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Parrot pupils and mirror cells


Work on flat fish camouflage with Vilayanur S Ramachandran
Richard Gregory Scientist
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I think I’ve been pretty lucky actually because I worked on lots of different little things, maybe just for a few months, you know, or even weeks, as they attracted my attention. Also, I’ve been very fortunate in having friends who are very bright, interesting, fun people. One who comes to mind is Rama, Ramachandran who’s a great man. He did the Reith lectures a couple of years ago and he’s a neurologist, lives in America actually, he’s Indian, wonderful person, I’ve published, I think, four or five or six papers with him and we’ve done experiments over the years both in my laboratory and also in his in America, and one little thing we did was playing around with flounders with flat fish and, as you know, some flat fish, and it is only some, if they’re on a background with pebbles, let’s say, or some sort of shapes or colours, the fish changes its colour and you get coloured patches on the skin of the fish and the same sort of shapes. It will even put it on a chess board and you get almost chess squares appearing on its back, and one interesting thing is how on earth the fish can see its surroundings when it’s only got one eye sticking out of the sand sort of thing and how on earth does it change its own colour and perform on its back and it’s rather an amusing thing. I mean could you actually have this fish looking at shapes that give off visual illusion, you get the illusion on the pattern on its back, I mean that’s quite an amusing thought, which we never really followed up. But anyway we did some experiments on this, how these fish actually changed colour, little patches of colour, from seeing. Now, it’s great fun actually, to just simply look at a thing like that and what we did, we actually went to a marine biology laboratory where we had the fish and did the studies using other people’s facilities, and in three or four weeks we could actually do some quite nice little experiments and I think this is great. Rama and I then did something which was apparently unrelated, maybe it was related, which is this, that the eye, the human eye, has a big blind region in it called the blind spot, it’s where the optic nerve comes out of the retina into the brain and if you put light onto that bit of the eye, nothing happens, there are no receptors in that part of the retina, but we see it continuously, you don’t see black hole where the black spot is, so we worked on how that- whether that gets filled in actively or whether the brain ignores the blind spot because it never gets information so is it like at a party, you’ve got somebody who’s really boring and dull and you ignore them after a time, you just don’t realise they’re there. Is it like that? Does the brain ignore the black region or does it actually fill it in actively? And this fish producing these shapes and colours on its back, well, clearly it was an active, physiological change from the pattern in the eye, can our brain, as it were, fill in the blank region of a similar kind of a way, filling in the gaps, creating what ought to be there, if you like, somewhat similar to the fish, and we came to the conclusion that, yes, that the brain actively fills in, it doesn’t simply ignore it. It was kind of fun. I mean it’s quite amusing sort of, I’ll just mention why we worked on the fish. We were doing a fish and nothing happened so we spent hours and hours and hours with these fish not changing colour, then we realised we’d got the wrong sort of fish a bit late in the day and it was while we were hanging around with nothing happening with these fish that we thought, well, golly, maybe this is kind of related to human vision, so then we did some experiments. With a computer screen on the humans. Of course the fish weren’t dong anything and I think this is another point about science, particularly when you have lively, fun friends who can have a wild idea, try it out quickly, see whether anything’s going to happen, and this is socially wonderful, and also scientifically crazy, or it can be. It can, of course, be a complete waste of time but occasionally you get a new idea that way. New ideas come not by plod, plod, plod, but by a joke very often or suddenly seeing, you know, a connection between things in a bizarre way. But it’s very important to have friends who have a sense of humour, who enjoy challenges, who can suddenly say, well, to hell with it, let’s try this and see if it works. Serendipity, I think that’s really important actually.

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, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008