DAVID GREENE, HOST:
One way David Byrne became known was as lead singer of the influential '80s group the Talking Heads.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE")
TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Watch out, you might get what you're after. Cool babies...
GREENE: Good stuff. Now, David Byrne also has long been interested in how the decisions we make are affected by our inherent biases. And so he has created an immersive theatrical installation in Menlo Park, Calif. which confronts us with our biases. It is called "The Institute Presents: NEUROSOCIETY." Rachael Myrow of member station KQED went to check it out.
RACHAEL MYROW, BYLINE: One of the rooms is entirely white - floors, ceilings, everything it looks like a scene out of the 1960s era sci-fi movie "Barbarella." Along with eight other people in my tour group, I sit down in a white leather lounge chair and put on a virtual reality headset showing us real time camera footage from the point of view of a doll. We see what the doll sees. An assistant in a lab coat taps the doll's leg and machines by our chairs tap our legs. Anybody who's seen a horror movie knows it's easy to get us to adopt somebody else's perspective as our own given the right prompts.
Our brains are hardwired this way. That's what David Byrne wants us to see, the way our physical reflexes can be manipulated and our decision making, too. Byrne visited labs around the world to hear about the latest developments in cognitive neuroscience. There's overwhelming evidence that decisions you think you're making because it's the right thing to do are actually based on personal affinity, based on things like race, nationality, gender, age and, of course, family.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Follow me right this way, right through this curtain here.
MYROW: In this room, set up like a TV set for a game show, we watch a clip from the movie "Eye In The Sky." Helen Mirren, playing a steely military commander, orders a drone pilot to strike a group of terrorists at the cost of killing someone innocent selling bread nearby.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EYE IN THE SKY")
HELEN MIRREN: (As Colonel Katherine Powell) You are cleared to engage, lieutenant.
MYROW: In the movie, the innocent is a little girl, but in this film clip, we only see her from above as a faceless figure in a hijab. The lab assistant asks us to make the decision for the drone pilot. I feel sorry for the bread seller, but the terrorists were plotting to kill a lot of people. And then the choice changes. Now there's a picture up of a child selling lemonade in Palo Alto less than three miles from here. We are told to imagine this is our pint-sized cousin.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EYE IN THE SKY")
MIRREN: (As Colonel Katherine Powell) Lieutenant, you are cleared to engage.
MYROW: I can't do it. I can't kill my cousin, and neither can most of my compatriots on the tour. Forget the terrorists.
DAVID BYRNE: We just ramp it up and see where people kind of start to hesitate. In many cases they completely changed what they were going to do.
MYROW: That's David Byrne talking while the sets for the installation were under construction. He's designed each experience in "NEUROSOCIETY" to make you aware of your implicit biases.
BYRNE: It really does change how you think about things, how you think about what we are and how we react and how we make decisions and how we are in the world. And it - even if it happens just a tiny bit, that's pretty great.
MYROW: Afterwards in the lobby, Joey Kellison-Linn admits he's a little rattled. He's a senior at Palo Alto High School.
JOEY KELLISON-LINN: This sort of made me feel like it would be pretty easy for someone to deliberately trick my brain and manipulate it if they wanted to.
MYROW: Linn's hit it on the head, so to speak. Him, me, all of us, we can be deliberately tricked not because we want to be, not because we're bad people or stupid, but without being aware of our biases they're ruling us, not the other way around. For NPR News, I'm Rachael Myrow in Menlo Park.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS', "A DISTANT VIEW")