On Monday, Scientific American published a fascinating set of videos from an anthropologist named Andrew Irving, a researcher who spent part of 2011 documenting 100 random New Yorkers’ inner monologues. Irving, a professor at the University of Manchester, stood on street corners and asked pedestrians to put on headsets and narrate their streams of consciousness out loud. What the videos demonstrate is at once awkward and intimate–a woman breaking down over a friend’s cancer diagnosis, a man wondering about the virtue of having kids–and collectively reveal a deeper vein of thought traffic rarely witnessed on our stoic, “I am master of the sidewalk” faces.
Irving told the Voice that this particular project arose out of work he had done in Uganda, trying to understand the thoughts of those who had been diagnosed with HIV. Irving used to capture what he called “performative ethnographies” in the ’90s, in which he’d ask sick people to walk around their neighborhoods and speak their minds aloud.
“It’s a very simple thing really–writers have striven to try and understand streams of consciousness that mediate every day existence. And yet scientists have done a very bad job of doing that, because they tend to be laboratory based,” Irving said.
While Irving encountered a mix of idiosyncratic thinking and spiritual musings on New York City streets, he also noticed there were repeated themes. “Economic instability was one theme that kept coming back. People would worry about their jobs, their children,” he told the Voice. “There’s also the ‘age of terror,’ coined by your previous president. So people would think about the absence of the World Trade Center when walking across the bridge.”
Another significant part of Irving’s findings was how much changes in physical surroundings affected pedestrians’ modes of thinking. “By walking down a busy street, consciousness is moving in a particular way. If you’re sitting in a square or café, you’re not moving in the same way,” Irving said. “And if you’re walking across the bridge–you’d be a very strange person if you’ve never thought about jumping.”
Ultimately, Irving said, this implies that we’re not necessarily in control of our own thoughts.
Currently Irving is back in Manchester, but he’s developing a project with an app designer and electro-acoustic composer to create soundspaces that contain these monologues for different cities. Ideally, Irving says, app-users would be able to download the composition and, as they’re walking, listen to different voices from other people’s heads. “Your body becomes the live-mixing, live-editing thing. People can get closer to dialogues in real time,” he said.
In the meantime, though, check out Irving’s work over at SciAm, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and Wenner Gren Foundation.