The late British psychologist and Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol, Richard Gregory (1923-2010), is well known for his work on perception, the psychology of seeing and his love of puns. In 1978 he founded The Exploratory, an applied science centre in Bristol – the first of its kind in the UK. He also designed and directed the Special Senses Laboratory at Cambridge which worked on the perceptual problems of astronauts, and published many books including 'The Oxford Companion to the Mind', 'Eye and Brain' and 'Mind in Science'.
Well, it was quite small, it was called Brain and Perception. It was one corridor in the Anatomy Department so we had about ten rooms, I suppose, it had its own, again it had a small workshop and its own dark room and it was a self maintained lab and I was very fortunate in the fact that I got funding from the MRC so I had to sort of write a letter and see them about every three years I think it was, and it just got renewed without any fuss. I never had a problem over funding, it was brilliant actually. I had good PhD students and the whole thing and it was a perfect life really. One could do what one wanted to do. I travelled a lot. I wrote a lot of books and stuff and gave a lot of lectures all over the place and it worked very well actually. It worked very well indeed.
What did you find out?
What did I find out? That’s an interesting question. Well, first of all, we did this stuff on signal to noise ratio in the nervous system thinking of the signals coming into the eyes and the ears with having to, so to speak, overcome a lot of randomness going on all the time in the eye, in the brain, in the channels to the brain. I worked at some degree on that continuously, then I developed ideas of perception which is really central to the way I’d been thinking for ages which is that a perception is a hypothesis, it’s a guess as to what is out there based on a certain amount of data from the eyes or hearing obviously from the ear but it’s augmented and made sense of by a vast amount of knowledge stored in the brain and what I emphasised was the knowledge from the past necessary for interpreting the information available in the present and if you didn’t have the information already there, the world would be completely unseeable and understandable but, of course, a lot of that information from the past, knowledge from the past, is misleading, A. because it was wrong in the first place, B. because it could be out of date. And that can then generate a load of phenomena such as illusions that you get errors not because the physiology has gone wrong but because it’s not appropriate its functioning to the situation because the knowledge and assumptions and rules by which it’s working are not appropriate to the situation. Its inappropriateness of function became a sort of central thought, it’s not just a mechanism going wrong like a gear wheel breaking or some such thing or seizing up, it is, it’s working perfectly okay physiologically, but doing the wrong thing. Now, I can actually draw an analogy here actually. Who takes a battle, you’ve got guns and you’ve got defences and this is the hardware, the physics of the situation, but just as important, of course, are the strategies by which the hardware is used and if the strategies are not appropriate to the availability of the guns, what they can do to the castle walls and so on, then you’re not making optimal use of the physical possibilities and it’s a question of optimising the physics of the thing, and this, I think, is what cognition is in the brain. It’s the strategies by which the physical physiology is used to attain some sort of end which might be eating your breakfast cereal or it might be seeing the cup of coffee in front of you knowing it is coffee and so on and it’s this hardware/software thing which is really the use of physical processes with strategies which are guided by knowledge from the past and I emphasise what we call cognition, the knowledge and the rules by which the physiology is used, that was my emphasis.
Is that what you discovered then or what you know now?
That’s what I was working on then. I saw it then, yes.
Is it different now?
No, I still think that’s absolutely fundamental but what is rather interesting, at that time, I think a lot of people thought that the cognitive ideas were a load of old rubbish. That is, they were so vague, they were a bit meta-physical, even a bit occult, you know, how could a physical thing like the brain embody rules, software and so on? But what’s happened has nothing to do with me, it’s computers. The fact we’ve become familiar with the idea that the physical system in a computer, in a little box with electronics, can actually carry out mental operations. After all, we talk about mental arithmetic. You can do it with little gear wheels and still call it mental which is very interesting. So in a way the insight was there 200 years ago with the discovery that you could make calculating machines with wheels which go right back to Leibniz of course. In fact, I think 1642 was the first one, the year of Newton’s birth and yet that was known, it wasn’t somehow appreciated and I thing what I did was to push this idea, which was really inherent in most people’s thinking but not sort of explicit, that cognition is not like a sort of balloon coming out of a cartoon’s head, it's built into the system as a strategy by which it operates.
And the illusions, are they a bit like your jokes, sort of a necessary part of the mix?
Yeah. The illusions are amazingly interesting.
Title: Work at the Brain and Perception lab in Bristol
Sally Duensing currently is involved in perception exhibition work and research on science and society dialogue programmes and is working with informal learning research graduate students and post-docs at King's College, London. In 2000 she held the Collier Chair, a one-year invited professorship in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Bristol, England. Prior to this, for over 20 years she was at the Exploratorium, a highly interactive museum of science, art and perception in San Francisco where she directed a variety of exhibition projects primarily in fields of perception and cognition including a large exhibition on biological, cognitive and cultural aspects of human memory.
Born on 4 July 1943, Adam Hart-Davis is a freelance photographer, writer, and broadcaster. He has won various awards for both television and radio. Before presenting, Adam spent 5 years in publishing and 17 years at Yorkshire Television, as researcher and then producer of such series as Scientific Eye and Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers. He has read several books, and written about 25. His latest books are Why does a ball bounce?, Taking the piss, Just another day, and The cosmos: a beginner's guide. He has written numerous newspaper and magazine articles. He is a keen supporter of the charities WaterAid, Practical Action, Sustrans, and the Joliba Trust. A Companion of the Institution of Lighting Engineers, an Honorary Member of the British Toilet Association, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Society of Dyers and Colourists, and Merton College Oxford, and patron of a dozen charitable organizations, Adam has collected thirteen honorary doctorates, The Horace Hockley Award from the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, a Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Medal from the Institute of Incorporated Engineers, and the 1999 Gerald Frewer memorial trophy of the Council of Engineering Designers. He has no car, but three cycles, which he rides slowly but with enthusiasm.