More than Words: The Eye of the Storm

I go to a lot of science events, probably around one or  two a week. One of the brilliant things about living in London is that there are so many talks, debates, discussions to go to. I know the etiquette, usually see the same faces, and know how to talk about it afterwards in a way that makes me look relatively intelligent. I hope.

Eye of the Storm was something a little different from the usual fare. My usual way of conducting myself was out the window, and in a rather liberating way. Aside from a healthy dose of tea, coffee, sandwiches and cake, this was an event in which science, dance and existential psychotherapy were elegantly woven together to leave one with a sense of having discovered a new way of looking at the world.

The event started with an artist drawing a self-portrait from behind the canvas. Imagine a blank piece of paper on a stand. An arm reaches out from behind it to trace the outline of it’s body, hidden from the audience and from the artists’ view. Having seen first-hand how much our sense of our own body can lead us astray, Professor Patrick Haggard gave a concise, fascinating talk about the science behind such phenomena. This was followed by a discussion between Asifa Majid, who is studying linguistic and cognitive representation of the body at the Max Planck Institute, and Simone Forti, a dancer who uses movement to communicate, and words for their aesthetic value.

The audience, which comprised mostly artists was so different to my usual experience, with scientists few and far between. At a science talk, if you want to make a point, you do it quickly and succinctly. There are other, cleverer people with plenty of things to say, and time is scarce. Not here. Meaningful pauses abounded. Hands were used as much as words to communicate a point. Simone, in fact, used a vaguely unstable, fragmented movement to illustrate her feelings about the uprising in the Middle East – she moved instinctively, instead of talking.

This was a group of people for whom words are important, but not the only way of communicating. For a scientist, language is our best way of getting information across. It is important to have a way of representing findings which is precise and based on a shared vocabulary. To illustrate quantum theory by jumping about the place simply would not do.

And yet, it is something we might need to start thinking about. Our schooling system is based on audio and visual learning. You watch a powerpoint, draw diagrams, or listen to a teacher. For many people, this is hugely alienating.  Just put people into a classroom and they switch off. Foufou Savitzky, head of the Family Learning Division at LLU+ London South Bank University, says that, in the Dunn and Dunn model of learning, there are broadly four types of learners, and our current system favours only two of those. If you are a tactual or a kinesthetic learner, there is little in the current system to help you. If, like Simone, moving around helps you to make sense of something, you will be told to get back in your chair and sit still – the opposite of what will really help you learn. While it is dangerous to stick to learning-style models religiously, it illustrates a point: before you can communicate with people, it is always worth considering how they might prefer to communicate with you.

And to scientists, using language is not always that helpful. It is possible for an everyday word to have a very specific meaning in science which can be misleading, and moreover, scientific disciplines can use the same word to mean two very different things. Asifa, one of the scientists at Eye of the Storm, illustrated how even the simplest word, in two different cultures, can have highly divergent meanings. The word ‘hand’, for instance, was given to a range of cultural groups, and participants were asked to colour in the area of the body it refers to. Some people coloured only the fingers, some up to the wrist, some up to the elbow.

Really, this event was about communicating your internal state and sense of self, and the way that different people do that. But there were lessons here for science communicators as well. Scientists are people who have done well in an educational system that favours individuals who are willing to sit still and listen to people. To reach everyone else, we might have to move out of our own comfort zones, to free ourselves from our reliance on words and pictures.

One day, when I’m in a science talk and I have a point to make, maybe if I jump out of my chair and act it out, everyone else in the room will understand exactly what I’m on about. But for now, I might have to stick to words.

Anna Perman is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.


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