Gerbil urban planning in MIT’s Machine Architecture Group
Weird stuff I’ve done
I’ve done some weird stuff. In the early part of my career, I spent a lot of time thinking about animals and watching what they did. For reasons of historical accident, my species of choice for a lot of my early lab work was the Mongolian gerbil (1). As a young assistant professor, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching gerbils scamper about in different sizes and shapes of containers. In experimental psychology, there’s a long history of this kind of watching, which has yielded some pretty remarkable insight into how minds and brains work. In my case, I was mostly interested in how these little critters, unfortunate menu items for a number of different predators, avoided being gobbled up as soon as they walked the surface of the planet. To study this, I rigged up a contraption where my gerbils could wander around in a large barrel-shaped container and then, when the time was ripe, a cardboard hawk, suspended from a network of fishing line, swooped overhead. It sounds ridiculous, but it worked like crazy. The little creatures ran for their lives(2)! You’d be amazed at how much mileage I got out of this barrel-and-cardboard setup. It propelled several grant awards, a couple of tenure-stream appointments, and about a dozen papers and presentations, including one at a mysterious US military think-tank in the 1990s.
In some of my experiments, I would provide my gerbils with little shelters (diet-Coke cans with the ends cut off) and then I would plot in excruciating detail how they found their way to the can when the cardboard flew. Heady stuff, eh? Joking aside, I was astonished by their cleverness in solving such problems. They knew exactly how to reduce their exposure to threat by plotting a course that both got them to shelter quickly and gave the oncoming fake hawk a wide berth. Sometimes this involved artful, curving trajectories that would have made Isaac Newton beam (3). Sometimes, I’d include a control condition where there were no hiding places—just a big open barrel (or open-field as we call it in the biz), a gerbil, and a fake flying hawk. I became slightly obsessed with all of the ways that one could measure the movements of my subjects using overhead cameras, fancy tracking software that I wrote myself (4) and lots of patience. One of the things that I noticed immediately, even before bringing my fancy gear into play, was that when you stick an animal into an open field of this kind, it doesn’t just wander around randomly. Its movements are very highly structured. After only a few seconds in the barrel, gerbils developed a favourite spot and then afterwards, their movements were all structured around that spot. They made cautious forays into the rest of the field and then quick returns to mission control. I soon discovered that I was not the first person to notice this kind of behaviour and, as all things psychological must, it had a name: it was called home-base behaviour and the name was obviously fitting.
On one level, the scientific interest in home-base behaviour is technical. It has to do with a problem that all animals have to solve. How do we know where we are? Looking around takes us a part of the way but, ultimately, we have to walk the walk. We build an understanding of space by walking around in it. For example, think of what happens when you travel to a new city. Unless you’re the type of person who won’t move a millimeter without consulting the blue dot on your GPS, finding your way using your wits usually involves slow forays from a home base outward, and then somewhat faster returns. The forays become larger over time so that eventually you have a creditable map of your surroundings. It may not be perfect geometrically but it will get you to the nearby coffee shop, late-night boozer, or train station. All fair enough and, indeed, we’ve learned a fair bit about how we understand and navigate through space by thinking about home bases. But let’s just bracket that for now and jump through a disorienting spatial hyperloop in things Ellard. Ready?
Here comes the clang association
Long before I’d met my first gerbil or even taken a single course at university, I found myself sitting in a dentist’s office (5) reading a news magazine that had an article about emerging trends in world literature. The details are long-forgotten, but there was a short interview with an expatriate writer from India, who said something that I’ve never been able to forget (alas I wish the fellow’s name came to me as readily as the idea). He said that those who emigrate from their birth country lose something that they can never really get back: a genuine home. And that the yearning for home comes to define them and their work. I grew up in Toronto, but I was born in England and in my home environment I was very much steeped in British values and culture. At home, I even spoke with a proper English accent. But outside the home and with friends, I developed the broad Canadian vowels required to ensure the less urbane children in the schoolyard didn’t beat the stuffing out of me. Straddling two geographies and cultures, I never felt completely at home in either.
Now, as an itinerant academic who has lived in 23 different homes in three different countries since my early childhood in the United Kingdom, I’ve continued to resonate to this statement so strongly that I think it came to define me in certain ways as well. This was at a time in my life when it had never occurred to me that I would become a scientist. I wanted to write novels and was, tragically, under the influence of expatriate writers like Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce. I imagined myself sleeping on the floor in the legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Company, wandering the streets half-drunk with beauty and dragged the rest of the way by poverty, starvation, and cheap red wine. None of this happened. I went to university, had a brief dalliance with English literature but then settled into psychology, biology and philosophy. I fell in love with research and the rest, as they say, is history.
It hadn’t occurred to me until much more recently that there might have been a connection between my early rumination about home, homelessness, and migration and my much later obsession with the peccadilloes of laboratory gerbils. Was it possible that there was some connection? Those who know me well know that I don’t tend to be very woo-woo about life, but I do spend quite a lot of time trying to understand the deeper causes of my own behaviour and that of other people (it is an affliction of my trade and sometimes the bane of my childrens’ lives). Indeed, there was a time in my life when I worried about the fact that the research I’d been drawn to involved understanding how we run into little holes to hide. What if that was a metaphor for something greater?
What if part of my fascination with the behaviour of animals setting up home bases stemmed from my own feelings of rootlessness? The lesson of the animals was that no matter how neutral, formless and dull your current environment might be, you found a way to make a home in it. That home might be just an arbitrary locus on the spatial grid, but it was there. You couldn’t help it. Perhaps a root condition of life, no matter where you are and what your circumstances might be, is that you have somewhere to return to: somewhere you can call home. At this point, I could go all reductionist on you and weave a fatuous essentialist story of the biological imperative to home, but there are plenty of others doing that kind of thing at the moment so, though I do think there is probably a sniff of biology underlying some of this, I’m not going there.
I’m more interested in the idea that some of us may carry our homes on our backs like the shell of a tortoise. I’m not talking about lunking my possessions around on my back hobo-style but, more metaphorically, that as we go through life we project past experiences onto our current living conditions. For example, the house that I’m living in now has been my home for almost 11 years. This is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. One of the things that interests me the most about this home is that its layout, right down to some of the idiosyncratic features that have been added to a century home over the years, is remarkably similar to the house in England where I spent some of my first years of life. I’ve often told the story of how I came to find this house, so I won’t repeat the details here (6). Suffice to say that when I stumbled on this place at the end of a long and dispiriting adventure with a realtor who was convinced that what I needed was a cheap suburban backsplit, I almost dropped to my knees in the same way that I had when I first walked into St. Peter’s Basilica. And when my on-the-spot offer for the house was accepted, I wept. At the time, I had no idea why I was so viscerally attracted to this place. I hadn’t known about the resemblances. I just felt an instant proprietary jealousy about the house. It was mine from the moment I crossed the threshold. Indeed, it felt as though it had always been mine, just waiting for me to finally find it.
Though I’ve been more-or-less immobilized for the past couple of years by the pandemic, I’ve been chipping away at a passion project that involves a kind of pilgrimage to all of the places I’ve ever called home. When I began this adventure, I was going through a period of existential turmoil and I had a hunch that visiting old homes might be one way of sorting myself out. I’m not sure whether I’m sorted out yet (7), but I have had many opportunities to think about my own home-base behaviour. All of our behaviour, from the day-to-day trips to the larger voyages, involves exploration and return. We venture out in the world, usually with at least a smidgen of caution, and we return to the relief of home. The two types of movements feel different. Outward movement is arousing, exciting, anticipatory. Inward returns are soothing.
I believe that the narratives of our lives are organized in an explicitly spatial framework. All of our what’s, how’s and why’s hang on the skeleton of a big WHERE. But I think that this kind of life-structure also carries on at a metaphorical level. All we do can be characterized as outward foray followed by retreat to refuge. We wander into the unknown and then recalibrate by returning to home base. We learn that in our first home and then elaborate the pattern in endless, fractaliciously self-similar patterns as we proceed through life.
Choosing where we go
At the beginning of my scientific career, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how one chose problems. I read Peter Medawar’s famous book Advice for a Young Scientist and worried about his edict that choosing “dull or piffling problems yields dull or piffling answers.” Somehow, I decided that understanding how gerbils fled from predators was neither dull nor piffling and I threw myself into the work wholeheartedly. I remember an earnest conversation with a graduate student colleague where I argued that what mattered was rigorous application of method and what reinforced was being the first person to see an answer, any kind of answer, in the resultant data. So the nature of the problem didn’t matter nearly so much as a slavish monk-like devotion to the edifice of science. Looking back, I think that was a naïve perspective, to say the least. In some fields, it’s no easy thing to anticipate what will end up mattering over the arc of one’s career. When I made a sudden sharp turn in my scientific life and turned to the neuroscience of architecture and urban design at a time when there was nothing much happening in this domain, I had no idea that this would become a “hot” area of study. It wasn’t Medawarean prognostication that led to the choice. It might have been nothing more than an old magazine I found in a waiting room combined with the capricious choice that my parents made to jump on an airplane in 1965 with their four children in tow and begin a new life in a new country.
(1) The accident part was that my PhD advisor, who at the time did some work with animals, was allergic to rats. We wanted a mammal to play with. Gerbils worked. Somehow, I’ve never quite been able to live this down perhaps in part because I keep bringing it up myself. And here I go again….
(2) Lest you think that my gerbil antics were completely insane, you might be interested to know that no lesser a light than Nicholas Negroponte of the Architecture Machine Group at MIT played around with gerbils and architecture in the 1970s. There was an interesting demonstration of gerbil town planning set up at the Jewish Museum in New York which drew crowds until the gerbils mysteriously died. You can see video here. Rumour had it that they killed one another. Shades of JG Ballard.
(3) I’m becoming so nostalgic over these observations now that I’m feeling an urge to gather together a little colony of gerbils for the house. My cats would be thrilled. But only for a moment, perhaps. Better not, though.
(4) My current students won’t believe this is true.
(5) If you read my last post you might be starting to think I live too much of my life at the dentist’s office. I don’t think this is true but I can’t deny it’s a bit weird that I raise this again here.
(6) If you want to know, look up an article I wrote some years ago in Nautilus.
(7) Thinking of this, I’m reminded of the perpetual question asked me by my parents when they were around. “When are you going to settle down?” My wife has taught me the perfect response though too late to inflict on mum and dad. The definition of “settling down?” Slowly sinking to the bottom.
What I’m eating
A short answer here might be TOO MUCH! To my delight, my oldest daughter has moved in with us. She’s a foodie. So are we. The effect has been exponential. We sit at the breakfast table planning dinner. We sit at the dinner table planning breakfast. We have been driving around the region searching for exquisite cheese. The kitchen is piled high with dishes. Recipes to follow soon. Miso will likely play a featuring role.
What I’m reading
As part of a long-form project I’m working on, I’ve started reading on the birth of science and the Enlightenment. It occurs to me that we are witnessing the end of the Enlightenment and I’d like to understand that. I think that Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead may no longer be ahead. I think it has arrived. To whet my appetite, I’m reading Edward Dolnick’s The Clockwork Universe. It’s pretty light but very entertaining, filled with grisly stories of pre-scientific medicine and accounts of Isaac Newton’s legendary nastiness, which reminds me of several scientists I have known over the course of my life.
Once again dear Colin we are in sync! Did I tell you that I'm working on a project on place, memory, and identity (hence post-Ulysses, my book group and I are thick in the midst of In Search of Lost Time). Wonder what your thoughts are on the environmental psychology literature on place attachment, which I have spent the last couple of months reading: more noise than light, from what I could discern. In any case: the days when your blog posts appear in my inbox are always good days. SWG