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Trying to set up a brain unit and moving to Edinburgh


Why I got into psychology
Richard Gregory Scientist
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I was interested in astronomy and I spent a lot of time when I was a boy with telescopes and looking at the stars and particularly globular clusters. I was mad on globular clusters, which look like wonderful bunches of grapes out there in the heavens, for some reason they appealed to me, I don’t know why but they did. And then of course they flickered around and one really did wonder what was actually out there. You got this flickering image and reality obviously is completely different from the image in a way and yet that led you to it and I think that sort of appearance in reality situation made me think a lot about perception. I saw the eye as the teeny weenie telescope with the same sort of problem that any telescope or any observation has of interpreting what is out there from limited information. It’s a deep sort of problem really. I think that got me interested really in the brain through philosophy. It was really how do we know reality? It was what’s called epistemology, you know, the theory of knowledge, which is what appealed to me enormously when I did philosophy at Cambridge. I think that I saw psychology as experimental epistemology, certainly experimental philosophy, and the brain itself really was just a black box at that time. We hadn’t a clue how the thing worked. One didn’t know whether different parts of it had special functions. One really knew amazingly little about the brain. One knew a lot about the eye, the retina, and the nerves that go into the brain, you know, and so on, and, of course, that had been largely discovered in Cambridge by Lord Adrian who discovered what is called action potential of little pulses assist you running along nerve and that was all fine but how those signals got decoded, how they were made to represent, how they gave you perception and, of course, above all, consciousness, awareness, was largely, largely is, actually, still highly mysterious and that problem appealed to me, really from philosophy, I think, actually. And It hasn’t changed? No. I think absolutely not. I mean I still have the same wonder about it. I still find consciousness completely mysterious. I don’t have an answer to why a physical system like the brain can make us feel pain or see red. I mean lots and lots of people are working on this now in philosophy. At that time it was actually a taboo subject or an ignored subject. It was simply regarded as impossible and people didn’t want to spend time on it so that’s changed. An awful lot of very, very bright people now, of course, are thinking about exactly that. At that time, no, and it wasn’t part of psychology, you could read a whole psychology book and it would have nothing about consciousness in it at all, you know, it was really bizarre, and of course you got the unconscious, Freud's unconscious, and what I think is rather a joke actually is this. I think this is profoundly true. At that time and before Freud's unconscious was supposed to be mysterious and odd and doubtful and difficult to imagine, now it’s consciousness that is mysterious. It’s changed completely. There’s nothing odd about unconsciousness, for heaven’s sake, I mean tables and chairs don’t have consciousness, neither do computers so far as we know, so the fact that 99% of the brain is not conscious, absolutely no problem at all in our generation whereas the fact that 1% of the brain suddenly lights up, so to speak, illuminates the world with feeling and sensation, is totally mysterious. Very odd, a complete reversal.

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: 3 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 October 2009