An unbroken century of eclectic commitment

October 24, 1997

UCL established Britain's first psychology department 100 years ago, but Marya Burgess says not everything has changed since then.

This week University College London celebrates the centenary of its psychological laboratory, the first in England. While philosophers as far back as Aristotle proposed theories for the workings of the human mind, it was not until the 19th century that physics and physiology were sufficiently advanced to allow for a scientific understanding and measurement of how the senses respond to stimuli.

Laboratories with apparatus for measuring reaction times were already established in Germany, France and the United States when, in 1896, an editorial in the Journal of Education deplored the "national disgrace that there does not exist one psychological laboratory in England". Yet psychology was being taught; from the 1850s UCL exam papers in philosophy required an exploration of sensation, emotion, perception, volition and attention. And it was the professor of philosophy, James Sully, who led the campaign to establish the psychological laboratory, opened in 1897 with W. H. R. Rivers in charge. A physiologist interested in anthropology, Rivers is now better known as the army psychiatrist who treated Siegfried Sassoon and others for shell-shock during the first world war, as chronicled in Pat Barker's trilogy of novels.

Henry Plotkin, head of psychology at UCL, believes that Rivers would not find today's department totally unrecognisable. The primary purpose is still measurement, he says. "If you can't measure it, it ain't science. Of course, the big difference is computers, and the extent to which we can resolve neuro-science measurement through brain-imaging."

Rivers would certainly recognise some strands of research. Associative learning was one of the original planks of psychology as a science, the notion that what we know only comes to us through our senses, and that we make sense of the world by blocking it into various units that we "associate" with one another, and so acquire new knowledge by association. It is now the domain of computational neural network modellers and those working on associative learning in animals. There is still work on the theory of mind, in conjunction with the Medical Research Council's cognitive development unit, exploring how far individuals can attribute a mental state to somebody else.

Plotkin believes that this is some of the most significant work in psychology today, "particularly the application of theory of mind to autism and similar disorders, and our understanding of what goes wrong when people suffer these conditions".

Other areas of research would be less familiar: the psychopharmacologist working on Ecstasy and the mood changes it induces days later; the social psychologists working on television viewing and shopping; the women's health research unit; the researcher investigating psychopaths, whose control group is made up of murderers and double-murderers; the work on decision-making that looks at medical accidents; the research into bilingualism which, using brain-imaging techniques, has shown that more than one language can be learned in one part of the brain in the earliest stages of language acquisition, but languages learned later reside in a different area of the brain.

An authority on evolutionary epistemology, Plotkin chose the title professor of psychobiology when he took up the chair four years ago. He admits that "because I tend to be more biological and evolutionary and neurosciencey, those are sides of the subject I've prodded and pushed a little harder perhaps than somebody else who might have pushed the social or clinical side. But now it's such an enormous department, with over 40 academic staff, another 40 researchers, and 50 PhD students, there's an enormous inertia of vested interest and reputation, which makes it extremely hard for any one person to move it without causing a great deal of pain and disruption."

Emeritus professor Bob Audley, Plotkin's predecessor in the chair, testifies to the eclecticism of the department, exemplified by an unbroken commitment to psychoanalysis. Less surprising in the early days, perhaps, when Rivers and his successors were actively trying to analyse the notion of unconsciousness. Although Cyril Burt, who headed the department from 1930-50, is best known for his work on inherited intelligence (and possibly even better known since his data on twins was denounced as fraudulent after his death), he also was very sympathetic to psychoanalysis.

Since the 1950s, psychology at UCL has swung more in line with general experimental psychology, animal learning and behaviour. Yet the Freud professorship remains. According to Audley, "In a department this large, there are tribes and rivalries, but somehow the different branches manage to sit together quite happily - except at examiners' meetings."

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