KYOTO--A Japanese researcher for the 15th year in a row was awarded a spoof Ig Nobel Prize for his study of “smartphone zombies.” 

Unlike the Nobel Prize, the Ig Nobel honors achievements that make people laugh and think. The prize is organized by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

Hisashi Murakami is an assistant professor of collective behavioral science at the Kyoto Institute of Technology who is fascinated by the way crowds autonomically act as a single mass.

An example of that process, which Murakami refers to as self-organization, is when pedestrians cross an intersection without bumping into each other--almost as if by an unseen command.

To study the mechanics of this type of human behavior, Murakami assembled a team to examine disturbances in pedestrian flow caused by smartphone zombies.

The team was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for Kinetics on Sept. 9, although Murakami, 34, found nothing to laugh about.

“I was left wondering why (our project) was found to be amusing,” Murakami said.

The winner is normally given a trophy, but this year it came in the form of digital data attached to an email for Murakami to assemble himself.

When he printed it out on a piece of paper and assembled the prize, it looked frail enough to be blown away by an air conditioner.

Born in Yao, Osaka Prefecture, Murakami joined the Kyoto Institute of Technology in January.

“I spent my younger days in a daze,” he said. “I suppose it's a shame that I don't have any interesting episodes from my childhood to share.”

A turning point came when Murakami joined a research group at Kobe University and got interested in exploring the relationship between individuals in a mass of people.

For his master's course, Murakami visited Iriomotejima island in Okinawa Prefecture to research the way crabs interact when hundreds of thousands of them congregate in a single place. He then raised 100 “ayu” sweetfish with colleagues for his Ph.D. thesis.

His observations of the natural world led Murakami to conclude that self-organization lies at the heart of large gatherings where individuals move freely while forming a mass.

To shore up his findings, Murakami explored behavioral changes in his subjects by blocking their sight, smell, hearing and other senses.

Realizing that the field of vision of a smartphone user is greatly restricted by the narrow screen, Murakami's team studied smartphone zombies to ascertain how they disrupt traffic flow.

Hisashi Murakami and his colleagues monitor two groups of college students in Tokyo in December 2019 who were asked by walk normally down a street while three students on the right side were glued to their smartphones. (Provided by Hisashi Murakami, an assistant professor of collective behavioral science at the Kyoto Institute of Technology)

The team observed two groups of 27 college students approaching each other from opposite directions and passing by. Three members of one group were assigned to walk while using their smartphones. However, they and the others managed to always get out of the way and avoid a collision, causing them and others to slow down.

Still, the researchers were left with more questions than answers after realizing that sense of vision was not the only factor that allowed the participants to detect each other's movement.

“You may be amazed by how fish and birds don't collide with each other when they travel en masse, but humans also have a similar ability,” Murakami said. “It's exciting, isn't it?”