Oral history of British science

Humphrey, Nicholas (4 of 13).  An Oral History of British Science

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  • Subjects

    Science and Religion

  • Recording date

    2016-05-24, 2016-05-31, 2016-06-02, 2016-07-05

  • Recording locations

    The British Library and interviewees' home, Cambridge

  • Interviewees

    Humphrey, Nicholas, 1943- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 4: [Session two: 31st May 2016] Comments on Natural Sciences Tripos, UOC including details of lecturers/tutors in zoology, physiology and psychology. [5:10] Story of physiology tutor and director of studies, Giles Brindley; other memorable lectures. Comments on Department of Physiology, UOC at this time; contrast with Department of Experimental Psychology [DEP]. Comments on Head of DEP Oliver Zangwill. Comments on lecturers, DEP, with stories; influence on self of lecturers Richard Gregory (teaching on visual perception with assistant Steve Salter) and neuropsychologist Larry Weiskrantz [LW]. [16:41] Comments on involvement in student politics, including membership of Labour Club, service as secretary of National Association of Labour Student Organisations, friendship with Angus Calder, involvement in Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament [CND] and anti-war group Committee of 100 (with stories of civil disobedience, arrest); interest in the arts, including service as co-editor of Granta magazine, with stories; pursuit of interest in parapsychology through membership of Psychical Research Society, with story of investigation of Hugh Whittaker's 'automatic writing' and discussions with philosopher CD Broad. [28:41] Comments on taking of final examinations in psychology and physiology, including experience of migraines; award of MRC [Medical Research Council] scholarship to support PhD research supervised by LW. Mentions LW's laboratory in DEP for investigation of effects of brain lesions in monkeys. Comments on PhD on effects of inferotemporal lesions [ILT] and parietal cortex lesions [PCL] on size constancy and shape discrimination in monkeys' visual perception, including description of experimental set up, unexpected results, development of theoretical model consistent with these results, publication of results in paper with Susan Iversen. [36:37] Begins story of discovering form of vision in monkey whose visual cortex [VC] had been removed. [38:37] Story of earlier work in PhD on 'single cell recording' in brains of animals, including period of work learning the technique with David Whitteridge, University of Edinburgh, application to recording from cells in superior colliculus [SC] ('optic tectum' in other vertebrates) in hindbrain of monkeys, recording of these cells during experiment involving lights on Perspex dome linked to cathode ray oscilloscope (mentions assistance of Stephen Salter and co-authored paper describing the technique/apparatus). [43:27] Comments on discovery of properties of SC that seemed to suggest that the SC might afford visual abilities (in absence of VC) that had not been observed in LW's monkeys. Continues story of discovering form of vision in a monkey ('Helen') whose visual cortex [VC] had been removed, during period of absence of LW. Comments on co-authored paper published in 'Nature': 'Vision in Monkeys after Removal of the Striate Cortex' [1967]. Story of continuation of work with Helen (over next 6 years), including agreement of LW to postpone post-mortem examinations of Helen's brain, move with LW and Heleb to University of Oxford [UO] (employed as 'Demonstrator') [in 1967], development of Helen's visual abilities, move back to UOC with Helen to Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour [SDAB], Department of Zoology [in 1970]. [49:31] Story of switch to working with Helen outdoors at SDAB, including initial role of young French researcher with experience of working with monkeys in the field; death and post-mortem examination of Helen. Comments on writing of paper 'Seeing and Nothingness' ['New Scientist', 1972]. [55:30] Comments on LW's subsequent work on 'blindsight' in humans with damaged VC. Mentions related discussions in neuroscience and philosophy. Comments on relations between own work with Helen, and later work on nature of consciousness (especially appreciation of what is possible without consciousness). [59:13] Comments on tendency, at this time, not to think in directly evolutionary terms about the brain; paper published in 1970 'What the frog's eye tells the monkey's brain' (involving analogy of frog and monkey without a VC); early reading of/interest in evolution; move to work more directly concerned with evolutionary biology following move to SDAB. [1:01:51] Story of origins of relationship with anthropologist Caroline Waddington [CW]; marriage in Russia; return home (leaving CW studying in Russia) with Russian icons. [1:10:21] Story of first years of marriage to CW, living apart (self in Oxford, CW in Russia); beginnings of affair with married colleague 'Joan' in Department of Experimental Psychology, UO; move back to UOC [in 1970] in part to escape complications of this affair (though Joan moved to Cambridge). [1:12:53] Comments on decision to pursue research at UOC, begun at UO, on monkeys' aesthetic preferences (with reflections on personal reasons for choosing this line of research); finding (while still at OU) of generally negative response to art and music but clear colour preferences (including clearly blue over red); employment as Assistant Director of Research, SDAB, UOC. [1:17:13] Comments on difference between SDAB and previously experienced departments of psychology, including SDAB's focus on natural history and ethology, including field primate research (mentions Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey [DF]). Story of accepting DF's invitation to join her at field site in Rwanda, involving organisation of funding (including Royal Society funded project measuring skulls of 8 mountain gorillas). Story of death of these gorillas, in relation to activities of DF. Comments on racism of DF; learning of techniques for measurement gorilla skulls; experience of sights/landscape at DF's mountain camp (with story of urinating on leg of elephant). [1:24:10] Story of preparing and measuring bones of mountain gorillas here; reporting of result of asymmetry in skulls (mentions co-authored 'Nature' paper with Colin Groves 'Asymmetry in Gorilla Skulls'). Comments on right-handedness of gorillas. [1:28:23] Story of experiences tracking and observing mountain gorillas near DF's field camp in Rwanda. Comments on observation of inactivity in the gorillas and development of view that interaction with other gorillas, rather than with the physical environment, might explain evolution of their relatively advanced cognitive abilities, leading to work on the evolution of intelligence; development of this view in relation to observation of gorillas and reflection on social complexity of own life at the time. [1:34:18] Story of writing 'The Social Function of Intellect' for book marking 25th anniversary of SDAB 'Growing Points in Ethology' [1976]. Comments on content of this chapter; influence of this paper on new field of evolutionary psychology and social neuroscience; work on 'theory of mind'; own characterisation of role of intelligence in humans as 'natural psychologists'; own thinking on role of varied and challenging human experiences in development of ability to understand others, explored in television programme 'The Inner Eye'. [1:41:45] Comments on involvement of many members of SDAB in CND in late 1970s (mentions involvement of Pat Bateson [PB], Robert Hinde) involving weekend campaigning, talks. Mentions BBC Radio 4 programme written and presented by self: 'The Illusion of Beauty' [1976]. Story of invitation by producer of this programme to give the third Bronowski Memorial Lecture, BBC Television [1981]; giving of this lecture, subsequently, at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, with story of delivery of money in cake. [1:47:02] Story of leaving post in SDAB to spend two years making a ten part television series on consciousness for Channel 4: 'The Inner Eye'. [1:49:56] Comments on end to marriage to CW and end to affair with Joan; continuation of friendship with CW. Story of meeting Michael Wells [MW], then husband of Susannah York [SY]; dinner with MW and SY; relationship with SY [1977-1984] including period living together in Cambridge. Mentions 'public scandal' surrounding relationship and its end. Comments on effect of relationship with SY on invitation to make 'The Inner Eye'; continuation of friendship with SY and MW. [1:56:33] Mentions relative neglect of work during relationship with SY. Story of unsuccessful attempt to rejoin SDAB after making 'The Inner Eye' in 1986; making of television programme on paranormal activity for Channel 4 'Is There Anybody There?', including reasons why it was not repeated, content on the 'Woodbridge UFO' and 'The Apparition at Knock'. [2:07:31] Story of meeting philosopher Daniel Dennett [DD] through friendship with Jeremy Cherfas, leading to appointment as Visiting Fellow in the Center for Cognitive Studies, Department of Philosophy, Tufts University [TU], US, working with DD.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Professor of Psychology Dr Nicholas Humphrey

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