May 07

Like reality TV? You might be a neuroscientist

Imagine … a lush, tropical island with carefully controlled temperature and humidity, where the lights come on and off at regular intervals, where its inhabitants consume dinner in unison from predetermined food sources….  

Believe it or not, this paradise exists!  It’s called Love Island.  And for the many millions of viewers that tune into Love Island or similar matchmaking shows (popular recent additions include Love is Blind and Too Hot to Handle), the sunshine and banter are just a few remote clicks away.  For non-fans, societal obsession with long-form reality programming like Love Island can be bewildering.  There are about 53 hours of content per season… but containing what, exactly? The contestants seem to behave in ways that aren’t far off from normal household antics.  They eat, sleep, groom themselves, and chat about their days.  What’s the appeal?

But for a neuroethologist, or one who studies how animal nervous systems produce natural behaviors, a show like Love Island has a lot to offer. In particular, this form of reality TV can give us a glimpse into the neuroethology of social behavior.   


How can we define and study a behavior? 

Our behavior of interest could be anything the individual participants do on the show– say, staring off into the sunset, adjusting a pair of glasses, or flipping their hair.  For it to be a social behavior, it should be performed in the context of other individuals.  In order to draw scientific conclusions from our observations, we should pick behaviors that can be easily tracked and quantified.  This means that multiple different human observers (for instance, your labmates and fellow neuroethologists) should be able to reliably mark the beginning and end of the behavior of interest.  And if a human can detect the behavior of interest, you can probably train an AI to do the same at scale.  (For example, check out this behavior tracking algorithm applied to human dance moves.)  

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Great blue heron preening (credit: John’s Love of Nature, Flickr) 

Of course, we all know that reality TV isn’t really real.  That is, what we see on TV is a curated version of transpired events.  So it’s helpful when show producers take over your quantification protocol for you — like for instance, in Too Hot to Handle, where participants are deducted a cash sum for every sexual act they perform.  End-game cashouts and rewards in general are additionally useful for understanding behavioral motivationBy thinking in terms of motivation, neuroscientists can begin to infer ideas about internal state from the execution of each behavior of interest.  A Love Islander reaching into the fridge for a snack is likely hungry, for instance, and her competitor lying down in the shade may be in need of a nap. 


Competitive and Hierarchical Behaviors 

In nature, you could consider the ultimate ‘reward’ to be surviving natural selection and passing on genes.  “Competitive mating” isn’t just a reality TV phenomenon!  Many neuroethologists study mating in depth, often in a competitive or hierarchical sense.  

Studies in fruit flies (a common laboratory model organism) give us an excellent example of how mating can be gamified in order to infer and test ideas about the brain.  To study fly mating, researchers place some number of female and male flies together into a behavioral arena.  By combining and comparing flies of different conditions (e.g. they were raised in a different way or have different genetic mutations), we can study how these experimental variables contribute to courtship success or failure.  Lab organisms are typically divided into “control” and “experimental” groups depending on what you’d like to test.  That is, your control organisms will not deviate significantly from a standard lab stock, whereas your experimental organisms will differ only with regard to the variable of interest (e.g. a mutation in a specific gene).  

Sometimes (as it might seem for TV contestants) the differences between your control and experimental groups are only cosmetic.  This was the case for a 2018 study investigating conformist social learning in fruit flies (1).  In this study, a single female fly observed mating pairs with either pink or green males (see schematic below).  Based on the color of the male a demonstrating female chose to mate with, the observing female would bias her future mating decisions towards males of the same color.  

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Behavioral schematic (Danchin et al., 2018) 

Often, the design of the behavioral arena itself contributes significantly to experimental design.  In order to study conformist social learning in groups of flies, rather than just between single pairs, Danchin et al. created a new behavioral arena they call “The Hexagon”.  In this setup, demonstrator pairs court in the central arena while observer females watch from peripheral compartments.  In the experiment’s next iteration, the observers are now placed in the center arena to court with the male flies of their choosing.  (Imagine future contestants of Fly Love Island watching the prior season before entering The Fly Villa.)  This way, the researchers can assess what proportion of the now-mating females conform to what they observed during the demonstrator stage. 

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The Hexagon (Danchin et al., 2018)

A simple mating study like that performed in The Hexagon can be matched with theoretical definitions to provide broader conclusions about species behavior. Danchin et al. define a precise notion of “culture” by a series of technical conditions in combination with observed conformist social learning.   From this, they conclude that flies are cultural organisms.  (Not everyone agrees with the findings, and some scientists have rebutted this claim) (2).  Love Islanders may be cultural organisms as well, but no one has written up the proof at the time of publishing this article. 

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The Love Island Villa 


Collective Behaviors 

As any regular reality TV viewer knows, the appeal isn’t all about the competition!  This is true in biology as well.   Neuroscientists are also interested in collective or cooperative behaviors that organisms with brains may exhibit.  We can often observe collective behavior surrounding a shared community resource (e.g. food, shelter) or a group threat (predation).  

Cooperation unveils some of the most remarkable features of animal behavior, integrating diverse sensory capabilities in pursuit of communal existence.  Bats, for instance, are long-lived, highly social organisms living in densely packed roosts (up to millions of individuals!) that are often completely dark.  One genus of bat (Rousettus) may have evolved lingual echolocation precisely to navigate their own homes. (3) They can layer perception of sound and smell over this keenly tuned navigational sense to locate other individuals within the roost.  

While navigating the brightly lit Love Island villa for a few weeks may not compare to several decades of existence in a bat roost, we may still see signs of collective behavior emerge among reality TV participants.  Although they only rely on familiar forms of human sensation, their interactions still draw millions of humans to gather in close proximity and rapt attention.  And while we may not need echolocation to find our TVs, we may still need to cooperate in dynamic ways to persuade our roommates to yield the remote.  


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The densely-packed social sphere of bats (credit: Alex Valentine, Flickr)  



1. Danchin, E., Nöbel, S., Pocheville, A., Dagaeff, A. C., Demay, L., Alphand, M., … Isabel, G. (2018). Cultural flies: Conformist social learning in fruitflies predicts long-lasting mate-choice traditions. Science, 362(6418), 1025–1030.


2. Thornquist, S. C., & Crickmore, M. A. (2019, October 11). Comment on “Cultural flies: Conformist social learning in fruitflies predicts long-lasting mate-choice traditions.” Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science.


3. Genzel, D., Yovel, Y., & Yartsev, M. M. (2018). Neuroethology of bat navigation. In Current Biology (Vol. 28, Issue 17, pp. R997–R1004). Cell Press.