Unsung mad scientists
Although I call myself a psychologist, my PhD was in vision science, which isn’t something you’d normally think of when you think of psychology. When you ask most people what they think psychologists do, they’ll say something like mind-reading, or they’ll be scared you’re analysing them or something. Or they’ll say something like “ooh I wonder if you know what’s going on inside my head.” If they’re a daily mail reader, they’ll ramble incoherently that you’re spending their tax money on researching something that’s blindingly obvious. Psychology’s obviously much more than that though, and it covers a load of different areas that you wouldn’t necessarily think about, like vision.
So I was planning on providing a bit of a background to the kind of classic research that vision scientists have done, some of the really cool stuff, in the hopes that people might see psychology in a different light. But the thing is, when I started looking into some of old school vision experiments, I ended up coming to one really quite sobering conclusion: vision scientists are absolutely, without doubt, a-grade mental (not me though, just the other ones. Er, not my PhD supervisor either, he was okay). When you think of the classic mad scientist, you usually think of some old guy with crazy white hair, maybe a chemist, holding up some test tubes laughing maniacally, and he’s usually got one eye looking at you and one eye looking for you. Do you know why that is? Because a vision scientist got to him first. Vision scientists are without doubt the unsung heroes of the mad science world.
Let’s take an example. My PhD was all to do with eye movements, and how we move our eyes to look at something that’s moving around in front of you. Your eyes are controlled by tiny muscles that surround it, and it was the movements and sensations that these muscles create that caught the interest of some of the early vision researchers. When you look around a room, information from the movements that these muscles make is combined with the actual visual information from your eyes, and your brain tells you that the world out there is stable. If you don’t get those two sets of information at the same time, it all goes a bit wrong - you can try it yourself if you close one eye, and push on the side of the other with your finger. It looks like the world’s moving all around you, because your eye’s moving but the muscles surrounding it causing that movement.
It was a German scientist called Kornmuller who showed this experimentally in the 1930s. Before then people had just been wandering around, anecdotally poking and prodding their eyes. But then along came Kornmuller, who wanted to test this with a controlled experiment. How did he do this? Basically by clamping his head to a table, and injecting novocaine into his eye muscles. He wasn’t even actually trying to do an experiment, they’d just run out of jagermeister at the bar he was in. So you might be thinking “well, that’s pretty crazy, but there were lots of one off experiments like that back in the early days”, which is fair enough - but the thing is, loads of people have tried to replicate this! I think one of my favourites is by two researchers from Cambridge who did it in the 1970s, but didn’t want to faff around with novocaine. Nope, so instead, they got their participant in, fixed their head to stay still, and had an assistant hold their eyelids as wide open as possible and then grabbed their eyeballs with forceps. Because that’s not terrifying at all.
Here’s another example. In the 1920s, there was a psychologist called Carney Landis who was interested in facial expressions. More to the point, he was interested in whether there were universal facial expressions, which means he wanted to know if lots of people pulled the same types of facial expressions when they were put in similar circumstances. So is there one expression that everyone uses when they’re disgusted, for instance? Anyway, Carney started off by getting some burnt cork and drawing some outlines on his participants faces so he could assess the movements of their facial muscles, and then photographed their expressions as he got them to different things, like smell ammonia (which I guess he did to elicit disgust), listen to jazz (which I also guess he did to elicit disgust), and then shove their hands into a bucket of slimy frogs (er, disgust?). Then came the nightmare finale of the experiment. Carney would bring out a live rat and a knife, and ask the participant to decapitate it. Now, I know what you’re thinking - who the hell calls their kid Carney? Stupid name, they must have liked fun fairs. But the interesting thing was that about 2/3rds of the participants actually went through with it. So the thing about Carney’s experiment is that he showed how obedient people were willing to be, even in crazy situations, a full 40 years before the famous Milgram experiments of the 1960w. But the best part is that Carney didn’t even notice! He was never interested in all that stuff, he was just interested in the facial expressions that people pulled. And just to completely fulfill the nutter criteria, for the other third of his participants that didn’t kill the rat, Carney just went ahead and did it for them. I mean, I’ve had participants in my experiments who’ve ended up rocking and crying in the corner of the room, but that tends to be out of boredom, not sheer terror.
So next time you talk to someone, especially around Halloween, who tells you that they’re a psychologist, be careful if you jokingly ask them what’s going on inside your head, because they might be a vision scientist, and they might take your offer a bit too literally...