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Doing science in the mud at Lowlands

Conducting experiments next to the huge speakers of the Alpha Stage at Lowlands. This was reality for researchers Max van Duijn and Tessa Verhoef, and they were loving it. 'Yesterday evening we were completely covered in mud.'

‘That was rubbish!' Thomas, a visitor at Lowlands, doesn't mince his words about what he thought of his participation in the experiment carried out by Leiden University. We are on the site of Lowlands Science – right next door to the huge speakers of the Alpha stage - where festival-goers can take part in scientific experiments. 'I had no idea what the person was doing whose story I had to interpret, let alone how people were going to interpret mine.' 

Playing Chinese whispers for science

Thomas was not the only volunteer to find himself confused on this rainy Saturday at Lowlands. He was one of the people playing a scientific variant of the children's game Chinese whispers in Leiden University's science tent. The festival visitors who volunteered to take part were shown a story told by a predecessor - spoken or in gestures without talking - and then had to reproduce the story as well as they could on video. This video was then shown to the next volunteer, and so on. And that proved to be tougher than they expected.

Tessa Verhoef giving instructions to volunteer Petra.

Digital botox treatment

What's left is a more or less confused chain of stories, where the original story is changed slightly after each repetition. After three days at Lowlands, the Leiden researchers Max van Duijn and Tessa Verhoef analysed the images: which elements from the story remained intact when it was reproduced, and which were lost or altered? The researchers at the Creative Intelligence Lab, part of the Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science (LIACS), hope to be able to discover patterns in this process. ‘These patterns tell us something about how our brains store and reproduce information,' Verhoef explains. 'And not only that, they also teach us more about story-telling traditions. Telling stories is as old as humankind. When we tell stories, we pass on language and cultural information.' 

Although the volunteers already often struggle with repeating the stories, the researchers have devised a trick that makes it even more difficult for them: digital botox. 'When telling a story, you also pass on a lot of information through your facial expressions,’ says Van Duijn, as we took shelter under a tarpaulin from the next downpour. 'What happens if no facial expressions are visible? Are the same elements from the story retained, or do others take their place? These are the kinds of things we can test by modifying some of the videos digitally so that the person's forehead and the skin around their eyes don't move.'  

The volunteers come and go. During the heaviest showers more volunteers find their way to the warm and dry tent than the Leiden team can handle. Most of the visitors are very serious about carrying out the tasks, but towards the end of the day things get a bit more comical, particularly as the volunteers' alcohol consumption goes up. The experienced researchers play the game too, but at the same time they make sure the data does not become contaminated. If there's any question of that, the video in question is removed from the chain.

The entrance to Lowlands Science.

A dash to the do-it-yourself store for insulation material

‘Obviously, there are always challenges when you try to carry out research at a big festival like Lowlands. Take the noise of the performers just behind our tent, for example,' says Van Duijn during the sound check for the next band. 'On day one we had to make a dash to the do-it-yourself store to get insulation material and wood so we could make our recording booths more soundproof.' And then there's the non-stop rain. 'Yesterday evening we were covered in mud because the whole festival site was swimming in it. Luckily we have a fantastic team of students and PhD candidates who are great at improvising and just get on with things.'

In spite of the difficulties, the data collection progresses steadily. Halfway through the festival Verhoef and Van Duijn are already happy with the results. 'We have collected more data in one day than we had expected,' says Verhoef. 'We're conducting two experiments at the same time, and we have enough material from both of them to write a scientific article. It really does generate valuable data; we're not just standing here for the fun of it or to entertain the festival visitors.' 

People remember gossip

The detailed analysis of the data still has to be carried out, but from the recordings that Verhoef and Van Duijn have already collected, there are a number of things that stand out. Social information, for example, seems to be retained more easily. Van Duijn: ‘In one story there is a bit about people who already have all kinds of complex relations with one another; it's like a bit of gossip. Although it's a very complex story, people seem to remember it. Better than a description of what a person look like, for example, or a description of a particular route.’

Volunteer Petra tells a story using gestures and signs.

But there could easily be a completely different reason why an element is remembered. The stories are all set at Lowlands, or they relate to a festival; a talented young writer of fiction, Fenna Riethof, wrote them specially for the experiments. In one of her stories she writes that, if you look really hard, you can see a commune of nudists on the other side of the water. ‘She made this story up,' says Van Duijn laughing, 'but there really is a sauna on the other side of the lake, and there really are people walking around naked! People will probably remember this particular element because it's a bit juicy and it's also got a grain of truth in it.' 

Going backstage

Lowlands Science is open for visitors until eight in the evening. And then? 'Then we'll be off to the concerts and partying,' says Verhoef. 'I'm keen to see The National. We're going to have some fun while we're here.' The previous evening the two festival-goers tried out how far they could get with their backstage passes. 'We were able to get into everything. We might try it again tonight,' says Van Duijn. ‘But this time we'll try the bigger concerts!' 

Top photo: Researchers Max van Duijn and Tessa Verhoef for Lowlands Science
Text: Marieke Epping & Merijn van Nuland
Images: Marieke Epping
Audio: Merijn van Nuland
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