Do you even lift?

A quick detour from my posts on Facebook to look at this endearing short film from 2001 called Lift (thanks to Jono). Each day over a two month period, filmmaker Mark Isaacs would ride a lift in a London apartment block for 10 hours at a time. What you see documented in the film above are his interactions with the building’s residents, and gradually, the reveal of a vertical community most of us overlook, or aren’t around long enough to connect the dots between.

At first people are rightly suspicious, and Isaacs starts noninvasively enough by asking questions like ‘what’s on your mind today?’, ‘what did you dream about last night?’. However this slowly escalates as the character of his questions become much more intimate, such as ‘have you ever been in love?’ and ‘what’s your favourite childhood memory?’. Over time the lift becomes a sort of confessional booth, and Isaacs its ordained priest.

Which is interesting because the lift is typically a space reserved for silence, a sort of vertiginous pressure cooker where vastly different people are brought into close quarters, sometimes juxtaposed against one another, and whose social interactions are played out intensely but only underneath protocols of silence born out of apathy, a respect for privacy, or the fear of public exposure, in a confined area which blurs the lines between personal and public space.

personal space invaders

In fact, this is one of the key reasons why we act the way we do in lifts. The unintentional invasion of our personal and peri-personal space (the space directly in front of us we can touch with our arms) puts us in a circumstance where we feel instinctively vulnerable. Our brain constantly monitors this peri-personal space, often processing it as a ghostly plastic extension of our body. When breached by a stranger, serotonin and norepinephrine – both neurotransmitters involved in managing the flight-or-fight response, stress and attention – are oozed into the bloodstream by a chain reaction occurring in the dorsal cortical networks stretching from the parietal to frontal lobe of the brain (see Pervic’s The Neurophysiology of 3D Space for more detail). Subsequently, any action which would be social and nonthreatening given a greater distance is suddenly perceived more aggressively, simply because of the proximity of that person to us and their arm’s reach.

Besides putting our guard up, psychologist Robert Sommer suggests another strategy which arises from this process (as the higher brain stifles the threat instinct and responds more appropriately) is to simply dehumanise the intruder, perceiving them only as a mechanical object, not a person. Either way, the net result is that we stand still and stay silent to subconsciously play down the breach.

There are other things which reinforce this behaviour. Lack of visual stimuli discourages conversation, as does the stereotype of what to expect in an elevator. Additionally, the short nature of the trip inclines us to remain reticent, but ironically the amount of time spent in a lift is actually ideal for quick chit-chat, hence why a 30 second spiel of your resume is called an ‘elevator pitch‘. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, most of the time this social opportunity is squandered in favour of silence.

As unnatural but automatic as that silence feels when it imposes itself on us in a peopled lift, breaking it is liberating, as Isaacs’ film demonstrates. When broken, it makes it possible to reread the quasi-privacy of the space in a way which is less introspective and more intersubjective.

I can attest to this too. I’ll always remember being in a lift once, packed like sardines, everyone silent. The lift stopped at a floor and the doors quickly sprung open to reveal a couple of people waiting to get on. But they couldn’t. There was no room. And so they stood there, looking in at the wall of people presented to them, their mouths partially gaped, almost in horror that they’d reached an impasse.

The doors slowly squeaked shut, and then not a second afterward shot open again. The same people had pressed the button before the lift had registered its departure from the floor. Again, no one got on, no one got off – two groups of people stared silently at one another, and again, after another 5 second stalemate, the doors slowly, slowly, squeaked shut once more, closing in on the dumbfounded would-be-boarders’ faces.

The absurdity of the scene triggered something in me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I burst out laughing, then quickly contained myself, then struggled to hold it back (try watching this without doing the same). Some people in the lift glared in my direction trenchantly and wild-eyed. But then as I continued futilely to muffle my snickers in the otherwise silent lift, something happened. Other people joined in. You could see their lips purse and contort into smiles, then you could hear rushes of nosed air violently released like air brakes, followed by quiet laughing and shuddering shoulders.

The whole lift became instantly less suffocating and together we unlocked each other’s behavioural straitjackets. By the fourteenth floor, where I was getting off, most of the lift was in stitches.

Perhaps it’s for moments like this that designers and architects of built and urban environments are increasingly looking at ways to break silences, or currently asocial situations, by inclining them toward pro-social conditions. Social Stairs (above) is a 2012 project by Nupky’s Nadine van Amersvort and co, inspired by a similar experiment done in 2009 under a Volkswagen initiative called The Fun Theory. If you’re into this stuff, I recommend checking out some of the quirky ideas on that site, as well as this version of pedestrian PONG

That said, a big drawback of these sorts of interventions is that most of the time they’re impractical, or are best suited for short bursts. For the rest of the time, there are other, more subtle approaches. Take for example the famed Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry who’s been contracted to design a building in my neck of the woods which encourages people to literally ‘bump into each other’ by making select stairwells and corridors tighter than usual (you can listen to the full interview here). In a similar vein, Pixar Disney’s Ed Catmull comments on the design of their Silicon Valley headquarters as follows:

Most buildings are designed for some technical purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertent encounters. At the center is a large atrium, which contains the cafeteria, meeting rooms, bathrooms and mailboxes. As a result everyone has strong reasons to go there repeatedly during the course of a workday.” 

Read more about the design of Pixar’s studios here.

It’s undeniable in discourse that certain social aspects of our modern lives are either deliberately or unintentionally stifled, and the lift is just one case study in a sea of silences. What these confronting, seemingly awkward silences are a symptom of is another question, and a very complex one at that. That’s part of the mission of this blog to dispel, but by far, the most effective remedy would require a change in our perception to be more attentive and responsive to opportunities for connection and community, especially in unexpected spaces.


That’s not for everyone though; for now, there are people looking for creative ways around the social limitations imposed on us by the architecture of last century, and succeeding. So let’s get the ball rolling ourselves, what moments have you had which break the silence and how could we build these moments into our everyday interactions?

More specifically, what ways can you think up to overcome the interactive vertigo we’re clouded by in the lift? How can they be made less edgy and awkward, more calming and socially refreshing? Comment to your heart’s content.

As always thanks for reading. Second part of the Facebook posts coming in a week.


Can you make eye contact over Skype?

Perhaps the creepiest thing I've ever drawn

With video-calling and VoIP services like Skype and FaceTime at all-time high adoption rates among businesses and individuals alike, and being touted as ‘almost as good as being there’, the question of just how good a substitute these services are for genuine face-to-face contact should be asked. So, can you ‘meaningfully connect’ (whatever that means) over Skype? Can you make eye contact or, at the end of the day, are you destined to see pixels first and pupils second?

This isn’t just a philosophical question, it’s primarily a matter of neurology and psychology. Skype definitely has an edge over other traditional means of communication. Unlike letters, telephone calls, text messages and Wall posts, with Skype you can actually see who you’re talking to. Physiologically, this makes all the difference.

For one, a whole plethora of nonverbal cues is made available. Being able to recognise facial expressions, micro-expressions, voice intonation and, to a certain extent, body language enhance the quality of the interaction. What’s more, the mere sight of a friend, and especially of someone you love, triggers a vivid neural recreation of that person (or the idea of that person). Visual information is sent from the eyes to the occipital lobe to the fusiform gyrus, a structure which on top of other things, assigns meaning to images, words and faces. Think face-detection on a digital camera.

How we see faces

From there the message enters the amygdala and excites the limbic system, the emotional core of your brain, triggering remembered behaviours, stimulating blood flow to the heart, hormone secretion and other events in an endocrinological chain reaction. It’s the same reason we feel happy when we go to our favourite childhood playground, or get irritated when we hear a song on the radio which is looped at work (although a different part of the brain is responsible for audio inputs). Even when we know that the screen is not our significant other, we still react like we would in real life.

This TED talk by Vilayanur Ramachandran sums it up nicely, as does this comment from Christof Koch, a prominent researcher in the field (the full paper can be read here):

How is meaning expressed in neural terms? And how does this expression of meaning arise? We suspect (Crick and Koch, 1995c) that meaning derives both from the correlated firing described above (sic.) and from the linkages to related representations. For example, neurons related to a certain face might be connected to ones expressing the name of the person whose face it is, and to others for her voice, memories involving her and so on, in a vast associational network, similar to a dictionary or a relational database. Exactly how this works in detail is unclear.

But despite all this, we can’t help but feel that it’s not quite the same. And we’d be right.

In researching this, I went to where all the cool kids go, reddit, and asked what people thought. I highly recommend reading both posts that I made here and here. Naturally, a prime candidate for this sort of question emerged; people who are in or have been in a long-distance relationship (LDR). For LDR couples, Skype is often the lifeblood of the relationship, a useful substitute for physical presence. People reported feeling ‘comforted’, ‘close’, ‘nice’, instantly happier, but invariably this was paired with words such as ‘distant’, ‘distracted’, ‘teased’, ‘torturous’.

Skype is a double-edged sword for LDR couples; on one hand it’s a special time to connect, on the other it’s a painful reminder of physical absence. It’s like visiting someone in prison behind glass.


Unsurprisingly, no one has yet (as specifically as this) rounded up friends or couples, stuck one of them in an fMRI, had them chat to each other over Skype, measured the levels of dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin (or other neurotransmitters and hormones involved in bonding/love) coursing through their synapses during, and then compared them against a real life rendezvous. Aspects have certainly been addressed, but like most things in this area the research done is scant and piecemeal at best.

That said, some things are clear.

Firstly, taking away the possibility for physical contact inhibits the full potential of the emotional response evoked by the limbic system. When we are touched (affectionately, through hugs, handshakes, handholding etc.) oxytocin is released like pollen from a flower. When we have sex, cortisol levels (a stress-relieving hormone) skyrocket. But when you subtract touch from the equation you’re left with, pardon the phrasing, a neutered experience.

Interestingly this doesn’t seem to be the case for relationships where physical contact is less prominent (friends, business, therapy etc). In fact, remote psychiatry is relatively as effective as face-to-face therapy. It’s still there regardless, but it seems the stronger your tactile history with your Skypee, the bigger that sense of distance.

Can't touch this

Similarly, the absence of smell subtracts an important sensory input. Pheromones and other scents emitted by someone we know trigger powerful memories associated with that person, and that’s something which is difficult to replicate. The neuronal representation of a loved one is always going to fall a few dead pixels short minus smell, or at least be somewhat incomplete. There are other factors too. Low resolutions and slow frame rates make it harder to detect micro-expressions, the blue LED light emitted by most screens may make us feel less calm/warm/fuzzy. All in all, the compromise of the full multi-sensory experience plays a big part in changing the dynamic of the interaction.

This is also asserted by Richard Lannon in “A General Theory Of Love” (thanks to redditor artwooo for the quote):

The limbic brain registers the disorienting loss of attachments as the all-purpose ache of homesickness. Letters and phone calls are a salve on the wound, but insubstantial substitutes for the full-bandwidth sensory experience of nearness to the ones you love. To sustain a living relationship, limbic regulation demands sensory inputs that are rich, vivid and frequent.”

There is some silver lining here though. Use over time can improve our ability to read faces over the net. If you only know someone through the web, that may be preferable to seeing them in person. As mentioned, the less prominent touch is, the less jarring Skype will be. And finally we can look at how LDR couples compensate for this obvious shortcoming. They call daily, five hours at a time, talk each other to sleep and wake up with the other still on the line. Mirroring behaviours, such as contagious yawning is possible, as is going on remote dates to the park via 3G networks. Couples watch movies together by streaming the same thing at the same time, and some even hug their partner’s pillow during a Skype call, just for those hints of scent which add to the feeling of closeness. Would Lannon consider these inputting behaviours as rich, vivid and frequent? What do you think?

When all’s said and done, there’s no substitute for the real thing. But that doesn’t mean what we experience together on Skype is fraudulent, apathetic or superficial. Rather, what we’re left with is a neurochemically watered-down version of genuine face-to-face contact. It’s the same feelings, just a bit weaker, missing a few inputs and typically mixed with other stuff.

As they get better and better, video calling services are increasingly characterised as what it means to ‘connect’ to each other in the digital age. But considering what you’ve read here, is it right to use the word ‘connection’? If we always have something ‘real’ to compare it with, is this really ‘connection’ at all? Originally a black/white issue (connection/disconnection), nowadays the rhetoric surrounding connectivity is increasingly casting it in all shades of gray. Is a discrepancy between ‘contact’ and ‘connection’ beginning to form? Or are we redefining that word retrospectively in light of current technology?

Let me know your thoughts on this below, or anything related for that matter, from more research to your own personal anecdotes.

Thanks for reading,