Joyspotting: rainbow ants

These arresting photos of ants come via the Daily Mail. The photographer, Mohammed Babu, set up this experiment after his wife noticed that some ants had turned white from eating spilled milk. By setting up colored drops of sugar water on sheets of paraffin in his garden, Babu was able to create a palette of rainbow ants, their transparent abdomens revealing their latest meal.

There’s an interesting tension here. We’re not used to seeing insects as joyful, and usually regard them with disgust. (Though this may be a cultural response here in the West, as many other cultures do not have this response and in fact view insects as a perfectly acceptable food source.) But in this case, color seems to override our disgust, and the magic of the ants’ transparent bodies revealing the color opposes our instinct towards disgust with wonder.

When you think about it this way, there’s a powerful design principle in here. Aesthetics can create a kind of fascination that overrides our intrinsic responses, even ones as physical and intense as disgust. It would be interesting to see how this fascination could be developed to help us change behavior based on such instinctual responses – not just disgust, but also perhaps anxiety and fear. If we can design something so that it produces a conflicting response to the brain’s natural alarm bells, this tension can trigger a need for accommodation – a need to fit this new occurrence into the person’s worldview. And that need for accommodation, accompanied by delight, wonder, or curiosity, is often the first step towards a changed mind.

Photos: Mohammed Babu
Daily Mail:  “Tasting the Rainbow”

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9 Comments

  1. It is certainly fascinating, and I do have the conflicting responses, but I can’t say joy is among them. Along with my scientific curiosity piqued (wonder what on earth is going on here?) I feel some disgust at witnessing a creature doing something kind of bizarre because of a staged situation. Ants don’t really disgust me when I see them crawling in the dust or on a plant as usual. But as stunning as the colors are, these photos disgust me a little. I’m reminded of a photo I once saw in an animal behavior book – to prove birds are attracted to the bigger eggs the scientists added bigger and bigger balls to the nest, and ended up with a photo of a mother bird setting atop a volleyball trying her best to lay it. It’s fascinating, and you learn from it, and neither the bird nor these ants appear to be getting harmed by the experience. Yet to see the creatures’ instincts causing them to look bizarre in a staged situation makes me feel fascinated and repulsed, a bit like a freak show. It’s wonder alright, but is it joy? I’m a huge fan of this terrific blog!

  2. Great comments, all – thanks for sharing!

    Jon, your observation is a good one. I like that you point out that it doesn’t seem the animals are harmed by these displays, but that they still seem disturbing. “Harm” seems to be an automatic disqualifier for joy. In any circumstance, if hurt is inflicted, the object or experience no longer seems joyful. But something can disturbing without being hurtful, and I believe this is a product of that need for accommodation caused by the natural/artificial dissonance. These kinds of dissonant aesthetics do evoke a sense of magic (as alluded to by nidhi’s comment), if the source or mechanism isn’t apparent – and these tensions can create simultaneous feelings of wonder, fascination, fear, and disgust as our brains try to resolve an apparent conflict and restore order to our worldview. I think different personalities, or different sets of individual experiences, dispose us to different reactions along this spectrum.

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