Why did scientists put people into rooms that kept turning upside down?

How much can looking at your environment skew your perception? And how does your view of the world change when you can't tell up from down? To answer these questions, scientists created giant "tumbling rooms," where the entire room could be rotated in many directions around the poor person trapped inside.

So what happens to people who find themselves dancing on the ceiling?

Like movies, experiments on humans have genres and subgenres. There's the 'Try to Make You an Example of the Banality of Evil,' genre, where psychologists ask you to act as a warden to your friends, or make you think that you're shocking an old man to death. There's the 'Hook Stuff up to Your Head' genre, where they ask you to do everyday tasks and while seeing what your brain is doing during them. There's the, 'see how much sex distracts you,' genre, in which strangers in lab coats ask you to do things while casually adding some sexual titillation and then draw conclusions based on your confused flailings.

Today, however, we examine a subgenre that I didn't even know existed — the 'Make You Fall Over' subgenre of scientific experiments.

It seems a long time ago, scientists noticed that thing that happens when you sit on a stationary train, and look out to see another train moving. If the other train occupies enough of your field of vision, it looks, and feels, like you're moving instead.

To study this, they built entire Tumbling Rooms, all of which could rotate around the poor, nauseous person inside. Sometimes these 'rooms' were simple screens that fill the viewer's visual field while seeming to show motion. The subject, scientists have found, will tip back and forward attempting to counterbalance for the motions they aren't making. There are also virtual reality goggles, which cause people to see a virtual room rotating around them and become appropriately nauseous. These experiments showed a common thread; although a room rotating around the vertical axis can make people feel like they're being turned 360 degrees, rotating a room around the horizontal can only make people feel about twenty degrees off from vertical, since their inner ear and gravity give them a solid reference point.

Why did scientists put people into rooms that kept turning upside down?

Enter the Big Daddy of tumbling rooms, a giant room that literally tumbles. York University in Toronto has a room that can be rotated through 360 degrees both horizontally and vertically. It's recently been voted the Experiment Most Likely To Make People Think They're Being Incepted. In addition to making a kitchen spin around you like a playful puppy circling your legs, the Tumbling Room can turn off the lights, displaying LEDs to see how low lighting conditions affect the perception of self-rotation, and place various objects in the room that stay in the same place or move out of sync with the movement of the room. Whoever cleans the vomit off the floor has to be the most overworked person in the world.

What has this Tumbling Room discovered? Well, for one thing bringing the lights down helps people retain their ability to stay oriented. A few lights moving is a few lights moving. Lights move all the time. They've also found that even when an entire physical room is turning upside down around a person, they still only feel like they're being twisted a few degrees off vertical. Most interesting though, they found that in a uniformly rotating room, people perceived 'scene distortions.' The most common was that the walls on the left and right side of the person were moving in opposite directions. The brain is trying to figure out why self-perception and visual reality aren't agreeing, and it creates the illusion of the entire room losing its rigidity and twisting away from all sides.

This shows us how confused we can get when what we feel doesn't match up with what we see. The student, obviously, had to know what was going on, and yet their brains stretched all of reality like taffy trying to get their eyes and their inner ears to understand what was happening. Which only makes it more interesting. Which will make people study it more.

Well, at least we'll get some interesting visuals out of it.

Top Image: LVDS

Second Image: Decsite

Via UOW and Elsevier.