Dreamachine Schools is a major programme developed by A New Direction in partnership with the British Science Association, UNICEF UK and We The Curious, commissioned as part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK - a once-in-a-lifetime celebration of creativity taking place across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and online from March to October 2022.

Fusing science with arts, the themes of Dreamachine offer compelling classroom investigation: the power of the human mind, our amazing brains and the big questions of perception and consciousness - our sense of self, how we see the world and how we connect with others.  

We spoke to Professor Fiona Macpherson FRSE, MAE, Director of the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience, and Professor Anil Seth, a world-leading neuroscientist and Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, who are working together on the scientific and research elements of the programme, about how the way we perceive the world makes us unique, and also brings us together.

The Dreamachine Schools programme includes lessons in Science, Citizenship and Health and Wellbeing. How can learning about how our brains and minds work support children’s development?

An important part of children’s development is social. We want children to appreciate that their own point of view is one among many. It is important to understand how varied others’ beliefs and opinions, likes and dislikes, and views on the world can be. Often, understanding why we are all unique and special leads to tolerance and respect. Understanding how brains and minds work and why they are different is part of this insight. So too is understanding that when we draw on each of our different strengths and talents we all benefit. At the same as recognising these differences, we should be aware that what makes us all similar is vitally important too.

A key element in the Dreamachine Schools programme is wellbeing - both to support children in the classroom and that of teachers - who both continue to weather the impact of the pandemic. How can understanding more about how we process and perceive the world around us help our wellbeing? 

Understanding how we perceive the world around us allows us to understand ourselves and each other better. We can appreciate that how things seem to us can be affected by a variety of factors: our age, experience, our particular bodies, our beliefs, mood, and stress levels. And when we understand that each of us is different and unique, we can start to appreciate that our experiences of the world might be quite different. The more we understand our differences - sometimes brought about through external circumstances, sometimes by our own inner diversity - we can be tolerant of them.

Moreover, a deeper understanding of how perception works can also contribute to wellbeing, by fostering a recognition that how things ‘seem’ is not necessarily how things ‘are’. A popular view in science and philosophy is that our perceptions of the world - and of our own selves - are not a direct window onto external reality, but are always a brain-based act of interpretation - always a creative act. This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’ - but it does open up a little space between our experience in the moment, and the conclusions we may draw from this about how our lives will be in the future.

Dreamachine’s Life’s Big Questions is an opportunity for children and schools to learn more about the senses this summer term. What sort of questions and topics will be explored in the survey?

We will be exploring a variety of questions about how we perceive the world, how our experiences differ from one another, and we will question whether the world is always as it appears to be. We will be looking at a variety of visual illusions - which will allow children to experience directly the power of their own minds. By looking at colour illusions, we will explore whether colours really exist out in the world, or whether they only exist in our own minds, or even whether there are any at all! We will also experience illusions of sound.

We will examine our sense of time passing - why it seems to fly by when we are having fun, but drag on when we are doing something unpleasant. Finally, we will look at the unique nature of each human being and their perception that gives us different talents.

What can we learn about ourselves from experiencing illusions such as those in the schools programme?

Our senses have evolved to allow us to perceive a huge variety of things: colours, shapes, sounds, textures, tastes, smells, heat, location, direction, to name a few. And they allow us to do so in very different conditions, such as bright sunlight, at dusk, in the air, and even underwater. And so what we experience through our senses usually corresponds quite well to what’s actually out there. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes our senses can be ‘tricked’ by unusual situations. It is fascinating to observe our senses get things wrong, and to continue to do so even when we know the nature of the illusion. This reminds us that things are not always as they at first seem and that we can all be subject to bias – often bias that is much beyond our control, and sometimes bias that is actually useful!

A key idea at the centre of Dreamachine is exploring our internal diversity. Can you tell me what is meant by internal diversity and why it’s important that we understand it better?

We are used to the idea that people differ on the outside. But there is as much, if not more, diversity among people’s minds - their inner diversity. We are very familiar with some forms of inner diversity. People have different personalities. Some people are kind and helpful, some are funny, some are studious. Some people are good at maths, others at geography. But beyond the familiar, researchers are starting to uncover a whole host of other inner differences - differences in our minds and brains that depend on the kind of body we have, our past experience, our expertise, and other factors. By appreciating the nature and range of the inner diversity that exists among us, we will be better able to understand our fellow humans, communicate better, and hopefully reach a common comprehension of some of the issues that initially divide us.

Dreamachine is also leading one of the largest scientific surveys into Perception - the Perception Census, exploring people's understanding of the world around us. What is perception and what factors affect people’s perception?

Perception is the way we have of finding out about the world by means of the senses. Our senses include vision, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling, and many more besides, such as our sense of balance, and of temperature. When we perceive the world it is not just our sense organs that are working. Our brain is working very hard too to understand what is going on in the world, by interpreting the information that arrives from the senses.

We are each born with different bodies and different brains, and we each encounter different parts of the world at different times. This diversity can lead to many ways in which people’s perception can differ. Some people are more likely to process the detail and structure of things, while others are more likely to focus on the whole overall picture.

As we age, our bodies and brains change too. People often develop the need to wear glasses to read, and they likely won’t be able to hear high pitched noises that they could hear when they were younger. These are just a few examples of the sorts of factors that explain people’s perception. We hope to uncover these and others, and investigate their prevalence and relationships between them in the Perception Census, which launches to the public in June 2022.