Why Do We Listen to Dummies?

New Scientist
Stories from New Scientist.
June 15 2014 8:00 AM

Why Do We Listen to Dummies?

Ventriloquism isn’t an auditory illusion. It’s social.

Edgar Bergen.
Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with Mortimer Snerd from the Chase and Sanborn Hour.

Photo by Ernest Bachrach/NBC Hollywood/Wikimedia Commons

Your brain's system for directing attention is what makes you think a puppet has a mind of its own, Michael Graziano told me. He is a neuroscientist at Princeton and author of Consciousness and the Social Brain. He is also a novelist and composer and writes children's books under the pen name B. B. Wurge.

How did you get into ventriloquism?
It wasn't to make some scientific point. I actually started because my son wanted his toy animals to talk. He demanded it frequently, so after a number of years of intense practice, I got better at it.

Tell us about your puppet.
He's called Kevin and he is a talkative, impish orangutan. Interestingly, the things he thinks of I can't think of unless my hand is in there. Obviously, in my brain, I have generated a model of a personality that gets projected onto Kevin.

Advertisement

He comes up with all kinds of outrageous comments. For instance, I once introduced him as a cute fuzzy orangutan, and then he blurted out that he's Darth Vader—in that voice.

What point do you want to make with Kevin?
When we attribute mental states to other people, it's not just about intellectually figuring out what someone else might be thinking. That's part of it, but there is a gut intuition part too. That's the point I'm trying to make. With a ventriloquist's puppet, you know intellectually that there is no awareness, but you can't help experiencing the illusion. The social attribution is automatic.

Do your audiences get the point?
They get it, because the ventriloquism illusion is so potent. Many people think it is a visual-auditory illusion—your voice sounds as if it's coming from the puppet's lips. But the real illusion is social.

What do you mean by a social illusion?
When I speak through a microphone on stage, the sound is coming from speakers elsewhere. It looks as if it's coming out of my mouth, because it's time-locked to my lips. It's a visual-auditory illusion but nobody gets excited about that. When the puppet starts talking, it's the same thing. So, it's not the visual-auditory illusion that makes ventriloquism exciting, but the social illusion, the feeling that there is another mind in that body.

The brain also builds models. To control the body, the brain has a body schema—a model of how the body is moving through space. So, similarly, to control its own attention properly, the brain ought to have a model to monitor and make predictions about the consequences of paying attention. This model is what I call awareness.

Once that is in place, the next evolutionary development is to use the same brain machinery to model other people's attention. That's where we get into attributing awareness to others.

And that's where Kevin comes in?
Exactly.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

Anil Ananthaswamy is the author of The Edge of Physics.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

Walmart Is Crushing the Rest of Corporate America in Adopting Solar Power

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.