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Environment & Science

Study: New York anthropologist tracks people's inner monologues

Still from a video of anthropologist Andrew Irving's
Still from a video of anthropologist Andrew Irving's "New York Stories" study, which tracks people's inner monologues.
Andrew Irving

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Despite all of our mass communication technologies – from smart phones to emails to smiley face emoticons — It can still be pretty hard to tell what other people are thinking. However, a new study by anthropologist Andrew Irving, attempts to bridge that gap and "gain a better understanding of the interior dialogues and imaginative lifeworlds that constitute people’s experiences of urban life."

Irving asked more than 100 New Yorkers to wear headsets and record their thoughts as they went about their day. Participants went about their daily lives while speaking their innermost thoughts aloud as they walked through the city. 

Though the study does not claim to be a comprehensive approach to understanding a person's thought process, it does offer a glimpse into human thought patterns. Some of the examples Irving shares include a woman who's  thoughts dart from trivial to tragic to a man engaging in an inner argument with himself.

Irving joins Take  Two to explain the study and offer insight into what he learned about how we think. 

Meredith in Soho:

Thomas: Manhattan Bridge


Interview Highlights:

On the human thought process:
"We start off on one trajectory of thought, and because we're not having to make it sensible in a public way, we flit from here to there. We're not in control of our own thoughts. We like to think we are, but we're not."

On how environments affect thoughts:
"Different places produce different kinds of thoughts. If you're walking down a busy street, the rhythm of your consciousness is very different. A police siren goes by, you see somebody who reminds you of your childhood friend and suddenly you start thinking about your childhood, and then you bump into somebody, and then you see an advertisement, etc... That's a very different kind of rhythm than if you're sitting a cafe, meditating, watching the world go by in a different way."

On what his study tells us about how we perceive:
"It kind of reminds us that one level, we're all film directors, because we're all continually making a movie in our heads... we use all those same techniques of filmmaking, such as long-shot, close-ups, cutting away, editing or creating a montage by turning our head left or looking right, as well as providing a voice-over commentary. What that commentary is actually about we really don't know, we just know that it's there. 

What his goal for the project is:
"A lot of thought is non-linguistic in basis. What I'm asking people to do is translate something of their lived experience, which exists across all sensory modalities."

On the reality of the experiment:
"This project is doomed to fail. There is no way you can look inside people's heads, but what we do gain is a glimpse into people's inner life worlds."