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John Zachary Young


Gadgets and understanding the brain
Richard Gregory Scientist
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I’ve always liked gadgets. I can’t quite tell you why but really I think from when I was about four years old. I used to, I remember, just about remember, whether one actually remembers or whether one was told it, one never knows, that I invented a machine for electrocuting our maid at the time, and it was simply bits of wood with pieces of string pretending to be wires, you see, and of course she pretended that she was electrocuted, the whole bit, and that was a sort of game, I remember, you know, from when I was very, very small, probably about four. And I’ve always liked to try to invent things and make things and I think if one is interested in, you know, in sort of philosophy and abstract ideas, it’s a very good thing to try to be a bit practical and make things at the same time and I actually think, this is quite a deep point, that some knowledge of gadgets is really important in thinking about the brain because the brain is a gadget. In other words, it’s a physical mechanism with interacting parts and the logic of mechanisms and electronic system applies, I think, to thinking about the brain. Let me give you an example. If you’ve got a radio and you take part of it out, remove it, the radio might howl, it might go whooo like this but it doesn’t mean that that part in the radio was a suppressor for howling. A lot of neurologists think of when you remove something and then you get a symptom, that that part of the brain that had been removed was actually preventing that symptom, but I don’t think it’s like that. What happens is this, when you remove part of a machine or gadget, if you like, or the brain, you’ve then got a modified total system, simply a different system but it’s working with all those other parts without that one and each of the remaining parts work differently because they’re in a different internal environment. Now, this is very important when you think of functioning, localising the function of different parts of the brain, you can say that vision is here, if you like, and that memory is here, this sort of thing, and planning for the future is here, like old phrenology, very, very broadly this is correct, but to try to deduce what each bit of the brain is doing by ablating as it’s called, removing bits of it, has this logical problem, and I actually pointed this out. It’s my first paper, to a very early meeting on what became artificial intelligence. I think at that time it was called cybernetics at the National Physical Laboratory and I think this argument is a really important one, how do you localise function? And now we’ve got brain imaging, FMRI, magnetic imaging, where you’re thinking about something, seeing something, different bits of the brain become active, if you like, they light up, how do you relate the activity increased in that bit of the brain to what is really going on in the whole brain? You’ve got the same sort of problem. It’s not, as the old phrenologists thought, that you got each function localised in a specific way like sardines in a tin, if you like, because they interact with each other so I think experiencing electronics and gadgets and mechanical things, is very helpful for neurology and for thinking about the brain which is a machine, interacting machine, and if you can’t find out how a gadget works by removing bits of it, how is one going to understand how the brain works by removing bits of it? Or even by recording from bits of it or seeing bits of it light up. There’s the old joke that if you present an elephant to a load of blind people, they’ll feel different bits of it and they get completely different ideas about what an elephant is because one would experience a bit of a trunk, another a bit of the foot, completely different, but they have no idea what these bits actually mean added up and it’s true with a sighted person and it’s true in science or neurology. There’s a huge problem and I think, you know, playing with gadgets is a tremendous help for thinking about neurology and brain function.

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, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008