Here's a word, nothing special about it, just look at it.
Focus on the first letter, the "S."
Now shift your body, left to right, right to left.
Does the "S" shift too?
No, it doesn't. Even though you're moving, the "S" stays stable.
How'd you do that?
It's a reflex. Your eye and your brain do this automatically. When your head moves to the right, your eyes move to the left. Our eyes automatically compensate for our bobbing bodies. Physicians call it the vestibulo-ocular reflex, but we don't have to think about it. It just happens. This is why we can run, dance, jump through the world and the world doesn't spin with us. It stays stable. We have a built-in stabilized camera in our heads.
We're really good at handling bumps, drops, bounces, but wandering the web, I discovered some people think chickens do it better. Yes, chickens. One guy took a chicken for a bike ride, a walk, a drive on bumpy roads, attached a chicken-cam to its head and compared what chickens see to what we see. He thinks chickens get rid of bounces better than we do.
Then he tried to prove it.
These investigators aren't biologists, they're just chicken champions with gadgets, but I find their experiments wonderfully engaging. So let's begin with one of the finest chicken videos ever posted on YouTube: A rocket engineer from Alabama, who calls himself Destin, or "destinws2," is going to rotate a chicken — a perfectly ordinary chicken — and see if it holds its head steady. This chicken is not a genius. It's just a brilliantly typical.
Destin decided to investigate more deeply. (Destin, by the way, is not his real name. He wants to stay anonymous to protect his kids; they appear regularly on his delightful blog, Smarter Every Day) In a subsequent video, he wondered if could literally mount a camera onto a chicken and then, when rotating the bird, he would see if the chicken behaves like a Hollywood Steadicam and eliminates unnecessary movement. What happened?
His first attempt, using a frisky white bird, doesn't work very well. Then, about a minute and a half in, he switches to a big rooster (who is wearing a teeny Japanese camera attached with a rubber band), and the effect is impressive. Destin rotates the rooster, but its head and its camera stay focused on a nearby microwave oven. (Does this rooster know something?) The bird just locks in and lets its neck do the adjusting.
(Is it fixating on a specific object? Destin isn't sure. When he puts his hand up close to the bird's face, it seems to lock its gaze, but only kinda.).
Destin claims the rooster was comfortable throughout this experiment, though I'm not so sure. At the very end, the bird has his revenge.
Now we get to the bird versus man part. When a kid named Jeremiah Walken saw Destin's video he decided to take the obvious next step and do a species comparison. Jeremiah has a chicken, but no driver's license. So he put a teeny camera on his own head, another on his chicken's head and off they went, biking together, walking together, sitting in the car together (Dad drove), the question being, who is better at eliminating bounce, Jeremiah or the avian?
To me, the winner was not obvious. Jeremiah's chicken is a very curious animal, a lot more curious than Jeremiah. The bird keeps looking around, at trees, sky, trees again, so there's more herky-jerky from the bird than you'd want. Jeremiah is not as interested in tree gazing. Still, if you are comparing a boy and a chicken and you eliminate the wow-what's-that? factor, I guess you could say, as Jeremiah loudly and definitely declares, chickens are more even in their gaze. When they travel, their sensitive necks soften the impact of potholes, reduce the bounce on roads and even out the ups and downs of walking; so, I guess — based on a very small sample and only some of the time — you could say chickens are better than we are.
Or you could say the question is still open. At this point, all I will say is, when it comes to a steady gaze, chickens have my respect. That's as far as I'll go.
Robert Krulwich is co-host of Radiolab, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning program that examines big questions in science, philosophy and the human experience through compelling storytelling. Today, Radiolab is one of public radio's most popular shows. Its podcasts are downloaded over 4 million times each month and the program is carried on 437 stations across the nation. In addition to Radiolab, Krulwich reports for National Public Radio. “Krulwich Wonders” is his NPR blog featuring drawings, cartoons and videos that illustrate hard-to-see concepts in science.