The legend of Boaty McBoatface: Lessons in brand management from a colossal failure
Boaty McBoatface could have been a billion-dollar brand that re-invigorated science education, but now its epic failure is a lesson for the rest of us.
Henry Timms: So there’s this scientific agency in Britain called the Natural Environment Research Council. They’re a big government body and they’ve got a new ship coming. They’ve got a $300 million new arctic explorer vessel and they’re very excited about it, and they recognize that we’re living in this world of crowds where everyone wants to participate and we’re all finding a way to express ourselves, and they have this idea. They say, "Let’s launch a campaign called #NameOurShip."
Now, this campaign is off to a slightly worrying start because they launch it with a press release, and the press release says, '#NameOurShip. Maybe you, the public, would like to name it something like Shackleton, or Endeavor, or Adventurer.'
Now, these aren’t the kinds of names the public come up with. Within a day someone has tweeted in, “We should call this ship Boaty McBoatface.” And Boaty McBoatface is immediately and virally popular.
I should say that in tenth place—Boaty McBoatface was first, but in tenth place, and I thought this was somewhat neglected, was: 'I Like Big Boats and I Cannot Lie'.
But in any case, Boaty McBoatface does terrifically well. It goes viral. Everyone is talking about it. It’s on all the front pages of the newspapers. There are literally hundreds of millions of Twitter impressions about this. They’re in the pubs, they’re at dinner tables, the whole nation and, in fact, the whole world—it crosses the ocean, it’s covered by The New York Times and CNN—the whole world gets excited and obsessed with Boaty McBoatface.
But there’s a problem. The science minister takes a very dim view of this. 'This is a very big investment of government money. This is not a serious name for a boat. This must be put down immediately and things must be put back in their place.'
And this government agency is in a really tough spot. So, on one hand, they’ve got the public who is incredibly excited about the idea of Boaty McBoatface, on the other hand, the science minister is saying this is not taking science seriously. And they end up, really, in a moment which tells us something about our age, which is what they were trying to do. They were trying to work out, 'Okay, there’s a crowd out there, we want to harness their energy.' They want to do that in a powerful way. They were trying to do that, but they had none of the skills you might need to think about harnessing the crowds.
In the end what they do is they call it ‘Sir David Attenborough’ who is this very famous British scientist, which no one could really complain about too much. And they named one of the small submarines on top of this boat ‘Boaty McBoatface’. So they literally sunk Boaty at sea.
So here’s the question: What could they have done differently? You think about this moment. You think about this huge surge of enthusiasm around science and just imagine if instead of putting Boaty out to the side, instead they leaned into it and they’d said: 'Let’s embrace this. Let’s think about how we could engage a generation of kids in maritime science. Let’s think about how we could merchandise this. Let’s think about all the different moments that Boaty could dock around the nation and you could imagine whole groups of people coming out to learn more about Arctic exploration.'
And they did none of those things. And what that teaches us is, firstly, never ever ask the crowd to name anything. It will always, always go wrong.
But it tells us something else too, which is: there’s a set of very clear skills in how you go about harnessing the crowd. And you look around the world right now and any corporation, any nonprofit, any leader who wants to come out on top needs to think a lot more carefully about how they negotiate with the crowd.
And we see four things that really help organizations and leaders get this kind of thing right. The first is strategy. Do you really need the crowd? This research council didn’t really need any help naming the boat. They already knew what they wanted to call it. So it wasn’t strategic in a very real way.
Number two: Do you have legitimacy with the crowd? There was a famous moment where J.P. Morgan tried a version of this and they did a hashtag campaign called #AskJPM. Now, this was shortly after the financial challenges and crisis and, of course, instead of people tweeting in questions like, “How do I become a banker?”, people tweeted in things like, “How dare you?” and “How do you sleep at night?” So it’s a question around legitimacy. Do you have legitimacy with the crowd if you’re entering this world?
Number three is control. Are you prepared to give up some control to others? What was really interesting about Boaty McBoatface is they weren’t prepared to give up control. As soon as the crowd took this somewhere they didn’t want to go, they shot the experiment down.
If you’re engaging with the crowd you have to honor that crowd, and you have to be able to say, “If you come up with something we don’t expect we will embrace the outcome that you’ve encouraged.”
And then finally, commitment. The fourth thing, which is really important if you want to get this kind of thing right, is are you committed to this in the long term? What we see time and again now is leaders who once a year will “engage with the crowd” and they’ll do some kind of Facebook Live event and they’ll say, “Let’s be open to new ideas.” And then they’ll disappear to their corner office for the rest of the year.
And one of the key things in engaging with the crowd—and you can learn this from anyone, particularly activists who have mobilized—is this is a muscle you have to strengthen day after day after day.
So as we think about how we engage with the world we need to avoid Boaty McBoatface moments, and by doing that find ways of really getting the crowd and getting the value out of the crowd that we can benefit from.
An organization who really got these dynamics right was Lego. So Lego was—I guess about 15 years ago, everything was not very awesome with Lego. They were almost bankrupt. They had spent all this money on theme parks and wristwatches, things were going very badly for the company and they were close to collapsing.
And they recognized—this was just when the Internet was beginning—they recognized there was a group of people out there who had enormous value to offer who they hadn’t previously engaged with, and they were called the AFOLs, the Adult Fans of Lego. And these were people, largely men, who had been building Lego past their childhood, into their adult lives, often in secret, and they all began to realize there were others of them like that around the world. And so as the Internet rose so did this group of AFOLs around the world. And what Lego realized was that these people brought huge value to their brand. So not only were they outspending kids 20 to 1, but they were doing things like creating new sets Lego had never dreamed of or creating whole fan events that Lego had never dreamed of.
And what Lego then did over a decade, which was so smart, is they structured for participation. They built their whole brand around finding ways to invite their crowd to engage with them in meaningful ways. And I’ll give you a couple of examples.
One thing they did even with the recent Lego movie, many of the lines and ideas in the movie were sourced from their fan base. And they did something else too: they opened up their innovation to their fan base. So you now can submit your own ideas for what the next Lego set should be. There was one female scientist who was an AFOL and she had never shown anyone her Lego creations apart from her husband, but she thought that women scientists were very badly underrepresented in Lego so she put together this very cool kit of female scientists and put that forward. Over 10,000 people voted for it. It was hugely successful. It did a great job of doing some great PR for Lego, and that set is now in places all around the world.
And so what Lego teaches is perhaps the key skill of our age, which is: we need to start recognizing that offering agency to our broader community is what’s making the difference between success and failure.
So I think the answer is to think a lot less about hashtags and a lot more around invitations. Because ultimately participation—there are lots of hashtags which don’t work at all, obviously, because what they don’t do is offer people a real genuine chance to participate.
So as you think about the work of building for new power, one of the things to think about is: What am I doing here which will be beneficial to the people I want to engage with? Not, 'What can they do for me?' but 'What can I do for them?'
One of the people we talked to inside Lego—which is a company that's done this very, very well over the years—she always asks herself, the first question she asks herself and encourages her colleagues to ask themselves, is: What am I bringing to the party? What is it that I’m creating that will make my crowd more valuable? Not 'What is it they can do for us?'
I think that power dynamic is actually very important in this work. So, if you’re looking to spread your ideas or start a movement, the first place to begin that isn’t “Here’s my idea, how can more people get behind it?” but “How can I get behind more people?” That’s the right frame.
In March 2016, the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) decided to crowdsource the name of its new $300 million arctic explorer vessel. It hoped the public would suggest something like 'Shackleton' or 'Endeavor', but the moment someone suggested the name 'Boaty McBoatface', it went viral and shot to the top of the poll. The NERC had the right idea in harnessing the power of crowds, explains Henry Timms, executive director of the 92nd Street Y in New York, but it lacked the skills needed to pull it off. Instead of turning Boaty McBoatface into an opportunity to revive science education and merchandise Boaty, it shut the idea down, canceled the competition and named the ship 'Sir David Attenborough'. "There’s a set of very clear skills in how you go about harnessing the crowd. And you look around the world right now, any corporation, any nonprofit, any leader who wants to come out on top needs to think a lot more carefully about how they negotiate with the crowd," says Timms. Here, he shares the four key components of successful crowdsourcing and brand building, and explains how Lego used those methods to pull itself out of near-bankruptcy and up to new heights. Henry Timms is the co-author of New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World-and How to Make It Work for You
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Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.
In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.
But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?
In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?
Popularizing medical language
What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?
To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.
If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.
LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER
"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.
"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.
"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."
The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.
"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.
Too much reading causes... heat rashes?
But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.
Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."
In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."
"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.
"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."
Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."
Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.
"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."
Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?
People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.
JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW
There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.
For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.
"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.
"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."
In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.
"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.
"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."
Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.
"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.
"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."
This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.
"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.
The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'
"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."
So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?
"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.
Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.
"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.
But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.
For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.
- This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
- Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
- The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?
Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.
These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:
- Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra■ Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
- The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
- The three Baltic states
- The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
- The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
- Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
- South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
- The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.
The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.
See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.
The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Creating a culture map
So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?
These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.
The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.
- The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.
Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of "others." Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
- The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.
Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:
- Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
- Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
- And, of course, vice versa in both cases.
According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.
The world's cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Some notable features of the 2020 map:
- The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
- In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
- Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
- The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group's other members.
- Shifting attitudes don't just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.
The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.
For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.
Strange Maps #1098
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.
- Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
- The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
- Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Imagine opening your eyes for the first time as a brand new baby. The world is so mysterious, full of obstacles and strange shapes. And yet it does not take babies all that long to get their bearings, to latch on to their parents, and to start interacting. How do they do this so quickly? A new study published in Science proposes that babies of mammals dream about the world they are about to enter before being born, developing important skills.
The team, led by professor Michael Crair, who specializes in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and visual science, wanted to understand why when mammals are born, they are already somewhat prepared to interact with the world.
"At eye opening, mammals are capable of pretty sophisticated behavior," said Craig, "But how do the circuits form that allow us to perceive motion and navigate the world? It turns out we are born capable of many of these behaviors, at least in rudimentary form."
Unusual retinal activity
The scientists observed waves of activity radiating from the retinas of newborn mice before their eyes first open. Imaging shows that soon after birth, this activity disappears. In its place matures a network of neural transmissions that carries visual stimuli to the brain, as explained by a Yale press release. Once it reaches the brain, the information is encoded for storage.
What's particularly unusual about this neonatal activity is that it demonstrates a pattern that would happen if the animal was moving forward somewhere. As the researchers write in the study, "Spontaneous waves of retinal activity flow in the same pattern as would be produced days later by actual movement through the environment."
Crair explained that this "dream-like activity" makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps the mouse get ready for what will happen to it after it opens its eyes. It allows the animal to "respond immediately to environmental threats," Crair shared.
Retinal waves in a newborn mouse prepare it for vision www.youtube.com
What is creating the waves?
The scientists also probed what is responsible for creating the retinal waves that mimic the forward motion. They turned on and off the functionality of starburst amacrine cells — retinal cells that release neurotransmitters — and discovered that blocking them stopped the retinal waves from flowing, which hindered the mouse from developing the ability to react to visual motion upon birth. These cells are also important to an adult mouse, affecting how it reacts to environmental stimuli.
Graphic showing the origin and functionality of directional retinal waves.Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
What about human babies?
While the study focused on mice, human babies also seem to be able to identify objects and motion right after birth. This suggests the presence of a similar phenomenon in babies before they are born.
"These brain circuits are self-organized at birth and some of the early teaching is already done," Crair stated. "It's like dreaming about what you are going to see before you even open your eyes."