Watching Mitt Romney and Barack Obama with wires on your head

OTTAWA — For $120 million these days, you can buy a building with a lab where researchers stick wires to volunteers and monitor their pulse, eye movements, hormones and spit.

You also get a 15-storey Social Sciences Building with room for 9,000 University of Ottawa students, and their professors.

Also a coffee shop, and big bright windows, and a “green� wall five storeys high and covered with hydroponic plants that humidify the indoor air.

But the showpiece is a lab called Inspire where researchers can monitor volunteers on 18 experiments at the same time.

On a tour Friday morning during the building’s opening, volunteers were wired up as they watched Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debate.

Monitors in a control room showed the reactions of their eyes, hearts, skin temperature, brain waves, body chemistry and facial muscles, providing data for analyzing who liked or disliked which pol, which attack, which riposte.

Winning the hearts and minds of voters takes on a very literal meaning here.

It sounds like psychology, but the university says this research cuts across all the social sciences — anything that studies human behaviour.

And the 18 little stations, with one subject wired up in each, gives flexibility to study one problem in 18 people, or an economics question, a sociology issue and 16 others simultaneously.

Luc Pelletier, director of the School of Psychology, says they can measure “what people see, what they feel, how they feel, and how they express this.�

It can even measure substances, in particular cortisol, a chemical that indicates stress and is found in saliva. It can measure changes in how the skin conducts electricity, another indicator of psychological changes.

“We’re really pushing the boundary of what’s been done before in terms of (measuring) perception but also attitudes,� said Simon Beaudry, co-ordinator of the Inspire lab.

A second batch of volunteers was playing a financial game intended to reveal how real-world investors make decisions about the stock market. Another study shows how parents watch for possible dangers around their children.

The new building is part of a major wave of construction that hasn’t finished at the U of O. Recently it has opened a biosciences complex, the new Desmarais Building on Laurier Avenue, the computers and engineering building called SITE, and now this. A photonics building is under construction on King Edward Avenue.

There are plans for two more after that, said university president Allan Rock: an expanded library and a new health sciences faculty on the Lees Avenue campus.

“We work in five-year cycles, and in the coming five-year cycle, which will be health sciences and the expanded library, it will cost about $130 million,� he said. This includes “money we have saved and further indebtedness, and the board watches our level of debt very carefully.�

The social sciences building opened Friday cost $120 million, of which Ontario paid $50 million and the federal government $30 million.

Future expansion will be south onto the Lees campus since the university is boxed in everywhere else.

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