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Chinese whispers in the name of science at Lowlands

As long as we humans have existed, we have told each other stories. But how does a story change each time it is told? Which elements stick and which ones are forgotten? This is what Max van Duijn and Tessa Verhoef will research in their Lowlands Whispers experiment at Lowlands Festival.

We have all played Chinese whispers as a child: each player whispers a message in the ear of the next and the last player tells the group the, generally completely different, message that they heard. How the story changes is exactly what interests researchers Tessa Verhoef and Max van Duijn. In their experiment at Lowlands Science, they will show festivalgoers a video of someone telling a story. The festivalgoer will then have to reproduce the story, which will again be recorded and shown to the next person. Verhoef: ‘In effect, we are playing a scientific form of Chinese whispers!

Which elements of the story remain?

The recordings will form what is termed a narrative transmission chain. This will enable Verhoef and Van Duijn to research the transmission process. Telling stories is as old as humanity itself. ‘In stories, we pass on language and cultural information,’ says Verhoef. Some elements of the story stick, whereas others don’t. ‘By analysing the transmission chains, we can discover patterns in them. These will teach us about how narrative traditions arise and are transmitted and about how the brain processes and reproduces information.

Bringing disciplines together 

Lowlands Whispers is bringing together the different research fields of Verhoef and Van Duijn. Van Duijn has been researching stories for longer already, mindreading in particular: how stories help us see things from another person’s perspective and point of view. Verhoef uses methods from artificial intelligence to research the evolution of language. ‘We also use the knowledge from our present Media Technology group by working with different video and motion analysis techniques.’ One story will therefore provide a mass of scientific information.

Lowlands Science

Each year, Lowlands also has a science programme that is visited by thousands of festivalgoers per day. In the Lowlands Science tent, festivalgoers help researchers from different universities perform experiments. Verhoef and Van Dujn will be carrying out experiments with a team of Leiden students and PhD candidates. They are looking forward to trying out Lowlands Whispers on the festivalgoers. Verhoef: Lowlands Science gives us a unique opportunity to tell a wider audience about our research, while at the same time gathering a whole bunch of data. And alongside the experiment in the Science tent, we are going to carry out a fun secret experiment on the festival grounds itself. But if you want to find our more, you’ll have to come along and see for yourself!’

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