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Why I got into psychology


Working on neural noise at the Applied Psychology Unit
Richard Gregory Scientist
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Well I went back to the APU, worked there, Applied Psychology Unit, and I did experiments actually on measuring neural noise, that is the randomness of the spikes of activity in the nervous system, coding information, and I related this to ageing and I measured the noise level using psycho physical methods and then tried this out to see whether as you got older the noise level went up so that as your memory gets wonky when you get older and your vision gets worse and so on, my question was, was this due to masking by internal noise in the nervous system or was it loss of signal? I also applied this to hearing. Now I’m 82, I absolutely know that we were on the right track, my golly. One is living in a load of random activity going on in one’s nervous system and, indeed, one’s vision gets worse, one’s decision-making gets worse, you slow down. You slow down partly to compensate the noise. If you take longer to make a decision, the signal increases linearly but the noise to the square root so actually get an increase in the signal to noise ratio and you become more affected so old people slowing down is actually a very, very sensible thing to do to avoid the degeneration of signals through noise in the nervous system. And these were tricks, of course, I had learned from radar. I knew about noise, you see, any instrument, any detecting instrument, is subject to random noise, integration and so on, is very familiar to me from radar. Then I found the nervous system was carrying out these procedures that we use in electronics, in radar detection, which is really quite exciting. And then, of course, I mean electronic equipment gets a bit groggy when it gets older and the noise increases, the transistor, this is before transistors, but the valves, etc, all get more noisy and exactly the same thing in us. So this sort of connection between principles of electronics, particularly detecting systems, and storage of information, through memory, and the nervous system was powerfully important to me from the war and a lot of my early work, if I can call it that, was really drawing analogies from what I’d learned from radar, etc, into how the brain might be working and my assistant at that time, Jean Wallace, who was my research assistant, and Violet Cane, who was absolutely brilliant, a mathematical statistician, she was fantastic, she was, by the way, the first woman professor in Manchester and there was a marvellous headline in the paper, what was is it, 101, I think it was, there were 100 male professors and she, no, 99 male professors and she was the only female professor in Manchester. She left in the end to go to Manchester, anyway, she was of that calibre, she was top notch mathematician, and we developed theories of signal to noise ratio for threshold, that is for the discrimination of brightnesses and shapes and colours and so on in the perceptual system using signal to noise ratio ideas. We actually won a senior prize for it, which was really nice. Actually, there was some money in it, which was amazing because I was incredibly poor, we all were. So that was actually great fun. But I think it illustrates actually how doing one thing, particularly a technical thing, like radar or submarines or anything like that, is not irrelevant, it’s very relevant, it seems to me, when you’re thinking about theories, about how nature works, how physics works, or how the brain works. I think there are processes and principles, you know, which absolutely link technology, physics and physiology and psychology. Many, many principles which operate. A good example, of course, is feedback in server systems, control systems, which were only just invented at that time and it was a wartime idea of gun ranging and guns aiming automatically and this sort of thing. You then looked at human beings in tracking things and thinking of things and aiming at things and perceiving things, and blow me down, the same principles very much apply, which got me interested in artificial intelligence.

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'.

Listeners: Adam Hart-Davis Sally Duensing

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.

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.

Duration: 4 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008