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Step inside the age of ideas

May 9, 2013
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It starts with a bit of chaos. Makeup artists slap thick pale, foundation onto women’s faces as the stylists produce a cloud of hair spray. Everybody is wriggled out of their ordinary jeans and t-shirts and into finery; long ball gowns or tight fitting suit jackets.

This is how The Salon Project begins. It’s an immersive theatre piece that has formed part of the Wonder Season at the Barbican this month. It’s intended to re-enact the salons of Paris at the turn of the 20th century, where people gathered to hear influential speakers, share ideas and rub shoulders with the intellectuals of the time. To create this open environment and sense of drama, the audience doesn’t sit in chairs, but are dressed up in period costumes and encouraged to interact and discuss throughout the night.

Inside, the Salon is a perfect white room, on which to paint your own imaginings. In the corner of the room is a pianist playing period music on a grand piano. A gramophone DJ creates a landscape of ambient noise. Two actors strike up the first debate on animals, and how we should treat them.

A grandfather clock chimes and the audience is told to close their eyes. The atmosphere is as if everyone is saying a silent prayer, and when we open them the room is full of nude models engrossed in smartphones, laptops and other bits of technology. It’s a bizarre and surreal experience and the audience is offered no explanation.

“Who is the real you out of costume?,” asks one of the actors. The Salon is a breathing space. To free your mind and explore the ideas you push aside in daily life.

The Salon is, after all, about more than pretty faces. John Bowers, Professorial Research Fellow at the Interaction Research Studio, Goldsmiths University of London spoke about the future from the perspective of the 19th century. The lie detector, colour photography, teabags, ecstasy and translucent concrete all fall within a long list of inventions in the past 100 years. He said new inventions don’t just invent an object; they reinvent us by fulfilling a need or want we didn’t know we had. “Let us play about with history and invention and our imagined fundamentals of desire,” he says when contemplating the future.

Enter the neuroscientist. Dr Molly Crockett, resplendent in period costume regales the audience gathered about the piano on the science of moral enhancement. Could manipulating levels of chemicals in the brain have an impact on moral decision making? Putting it to the audience, she explains a number of classic quandaries in moral decision making. Do you walk past the drowning child in the lake? Do you flip the switch so the out of control train kills one instead of five? And if so, would you instead push a portly bystander onto the track if it meant saving lives of five others? Crockett explains how she uses these very moral quandaries to gauge subjects in the laboratory, and that the answers can be swayed depending on whether they have been given a drug to boost a certain brain chemical. Incidentally, the bystander is safe. Those who took the pill were less likely to let the portly man come to any harm.

So it would seem that one little chemical, serotonin, has the potential to influence our judgement in moral situations. The same is true of balance and fairness, where lowering the level of serotonin made people less likely to accept relatively fair offers.

“We care deeply about fairness,” she says, “and we care so much about it that we would rather have nothing than see an unfair proposer take the lion’s share”.

If our brain chemistry is variable, might that also mean that our mindset has a degree of flexibility and the views we may hold today could be subject to change? Dr Crockett stresses the importance of understanding that perhaps the views of other people may not always be that way, nor will ours.

“We can’t yet turn sinners into saints,” she explains, “but I’m optimistic that the more research we do into this area, the better we’ll understand what makes us decide what’s right and wrong and what actually makes us better to do right”.

And then with the sound of the clock, the illusion ends. We are ushered back to the dressing rooms, return our hairpieces and jewelry, suits and ball-gowns, and are sent back into the present.

Theresa Taylor and Ryan O’Hare

Theresa and Ryan are interns at the Wellcome Trust.

The Salon Project was part of the Wonder Season, supported by the Wellcome Trust. Read more about the Wonder season on our sister blog ThInk.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 13, 2013 5:59 pm

    If its down to brain chemistry its not morality, is it?

    Either you’ve got free will or neurochemical determinism.

    Without free will there is no choice, therefore no morality.

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