A View from the Flip Side

Could you handle a world that looked upside down? Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of The Annals of Improbable Research, shares a case study in which the subject was made to wear vision-flipping goggles. Ten days later, the man was riding a bicycle and playing catch in the park—his only impairment the strange headgear itself.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Of course we'll be following any updates in the school shooting in Connecticut that has left dozens of people dead, including children and the gunman. Any updates that are necessary, we'll break in and let you know.

Imagine one day, just one day, where the world you saw was upside-down: water poured up; smoke drifted down; balloons acted more like lead weights. It might be enough to drive you crazy. Could you handle two days? Three? How about 10 days with your vision turned completely on its head?

Well, researchers actually tried this experiment on an unlucky subject, using a pair of vision-flipping goggles. Forget playing catch. Could he even walk straight? What about stairs? Marc Abrahams, editor and founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, is here to tell us how one man coped with a world turned upside-down.

If you want to talk about it, our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Welcome back, Marc.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Hi Ira.

FLATOW: Why would you do this? What was the point of this experiment?

ABRAHAMS: These are some experiments that were done about 1950. There were other people in other parts of the world doing similar things. People are wondering how it is that our minds, our brains, are able to make sense of so many different changing things thrown at them.

What they did was make a set of goggles, and these were big, ugly things you'd stick on your head and they had mirrors inside. When you looked through them, when you were wearing these goggles, the whole world was upside-down to you.

FLATOW: So immediately you thought if water is pouring down, it's going up, things like that?

ABRAHAMS: Yeah, you wouldn't have to think of it. What they did was put these - this was done at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, again about 1950. And a guy there volunteered to keep a pair of these things on himself for 10 days. So for those entire 10 days, his world was upside-down.

There are films of this, and when you watch these films, you not only see this lost world of 1950 Austria, which is a very different place, but you see what happened from the first moments. When he put it on, he had trouble walking. Even taking steps was difficult.

You see him trying to go down a simple set of stairs with somebody helping him, and it was very, very tough, you know. They show what it looked like from his point of view. Somebody pouring water was - the water was going the wrong way. Any simple things, like trying to shake hands. Somebody would extend a hand, and this guy would put his arm way the hell up, you know, the wrong place.

Over the next 10 days, you can see in this film how he adjusted to things. After a while, he was able to do things - I'll give you an example of how crazy it got. He was given a teacup and told to hold it while somebody poured some hot water in it. And as the water was pouring, he instantly reacted to it.

To him, the water was going the wrong way. So he turned his teacup upside-down, and of course it was a disaster. But after a few days, he could do anything, and by the end of 10 days, he was able to not only walk around, shake hands, whatever, he was able to get on a bicycle and just go down a major city street by himself on a bike, and everything was fine. To him, everything appeared normal.

FLATOW: Wow. So that must have even surprised the researchers, I imagine.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah, well the big thing is nobody really has any even guess about how the brain is able to do this. They did some similar experiments where they weren't turning somebody's world upside-down, they were - they had goggles that reversed right and left. So everything that was on your right is suddenly on your left.

And again, the first few days were just madness from the point of view of somebody doing this. The whole world is reversed. But after a few days, the brain adjusted to it.

FLATOW: Amazing. And so when they took the goggles of him and he had to go back to the normal life, how long did that take?

ABRAHAMS: Not so long. The experiments are written up in German, so I - which I don't speak, so I'm a little vague on some of those details. But they tried all sorts of different things, goggles that would change the color and do all sorts of things. And they found there were some things the brain was able to adjust to, you couldn't stop the brain from adjusting to it, and other things the brain was not able to adjust to.

FLATOW: Wow, fascinating stuff. Thank you, Marc, for taking time to talk to us about the goggles.

ABRAHAMS: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Have a happy holiday.

ABRAHAMS: You, too.

FLATOW: Marc Abrahams, editor and founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, about how one man coped with the world turned upside-down.

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