COLL-S 103 Illusions in Culture introduces students to the folklorist perspective of Lux et Veritas | Light and Truth through discussions and lectures on cultural representations of veridical ("true") perceptions and illusory perceptions.
The course is offered as part of the 2023-2024 Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Experience (ASURE) program.
An interview with Dr. K. Brandon Barker, Assistant Professor in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, is below.
How does your course fit the theme of this fall’s Themester: Light and Truth?
Dr. Barker: I'm a folklorist with interest in cognitive science, and this course blends together folklore and really some scientific and philosophical pursuits of understanding the human mind. One of the things that I find so interesting about humans is that we deal in truths.
Now, it doesn't mean that every human on the planet sets out each morning to try and discover scientific truth in the context of a very specific, scientifically motivated question, but it does mean that we need to be rational beings that interact with our world in ways that are consistent enough that we can remain safe, that we can feed ourselves, that we can procreate, etcetera. And when these things happen . . . it seems that humans are both dealing with what we might call veridical, or “true”, perceptions and illusory perceptions.
We all experience this comprehensive set of perceptions of the world that are at times veridical, and are at times rarer, but at times, illusory. So as a folklorist who's interested in cognitive science, I want to know: how is it that our species manages to deal with both of those kinds of perceptions? What this course . . . looks at is the roles that illusory perceptions play in the human experience, and specifically, the roles that illusory perceptions play in the human experience of expressive behavior.
I wrote a whole book on children's play with perceptual illusions [Folk Illusions:
Children, Folklore, and Sciences of Perception], and there are obvious ones that you'll recognize immediately. I’ll use this one: the old rubber pencil trick. I remember the first time that I was doing field work . . . at a middle school in Broussard, Louisiana. And the class that day was going to be about the solar system. So here we have these beautiful models of our planets of this solar system hanging above the students' heads . . . but what they wanted to do was perform a rubber pencil trick for each other sort of impromptu, and you can tell they're mesmerized by it. And the rigid pencil does look rubber when we wobble it this way between our fingers, but it's clear that they know this pencil isn't turning to rubber, and then turning back into something rigid. As a matter of fact, it is an optical illusion.
In the context of Light and Truth, there's some pretty low hanging examples of the way that my class can act. One is, it is absolutely an investigation of truth in the way that humans deal with perceived truth [or] perceived reality in cultural context, expressive context, and artistic context. And light actually features in a whole lot of the visual illusions that we play with in the class. So that's the obvious way to answer that question, but the deeper answer is that if we want to deal with “Light and Truth,” if we want to be a humanist who is thinking disciplinarily with the sciences, we must understand it biologically. As far as I understand it, our species is the only species who experiences veridical perceptions and illusory perceptions, marks them cognitively as real and not real, then takes them out real as an opportunity for play or for creating beauty.
How do you feel that this fall's theme fits into what's going on in the world right now?
Dr. Barker: Folklorists are interested in . . . lay perspectives on important intersections of cultural interests, political interest, scientific and technological interest. And one of the things that we want to know is, how do people out in the world recognize what is or is not true?
Think of something like “fake news”, or something like fake profiles on the internet, or even recent iterations of the ChatGPT phenomenon. Those are issues that only our species faces in this robust way that truth becomes, not just a matter of deciding what's out there in the world, but a matter of cultural choice.
What people pick as their truths are often blended with cultural motivations. What you may look up at the sky and think is that the sun is at the center of the solar system. Or you as a human, may look up at the sky and associate that with some other hierarchical phenomenon, let's say an association of the sun with a deity. And you may think in supernatural terms, whereas now we think of the solar system is a very natural set of dynamics.
In folklore, whatever truth is, whenever it comes to humans understanding, knowing, and behaving in what they perceive to be true, they're always going to be intermingled with cultural values.
Is there a project or assignment in the course that you are looking forward to?
Dr. Barker: There is an old phenomenon that's called dowsing. As you're walking along over a suspected burial place, or over suspected . . . underground water, two [handheld] copper rods will actually cross in [the user’s] hands. There's . . . very little to zero scientific evidence that this works. However, if you go out into the world, you find people, really smart people . . . who go out and practice dowsing.
I take the students to Rose Hill Cemetery in Bloomington for two reasons. The first one is so that they can practice dowsing, even after explaining to them there's very little scientific evidence that this is real. But I will report to you an empirical truth is, if you go out in the world and talk to farmers, they will tell you “Yes, I found water by doing this. There's the pumphouse, we found that 50 years ago by dousing it, and it's been giving us water for 50 years.” So how do you say that it doesn't work for someone like that?
What you find when you actually go out and do it . . . is so peculiar. It's so strange or peculiar, but the rods do cross. And it does feel as though they're crossing of their own accord. Now, what actually is going on there is probably a complex set of psychological mechanisms, environmental mechanisms, something to do with the way we're holding the rods; I get all that. But the experience in its totality is really kind of, I think, enriching. So, the students can see, “Oh, this is how easy it would be to accept a truth that maybe isn't supported by scientific understanding of reality.” . . . The purpose of teaching them about dowsing, the unreality, is to teach them about what it is to be human.
[The second reason is to] look at these beautiful tree stump headstones in Rose Hill. So these are headstones, grave markers, carved from limestone made to look in hyperrealist fashion exactly like a tree stump. It's a heart-wrenching metaphor: there's life is lived and then it's cut off. And I mean, it's a beautiful kind of symbol. But some of those tree stump headstones are so good, the artisanship is so good, and there's a patina on the headstone because they’re old, so the students will report when they first look at it, it actually does look like a real tree stump. So then we ask ourselves, when does a facade of something that's made to look like something else become an actual illusion?
What types of students would you encourage to take the course?
Dr. Barker: In one morning session, I may be teaching you about a childish prank, or about a children's folkloric activity . . . but at the same time, in the very next hour, or two hours or three hours, you're really facing some complex scientific models. And we're going to try to map those models onto the folkloric experiences and performances that we're talking about.
The class clearly lends itself to students in the College of Arts and Sciences, but especially students in the College of Arts and Sciences who are interested in the idea of a liberal arts education, who are invested in interdisciplinarity [studies]. Any student who's interested in the species, from a biological standpoint, or cultural, humanistic standpoint, would be interested in this class.
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