more lively). He explains that smaller animals are economically more efficient; they require less space, take less time to grow to be full sized and don’t eat as much. As Ben succinctly puts it, ‘you get more food out of your feed’. However, there is clear discrepancy between these visionary potential replacements and the taste and expectations of Western palates. That being said, the second burger of the night was made of beef mixed with insects and was surprisingly delicious. (I can’t imagine this trend catching on just yet though).

So, it has now been scientifically proven that eating is best enjoyed as part of a multi-sensory event. However, can the same be said for other activities? Can reading a book be a similarly multi-sensory experience? This was put to the test in Death of a Paperback, a special event focusing on the ‘paperback vs eBook’ debate. Professor Tom Mole, University of Edinburgh and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book, reassured us ‘the paperback is not dying anytime soon’. Indeed, he adds, despite romance and crime novels lending themselves particularly well to the often cheap and dispensable nature of eBook retail, we will continue to be reliant on physical hardcopies. Ann Landmann, events manager of Edinburgh’s Blackwell Books, claims that we have adult colouring books and Harry Potter to thank for this. She acknowledges the sensory element of books, and the limits that eBooks have. In all cases, it is so much more than just a story.

Libraries, classrooms and book shops all, for me, have one glorious thing in common: that wonderful booky smell. The audience were invited to use essential oils to attempt to reconstruct the earthy, musky ‘book smell’ that is so emblematic of paperbacks. (Although, I admit, mine ended up smelling like a nursing home). If all stories were converted into eBooks on a Kindle, I fear that future generations may never get grow to recognise that booky smell. Or, as Landmann contemplated, will never know the delight of owning a well-thumbed copy of your favourite book – with page corners folded down and faded ink. Psychologically speaking, this sensory element of reading affects retention of information and concentration. And the literature supports this; a 2014 study by Mangen and Kujiken found that readers engage significantly better with paper compared to words on a tablet. (We must ask, though, whether this is this merely a carefully constructed placebo. Does the physical and economic cost of purchasing a book mean that we are somewhat implicitly primed to attend to and like the story more? Perhaps in an effort to avoid buyer’s remorse?)

Simon Meek, writer and Director of The Secret Experiment, proposes an interesting middle-ground. He suggests creating digital spaces which celebrate the interplay between the constructs of video games and books. This will challenge our ‘devotion to form and categorisation’ and infuse a sense of reality back into the books. This experimental view is both poetic and futuristic, although a fairly probable future for fiction stories. The fusion of visuals, text and story will give ‘readers’ (and I use this term loosely) a space to freely roam around the author’s world.

There is, as all the speakers sharing the stage acknowledged, something greatly rewarding about stealing away with a good book. However, the sensory aspect is constantly being threatened by new technologies. This also impacts children, particularly in the way that children play. Sue Palmer, child development expert and author, introduces this discussion on Why We Play. When children are increasingly glued to iPads instead of running around outside, how does this impact psychological development? When I think of ‘play’ I imagine footballs, muddy knees, trees and sports fields. The exploratory, inquisitive nature of children can be let loose in the outside space. But this, mentioned by both the speakers and audience members during the discussion portion of the talk, is simply not as accessible as it once was.

Ironically, we tend to associate inaccessibility with expense but this issue poses quite the opposite dilemma. The ‘global consumer culture’ that we inhabit means that the outdoors – free space – is now deemed insufficient for children. As Palmer put it, it is instead ‘substituted by stuff’. Our ‘embodied reality’ is translated to a ‘other world’ of technology and artifice. The outdoor, muddy, messy ideal of play that most of us have grown used to is instead being substituted by an iPad screen. There is a collective sigh from the audience. In terms of psychological development, this is of course problematic. Palmer reflected upon her childhood, and remembers fondly her grandmother telling her she should avoid reading, and instead ‘get out and play with the other kids or you’ll go funny!’. Are children now ‘going funny’ through the lack of outside space, instead are using technological versions of ‘play’ to, as Palmer said, get a ‘quick dopamine fix’?

‘Play is humanising and educating’, claims Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic. To demonstrate this, he showed a video of an infant giggling at delight at a piece of ripped up paper. Every time the paper rips the baby laughs and falls over. Eventually, after the last of the paper has been ripped, the infant learns to hold his hands out to catch himself from falling. This exemplifies the view that play is an activity which is entirely adaptive and inadvertently – according to Pat – makes us ‘resourceful and smart’. Playfulness helps to scaffold our identity and allows both children and adults to experiment and explore social scenarios in a way that is free from the rigid societal impositions of ‘real life’. In a sense, Kane suggests, play acts as a ‘rehearsal space’. Palmer summarised this concept: ‘we play because we are, we are because we play’. She suggests that children possess an innate desire to play and explore their environment. Playfulness and fun are fundamental of the human condition, and must be both facilitated and enjoyed by adults.

The benefits of play include: creativity, empathy, social skills, attention and self-regulation. Critically, these skills are not self-sufficient and can only be developed through social interaction. With this, Palmer identifies two concepts at the core of developmental psychology: love and play. It is therefore vital to nurture this playful aspect of children (which is supposedly most salient from birth to seven years old). However, what happens when play is not facilitated, or perhaps is even restricted? It is claimed that children respond to social situations – particularly in school – by either demonstrating compliance or challenge. Palmer suggests that lack of play inhibits ability to develop self-regulation and thus leads to inappropriate labelling of ‘challenging behaviour’. By contrast, self-awareness, working memory and mental flexibility can all be developed through the ‘make-believe’ safe world of play. A two-dimensional and static iPad simply cannot provide a comparable level of sensory involvement. In the same way that Professor Spence rejects the use of cold, shiny metal in eating, the same can be said for playing.

So, the scientists of the festival have ventured into the worlds of taste, touch, and next it was turn for Dr Tristram Wyatt – pheromone expert of the University of Oxford – to indulge us into a talk about Digital Smells in a Digital Future. In Wyatt’s dystopian future, we will walk into a restaurant and be presented with a menu complete with sniffable photos of every dish. We will be sat in a cinema and smell objects on screen just as vividly as the characters can. The overriding scientific question of the discussion was this: are we able to digitally create, record, store and playback smells in the same way that we can with sound? Short answer – no. Wyatt explains the vast physical complexities of the transportation of smell and the difficulties that they bring due to their molecular form (rather than the more digitisable wave form). To add to the complexity, researchers (Bushdid et al., 2014) have recently suggested that humans can distinguish up to one trillion different olfactory stimuli. To capture all of these stimuli and record them in a way that allows our brains to recognise each smell distinctly may be, as Wyatt suggests, ‘a frontier too far’. However, he adds, taste has considerably less receptors. Does this mean we will one day be able to transport tastes electronically? Is there a prophetic undertone to the Wonka-Vision in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Well, Wyatt mused, only time will tell.

‘What happens when art and science connect, when artists and scientists meet and collaborate?’, asks the Science Festival programme. Throughout the labyrinth-like corridors of Edinburgh’s Summerhall, artworks and exhibitions are displayed. Molecular biologists stand proud beside the works of physicians, artists and musicians. Indeed, the glue which binds the pieces together is the inherent artistic quality they all hold. A ‘poetry periscope’ – collections of spoken poetry from around Europe – is just one door down from an exhibition depicting generations of modified e-Coli. I applaud the festival organisers: at long last, we are learning to acknowledge the space for language, literature and art in the scientific domain. We are connecting. What’s more, the boundaries between science and arts are not so much blurred, but rather celebrated. Interdisciplinary connectedness is at show here, and it creates something quite magnificent.

One exhibition as part of the festival’s ‘Contemporary Connections’ theme is Stephen Hurrel’s Beneath and Beyond: Seismic Sounds. The installation displays a live on-screen monitor, showing seismic sounds in real-time. In the short time I watched, a 32-second tectonic shift in Toolangi, Australia was picked up, then a 77 second wave in Dublin. The installation represents something altogether quite profound: the dynamic, unfixed nature of the Earth. This amalgamation of science, philosophy and art really resonated with me. Human connectedness – a hallmark of psychology – is fluid, ever-changing and also succumbs to external pressures.

The British Psychological Society ran a Carnival of the Mind series of drop-in workshops for children throughout the course of the festival. With an overall focus of neuropsychology, children engaged in fun and interactive activities with ‘science communicators’. One particularly popular event was the ‘Circus Ring’ which investigated how the brain works (and to the squealing pleasure of the young scientists, involved dissecting a real sheep’s brain!) Walking around the colourful and interactive display, I personally found it very reassuring to see children so enthralled by this magical World of Psychology that the Society had created. The children’s portion of the Edinburgh Science Festival took over the City Arts Hall, and extended over four floors. On one floor, children dressed up as surgeons and were guided through the work of Doctors in a mock surgical theatre. On my enquiry, one particularly keen young scientist told me ‘we’re doing keyhole surgery!’ whilst clutching a plastic scalpel. I admit, it filled me with a sense of hope. Science and art are cool, and – as the festival programme puts it – ‘scientists are using art to depict and explain the (often obscure) ideas that they grapple with every day’.

- Madeleine Pownall is an undergraduate at the University of Lincoln. Read her piece in The Psychologist on 'slam poetry', and find more on her blog.

Find out more about the Edinburgh Science Festival.


Mangen, A. & Kuiken, D. (2014). Lost in an iPad: Narrative engagement on paper and tablet. Scientific Study of Literature, 4(2), 150-177.
Bushdid, C., Magnasco, M.O., Vosshall, L.B. & Keller, A. (2014). Humans can discriminate more than 1 trillion olfactory stimuli. Science, 343(6177), 1370-1372.

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