On Sept. 22, the Ig Nobels were held, an annual rambunctious awards ceremony that highlights scientific research that elicits both laughter and reflection. While the night's winners included the study of rats' sex lives while they wore pants (Reproduction Prize) and the personality of rocks (Economics Prize), one winner stood out from the rest of the pack.
Or should we say herd?
Thomas Thwaites was one of two winners in the Ig's Biology Prize, and he won it for for spending time with goats while wearing a prosthesis that would allow him to move like a goat. Thwaites spent three days among a goat herd in the Alps, eating grass and thinking about what it meant to be human... by becoming an animal.
The process from man to goat-man took a while. Thwaites, using a grant, talked to a range of experts, including neuroscientists, animal behaviorists, prosthetists, goat sanctuary workers, goatherds and a shaman (of course) while he developed the best way to live among the goats. As the video shows, he initially considered an exoskeleton of sorts before settling on a prosthesis to make him a four-legged creature of the grass.
The physicality of the goat wasn't the only aspect Thwaites really committed to, either. In addition to crafting an artificial rumen so he could digest the grass he chewed, he also attempted to turn off the episodic memory and language centers of his brain. He explains to Inverse:
The idea is that humans are very adept at mental time travel. We’re very good at remembering what we had for breakfast and imagining what we’re going to have for dinner and how we’re going to get that. We always thought that goats don’t possess this kind of episodic memory.
To shut that down and to shut down my ability to speak, a goat behavioral psychologist told me that those are two key things that separate human mental processes from goats. I went to a neuroscientist that uses transcranial magnetic stimulation and asked him if we could induce virtual lesions in the parts of my brain that were responsible for my episodic memory and my ability to imagine the future and also my ability with language. He said he couldn’t help with the memory one, because that would involve giving me a lobotomy. But he spent the morning trying to target a specific area of my brain, which, if you interfere with the area, stops the person from being able to speak.
Thwaites was "slightly frustrated" by his experience, saying that while the project was born out of a desire to return to a more primitive state, he realized that goats themselves are just as specialized as humans, albeit in different ways. "It's just they've been involving into nimble, mountain-dwelling, grass-eating creatures, while we've been evolving into big-brained, shopping bag-carrying beings," he told Inverse. "For me, it leveled humankind with the other animals on the planet."
And he may be able to repeat his Ig Nobel win. Word of his goat-living spread quite far, and Thwaites was invited to spend time with a goat herd in the Czech Republic. He may just go without a camera this time, for an even fuller sense of immersion.