a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


The future: technology and the mind


An essay on Sherlock Holmes
Richard Gregory Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments
I’ve recently written an essay, I love writing essays, ever since being at Cambridge when one wrote one’s essay to one’s supervisor. I’ve gone on writing essays and have just written one which is not yet published actually on Sherlock Holmes whom I like very much, really suggesting that the brain is Sherlock Holmes, that the brain is the super-detective. The analogy works like this, that when you’re looking at something and you’re seeing an object, let’s say a person or a pillar-box or anything, that object is not directly represented in the brain. There’s no direct representation, there’s a pattern in the retina on the eye, like a photograph, but the perception of the object is not given all in one go of the whole object at once. It is at the brain accepts bits of movement, bits of colour, bits of shape, puts all these things together and then creates the object in your mind from brain activity which is spread around in all sorts of different parts of the brain. So it’s quite different actually from a photograph or put it another way, when you look at a photograph and you see an object, your brain is doing an amazing amount of work, as it were, creating what the object probably is from that photograph and you see it as a person or, again, a pillar box because you know about people, you know about pillar boxes, you recognise this bit of shape as an eyebrow, that bit of shape is the bit where you put the letter in and so on, and then you construct the object actively in the brain. That is what perception does. Now, I think that’s exactly, in a way, what was going on with Sherlock Holmes. He had these clues, you know, he’d see the thing, it might be a horseshoe in the mud, in the shape of it, sees a little curved bit and he realises, oh, that must be Silver Blaze’s hoof marks, sort of thing, from a little twiddle in the mud, sort of thing, so I think this use of clues, actively creating the hypothesis that it’s the villain, let’s say, or that it’s a horse that was stolen, is exactly what’s happening in perception. I see the brain as the great detective, using clues, developing hypothesis and sometimes there’s not enough information either available to the eye or from one’s background knowledge, you need both, to create the hypothesis and then you either can’t see, you’re blind, or you see the wrong thing, your hypothesis is not appropriate or correct. And I think it’s exactly the same with Sherlock Holmes and how we see the world.

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, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008