Glastonbury: Human Incompetence
July 11, 2013 by Zoe
Neuroscientist Ed Bracey recounts a twisted weekend of experiments at Glastonbury in this guest post.
Some scientists are up for giving a lecture in a sunny field. But only Guerilla Science has the gumption to build a maze in the middle of the Hell zone in Glastonbury’s Shangri La field and fill it with rat scientists. As it turns out, they have much to say on the matter of human supposed superiority…
After years of careful selective breeding and meticulous gene splicing, the Guerilla Science lab technicians have created a race of giant, sentient super rats. Bred from four strains of rat commonly used in laboratories across the world – Wistar, Lewis, Lister and Zucker – they stand a little taller than the average person and look uncannily like a human wearing a convincing prosthetic rat head. On achieving self-awareness, our rats were intrigued by their human creators and wanted to determine the differences between our species. As their newly evolved cognitive powers are similar to ours, they suspected that the differences lay largely in the fine-tuning of our senses. These they set out to test, in order to decide our fate, at Glastonbury Festival. They established a small laboratory in Shangri-La, nestled next to the main stage of hell. What follows is their somewhat damning report on humanity.
Lewis, Lister, Wistar and Zucker (2013). Investigative Journal of Human Incompetence. Vol (101). Page 666-610.
Despite their deep-seated feelings of superiority, human beings are thought to be inferior to our new species in many ways, especially with respect to their sensory systems. For example, humans are known to have far fewer olfactory receptors (the proteins in the nose that allow odours to be detected) than rats and a proportionally miniscule part of there are brains devoted to olfactory processing. Thus they are thought to have a severely impaired sense of smell. While rats are red-green colourblind and have blurred vision, we can see further into the ultraviolet spectrum than humans.
Furthermore, our whiskers more than make up for our inability to focus on nearby objects; they allow us to discriminate exquisitely fine detail, and are far more sensitive than a human fingertip. The human auditory range is also far narrower than rats – they can hear sound frequencies that range from 20 – 20,000Hz compared to our range of 200 – 90,000Hz.
Thus, humans must perceive the world in a drab, severely limited and strange way that we may never fully comprehend. We thus set out to investigate the limits of sensory perception of these poor creatures that created us.
Materials and Methods
Subjects were easy to find as vast numbers of the pleasure-seeking zombie denizens of Shangri La’s hell crushed their way into our facility, begging and wailing to be experimented on. Humans were housed in groups of five or six in standard laboratory cages, slightly larger than those used for normal laboratory rats. Subjects were sniffed, sexed and weighed, and their self-declared levels of intoxication were recorded.
To push them to the limits of their senses, we used tasks normally employed by human neuroscientists to investigate the neural processes that underlie sensory perception in rodents. Behavioural tasks had to be specially adapted and simplified as we found that prior to testing, humans would inexplicably expose themselves voluntarily to destructive amplitudes of rhythmic noise, severe narcotic intoxication and crippling levels of sleep deprivation (data not shown).
Subjects were first asked to verbally identify commonly available odours that they were expected to be familiar with, such as lemon or almond.
Next, to compare the sensitivity of their creepy fur-free skin to our highly tuned whiskers, their hideous hides were tested at various places with a simple two point discrimination task. They were then probed with a task normally used to determine how differently rats perceive various odours. Briefly, they were presented with a sample stimulus comprising an odour or fabric texture and then had to make their way through a maze with multiple corridors, choosing the correct exit passage by matching the sample stimulus to the odours and textures planted at each entrance.
These and many other such behavioural tasks have allowed neuroscientists to probe the limits of rodent sensory abilities showing, for example, that both detection thresholds and the perception of differences in concentration for some odours are several fold better in rats than in humans. They have also been used to identify how quickly certain brain areas process information. Once the limits of sensory systems are known, scientists can manipulate different neurons in the brain in a range of ingenious ways, such as activating them with light pulses, to determine how changing the activity of certain neurons alters sensory perception. This allows scientists to understand how the firing of different neurons contributes to the circuits that make up the brain.
At certain points throughout testing, subjects were also asked to exercise, sleep or were subjected to sensory enrichment, all of which are thought to enhance memory and sensory acuity in both humans and rodents.
Despite probing them with very simple tasks, and attempting to improve their sensory abilities with enrichment and exercise, human subjects were often unable to identify or locate even simple odours. While they fared slightly better in tests of tactile stimuli (touch), they were still greatly enfeebled compared to rodents performing whisker sensitivity tests. Those subjects that reported high intake of various hedonistic substances typically performed worse still on all tests.
Many humans arrogantly protest that they deserve pride of place at the top of the food chain.
However, most of our subjects were embarrassed by how poorly they performed on tasks that rats would find trivial. Combined with their destructive tendencies, predilection for mind-altering substances and pathological imbalance with their natural environment, these authors suggest that humans immediately relinquish their grubby grasp on the planet to rats. In their new capacity as underlings, humans may yet prove useful to us despite their impoverished sensory abilities; their brains and general physiological make-up are remarkably similar to our own in many ways, making them ideal test subjects for understanding more about ourselves in both health and disease.
This project was generously sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.