Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

March 2, 2001

When I began to study psychology back in 1972, it was still very much a "rats and stats" subject. There were other topics of course - I vividly remember those exciting early lectures on visual illusions. But conditioning, psychometrics and behavioural methodologies were dominant, and the big debate concerned B. F. Skinner's just-published Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

There was, however, a paradigm shift gathering momentum. The humanistic school of Carl Rogers was making an impact; Henri Tajfel and others were transforming social psychology, in Europe at least; and the efforts of J. S. Bruner and others were beginning to mature into what ultimately became known as psychology's cognitive revolution. In my first few years in psychology, though, these alternatives were disconnected islands of knowledge in a sea of behaviourism and neurological experimentation. Or so it seemed to me.

Don't get me wrong: I found it fascinating -well, most of it (there were one or two limitations to the excitement, such as the more arcane permutations of conditioning theory). But the psychology of learning did not connect with the psychology of memory. The psychology of vision and the psychology of attention were separate topics. And the idea of the self -of a whole human being somewhere amid all of these disconnected mechanisms - did not seem to have any place at all.

Ulrich Neisser changed all that. Cognition and Reality: Principles and Implications of Cognitive Psychology brought together diverse bits of psychological knowledge, and synthesised them into a meaningful whole. Neisser took apparently contradictory sets of findings in cognitive psychology and showed how they work together. What seems incompatible makes complete sense when one realises that it is a person doing the cognising and that the person is physically active in their world, and anticipating it.

Neisser showed how the tendency of experimental psychologists to isolate small, discrete aspects of cognition and to ignore context produces anomalies or apparent problems that disappear when context and activity are taken into account. As he remarked: "Most psychologists do not believe in ghosts, but they often experiment with stimuli that appear just as mysteri-ously. This may be a mistake; at the very least, it creates an unusual situation."

The criticism applied to more than cognition. It was a message that transformed my whole approach to psychology. Neisser was not throwing these data away: his synthesis brought a huge number of research findings into contact with everyday observations. He also brought together findings from across psychology, not just from cognitive research. And he did so with a scholarly rigour that has been an inspiration for me ever since.

Nicky Hayes lectures in social psychology at the University of Bradford.

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