This way lies madness

Playing Hellblade for New Scientist, 29 August 2017

You are Senua, a Pictish outcast whose lover has been sacrificed to the gods by homicidal Norse invaders. To release his spirit, you must enter Hel, their underworld.

But is this all real?

Three years ago, Paul Fletcher, a psychiatrist at the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in Cambridge, UK, took a call from games company Ninja Theory. The firm wanted help creating a character who suffered from severe psychosis.

“My defences were up,” Fletcher admits, “but quickly I realised I was in serious company. We started by discussing the kinds of hallucinations people experience, and within two or three sessions we were into the neuroscience.”

Senua’s world blurs as she moves. The walls crawl as she passes. When she looks in her mirror, the wrong voice comes screaming out of her reflected mouth. “But more interesting,” recalls Ninja Theory’s co-founder Tameem Antoniades, “was the way someone in psychosis will make sense of their world by making associations: ones that outsiders might find very strange.”

Players will enjoy the way that runic images and the features of Senua’s landscape conjoin in perspectival games that further or frustrate her progress. And there are incidental delights: at one point, the embers of a distant fire pulse to the rhythm of Senua’s breathing.

Hellblade is more than a journey through a hallucinatory landscape (and hallucinatory it is, passing from flaming killing fields through sun-kissed meadows to a corridor of withered arms). It’s about a rational hero desperately trying to make sense of her world. “Most of us are pretty bad at that,” Fletcher points out.

He’s referring to a paper he co-wrote a couple of years ago, showing that people in the very early stages of psychosis are actually better at interpreting ambiguous visual information (think spotting the Dalmatian illusion, in which you see a dog image from the dots) than the rest of us. “Someone — I’ve never been able to find out who — said that perception is controlled hallucination. This is true. You bring what you know to bear on what you sense. That is how we recognise things.”

Not all people who experience hallucinations consider them a problem. Some who hear voices, for example, have joined networks dedicated to removing the social stigma attached to the phenomenon. “A lot of people suffer not because of the content of their hallucination, but because of being ostracised,” Fletcher says.

At the same time, games are becoming increasingly immersive. Hellblade’s binaural soundtrack, placing Senua’s intrusive voices in distinct locales for the player, is a case in point. Fletcher’s hope is that psychiatrists and designers can work together to create immersive environments tailored to the needs of specific individuals.

Avatar therapy“, which uses a screen-based, computer-generated figure to represent, normalise and quell an aggressive intrusive voice, is already proving its clinical worth.

For Antoniades, meanwhile, “video games are becoming alternate digital realities”. Hellblade’s 8 hours of gameplay are a gruelling experience, made compelling by a staggering motion-capture performance by Melina Juergens, a freelance video editor who was initially just filling in for a “real” actress.

Certain players will find the game rather restrictive, and some of those limits are imposed by the psychological realism. Senua’s demons are consistent, staying more or less the same. Psychosis is not a variety show

It’s worth noting, though, that the game’s most traditional element is also its most radical: while Senua may be in the throes of psychosis, she is also a hero.

Gardening in space: Sow the cosmological seeds and scatter

gardening

for New Scientist, 3 January 2016.

 

VISITORS to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010 got to meet time, face-to-face. For her show The Artist is Present, Marina Abramovic sat, motionless, for 7.5 hours at a stretch while visitors wandered past her.

Unlike all the other art on show, she hadn’t “dropped out” of time: this was no cold, unbreathing sculpture. Neither was she time’s plaything, as she surely would have been had some task engaged her. Instead, Marc Wittmann, a psychologist based in Freiburg, Germany, reckons that Abramovic became time.

Wittmann’s book Felt Time explains how we experience time, posit it and remember it, all in the same moment. We access the future and the past through the 3-second chink that constitutes our experience of the present. Beyond this interval, metronome beats lose their rhythm and words fall apart in the ear.

“By removing the tedium of waiting, we have turned ourselves into sensation junkies“
As unhurried and efficient as an ophthalmologist arriving at a prescription by placing different lenses before the eye, Wittmann reveals, chapter by chapter, how our view through that 3-second chink is shaped by anxiety, age, boredom, appetite and feeling.

Unfortunately, his approach smacks of the textbook, and his attempt at a “new solution to the mind-body problem” is a mess. However, his literary allusions – from Thomas Mann’s study of habituation in The Magic Mountain to Sten Nadolny’s evocation of the present moment in The Discovery of Slowness – offer real insight. Indeed, they are an education in themselves for anyone with an Amazon “buy” button to hand.

As we read Felt Time, do we gain most by mulling Wittmann’s words, even if some allusions are unfamiliar? Or are we better off chasing down his references on the internet? Which is the more interesting option? Or rather: which is “less boring”?

Sandi Mann’s The Upside of Downtime is also about time, inasmuch as it is about boredom.

Once we delighted in devices that put all knowledge and culture into our pockets. But our means of obtaining stimulation have become so routine that they have themselves become a source of boredom. By removing the tedium of waiting, says psychologist Mann, we have turned ourselves into sensation junkies. It’s hard for us to pay attention to a task when more exciting stimuli are on offer, and being exposed to even subtle distractions can make us feel more bored.

Sadly, Mann’s book demonstrates the point all too well. It is a design horror: a mess of boxed-out paragraphs and bullet-pointed lists. Each is entertaining in itself, yet together they render Mann’s central argument less and less engaging, for exactly the reasons she has identified. Reading her is like watching a magician take a bullet to the head while “performing” Russian roulette.

In the end Mann can’t decide whether boredom is a good or bad thing, while Wittmann’s more organised approach gives him the confidence he needs to walk off a cliff as he tries to use the brain alone to account for consciousness. But despite the flaws, Wittmann is insightful and Mann is engaging, and, praise be, there’s always next time.

“I love what I do and I’m really good at it”

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No matter how far he runs, Matt Damon cannot escape the attentions of New Scientist

 

Towards the end of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, marooned NASA astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) says goodbye to the habitat that has kept him alive for more than 500 days. As he enters the airlock to leave, he pauses, turns – and there, on a table, is his space helmet. Sourly, he snatches it up: he has nearly gone and killed himself again.

Set about 30 years in the future, The Martian tells the story of how Watney survives at the very cusp of death, at which every trivial error, every moment of forgetfulness, will kill him in about 35 seconds. Jeopardy is the stuff of adventure movies. What makes all this different is its remarkable lack of interest in what jeopardy feels like “inside”, and its loving depiction of how people should deal with it.

Before he shot his last scene at the Korda Filmpark, outside Budapest in Hungary, CultureLab caught up with Damon, who was tasked with conveying what it would be like to survive for 18 months only on potatoes grown in your own faeces. He explained: “Ridley and I agreed The Martian is not one of those existential survival movies. Neither is it just a popcorn kind of whizz-bang, he’s-never-really-in-danger type of experience. The key is to have the audience feel the enormity without it seeming ponderous. And it has to be funny, because Watney and his colleagues are capable of doing really dangerous things and having a good sense of humour about them.”

No wonder NASA got behind the film: its tale of the administration’s daring, unsanctioned bid to rescue one of their own gives every department a hero. But where The Martian gets interesting is in its refusal to take heroism at face value. Watney survives because he is smart and knowledgeable, can get by without company and likes the sound of his own voice; and because coming up with a strong, snarky one-liner can make his whole day. He survives because, as he says in a message meant for his parents, “I love what I do and I’m really good at it.”

This distillation of NASA’s philosophy is endorsed by Ellen Ochoa, director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, who praised Weir’s book for encapsulating aspects of mission training. “It is a very realistic scenario of what we go through when we train crew members and flight controllers, who must quickly analyse a situation and prioritise tasks,” she said. She added that resilience is “probably the single most important characteristic to have as an explorer, and Watney proves to be extraordinarily resilient”.

The film’s whole approach favours accuracy over visual bombast. Less spectacular than Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), and a lot less silly than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), The Martian has exploited NASA’s enthusiasm well, conjuring up habitats, spacesuits, spacecraft and launch vehicles that carry its stamp of approval.

Is The Martian a nerd thriller? For sure: you can’t have Damon declaring he will “have to science the shit out of this” and not find yourself moving your biros to your shirt pocket. But it’s more than a love letter to science. It is an entertaining depiction of a way of behaving that keeps people alive in extreme circumstances: love your job; embrace the little you can do and do it; like it or not, death is always coming, so to hell with it. This, more than any amount of Mars-mission razz, is the real heart of The Martian, the source of its optimism, and a quality deserving of praise.

Dialling out

Bumper, Blackspot and Stateless. Three short films by the critical designer and futurist Tobias Revell, with cinematographer Joseph Popper.

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Silent, Mostly unpeopled. Still. Lighthouse, Brighton’s digital agency, commissioned these films for House 2014, the town’s annual visual arts festival, which runs until 25 May.

A woman hunts out a digital shadow from where, unmolested, she can dial up vital personal information.

A man hunkers down on Dungenness beach to access domestic French web-servers in an attempt to evade trading restrictions.

A journalist wipes his personal identity and assembles a new one in minutes, to evade the forces of state security.

This is what these films are about. What they actually do is different. What they give you. Calm, and silence, and – oddly – a sense of there being nothing to see.

Roll film again: a woman walks through an industrial estate, studying her smart phone. A man crouches inside a fisherman’s tent, his back to the camera. Another man sits down in a library, then leaves.

The events, the implications, the politics of states and borders, are clear enough, and are what gives these films their pompous portmanteau title – The Monopoly of Legitimate Use, indeed – and their utility for a festival centred around ideas of “migration, refuge and territory”.

But these events, these transactions and transgressions, aren’t really taking place in the physical world at all. They are taking place on-line; on and in and behind glass; at most, in the reflections of tears.

They are not cold films, but they do locate their human action in the digital elsewhere, leaving their actors largely inexpressive, their turmoils and triumphs implied through the plot. Told, not shown.

The result is strangely hopeful. Revell’s is world of borders and restrictions, by-laws and embargoes. But his people, through the cumulative effect of countless subtle transgressions, have already evaded it. They are not escaping, they have already escaped, to the Other Side.