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My interest in the evolution of vision


Parrot pupils and mirror cells
Richard Gregory Scientist
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My sister-in-law had a wonderful parrot called Seraphita, beautiful, beautiful green parrot, and one day we noticed that when the- it was a talking parrot, that when Seraphita said something, the pupils of its eyes would go in and out, like that, while it was talking, so if it said- Pretty Polly, like that, the pupils of its eyes went in and out. Then we noticed, this was amazing, that when we talked to it, when it was cocking its head and listening to us, its eyes would go in and out, so we said- Pretty Polly, the same thing happened, with a slight delay and so we photographed this with a cine camera, measured the delay, did some experiments on it, and we came to the conclusion that the pupils of its eyes would respond to sounds or words that it understood but not to other sounds or words, only in the, you know, the vocabulary that it appreciated or that it could itself make or speak, so we had the idea that this was a response to attention and that the pupils get smaller, really from manipulating nuts and things in its paws, in its claws, but this attention of affect was shown up by the pupils in the eye, you got the physiological change, it was a matter of attention, therefore you could measure attention in the parrot by looking at its pupils and there were similar physiological changes in us when we attend to something or when we’re stressed or, you know, when we’re suffering pain or anxiety and these things and this business of relating psychological states to physiological changes is jolly important and I think it’s really fun to look at that in us and also in animals and then relate animals to us physiologically and into psychology into their psychology. Incidentally, I have a sort of vague feeling that this parrot thing with the eyes, may mean that they’ve got what we call mirror cells, they recently discovered it in humans. When you’re watching somebody else performing an action, there are cells in your brain which become active as though you’re doing the action yourself and this gives a kind of empathy from oneself to other people and it’s just possible that in talking parrot, they’ve got mirror cells which at the moment are only known in primates so the next step would be to record from the parrot’s brain whether- discover whether it’s got mirror cells. It would be brilliant if it has.

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: Sally Duensing Adam Hart-Davis

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.

Duration: 2 minutes, 46 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008