What better way is there to show how easily your senses can be tricked than a funhouse?
That’s the thinking behind Our Senses: An Immersive Experience, a massive new exhibit that’s more like a trip to a carnival at the American Museum of Natural History.
Spanning 11 rooms themed to your senses — there are many more you didn’t even know you had — the interactive exhibit shows visitors not just how amazing human perception is, but how limited and even wrong it can be.
I’m sure you know this feel, bro. Credit: Eva Kis
“Conventional wisdom tells us that we have five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing,” says AMNH President Ellen Futter. “There’s also common sense, street sense, sense of humor, even nonsense. Perhaps you can keep some of those handy on this fun and fascinating journey of our senses.”
All kidding aside, Our Senses is definitely the trippiest exhibit the museum (and possibly any museum) has ever held. Rather than the usual series of displays, Our Senses broke the museum mold to create “interactive, mind-bending, fun and enjoyable experiences” that will confuse and even unbalance you.
Now you see it, now you don’t. Credit: Eva Kis
The exhibit fairly delights in challenging what limited senses. Think you know what pattern an animal-print wallpaper is? Only until the light in the room changes, revealing new creatures. A trompe l’oeil drawing is either an old man or a lizard depending on which way it’s turned — and your brain will make it difficult to perceive whichever one you saw second.
The Balance Room will really mess with your inner ear. R. Mickens, AMNH
In what’s sure to be the centerpiece of the exhibit, visitors step inside a room that seems to warp around them. Each wall (and even the floor and ceiling!) is covered in a graph pattern that bends and dips, creating the illusion of movement. It’s so disorienting, there’s a hallway to skip it for those who become overwhelmed.
See the world like a snake in the Sensing Room. Credit: AMNH
Fun fact: Every living creature has senses, even the first single-cell organisms born in the primordial ooze 3.5 billion years ago. They interpreted the world by what touched their cell membrane. Our Senses touches on the many ways animals see the world differently from the rest of us: You can hunt like a snake using a heat-sensitive infrared camera, and see flowers the way insects do.
You may know that despite all that time to evolve, humans can only perceive a very narrow band of, well, everything: light, sound, smells. What we do have, of course, is our big brains. As curator Rob Desalle describes it, we’ve basically engineered ourselves out of needing to evolve further.
“I like to think we have no limit to our senses, really,” he explains. “Even though the machinery within our bodies limits us, we overcome those limitations with technology. We can always build something that allows us to sense outside of our range,” like microscopes and satellites.
Welcome to your brain. It’s a weird, messy thing. Credit: Eva Kis
With that brain, of course, comes complications. Our Senses doesn’t shy away from the difficult concepts that also shape our perceptions: where we grew up, how our feelings change what we see, that paying attention to what we think is important can cause us to miss other vital information.
And just as you’re about to leave, feeling like our feeble bodies only let us down, there’s something worth remembering.
Humans can do one thing no other animal can: create imaginary sensory experiences — stories — in our brains and through language, help others experience it too.
In other words, we don’t just sense the world as it is. We create experiences we want to have, and share them. Who needs heat vision when we’ve got imagination?