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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 21, No. 2. March 27, 1958

The Mammal & His Environment

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The Mammal & His Environment

"It is not necessary for the psychologist to go outside the universe of organic evolution to explain the position of the mind and how it operates," said Dr Scott.

"The 'mind' is a concept; we use the term 'mental' to designate events or aspects of people's activities. It is in order to use this term 'mental' to characterise them, so long as we don't assume we have explained them by putting them down to the working of 'the mind' as a thing, an entity."

Dealing first with common aspects of behaviour, Dr. Scott said the mammal's response to the environment was very selective. What it would notice and respond to depended on what is relevant. Organised behaviour had a temporal sequence—the organism was thus pre-tuned to perceive certain things and disregard other irrelevant things.

Without this pre-tuning the mammal would be continuously distracted and would bat around in a cycle of unfinished activities. On the other hand if there was too much pre-tuning the organism was not very adaptable; its attention became too narrow and it failed to notice important signals in the environment when the situation changed—it was preoccupied.

Our boring world

Without this intense human concentration none of the great feats of human performance would be possible—from abstruse mathematical solutions to pole-vaulting. Our approach to the understanding of organised on-going behaviour has been in terms of this specific response of the brain to particular stimuli. But it has recently emerged that this focussing of the organism on a very small range of relevant stimuli—relevant to the task in hand that is—had curious consequences. In the end it was detrimental to efficient performance.

Boredom was the effect of doing too little for too long. The person who said "I feel terribly tired, I have done nothing to-day' was saying he was bored. It seemed that the brain needed continuous stimulus by a wide range of stimuli, a good many of which would be 'irrelevant'. The man concentrating on the radar screen saw little and did little and though he may not have become tired in the first half hour, he certainly became less efficient at his task. Dr. Scott then described the two routes, the direct and the more indirect, by which a stimulus could reach the brain. The direct route was well known. The stimulation from the retina of the eye traversing the optic nerve passed through the thalamus, along the temporal radiations to a particular part of the brain—the visual cortex, the first six cell layers at the back of the head. The second route was not a simple, direct, express route but, except for smell, a slower, scattered, more diffuse one. It took off from the main route by collaterals into a pool of neurones in the brain stream. From this pool, which was stirred into general activity by incoming stimuli, protectives went diffusely to various parts of the cortex and these carried the genera! 'alerting' stimulation not a specific signal.

Brain stimuli plotted

Electrical responses in the brain, plotted on an oscilloscope could measure the effect of the stimuli. Two rhythms had been noted—a resting rhythm when 12 responses per second were recorded and an active rhythm, which was [unclear: characterised] by fast and sharp changes.

When a single stimulus reached the [unclear: resting] brain it showed up as a definite [unclear: response] at the specific receiving centre; [unclear: soon after] it also reached the brain dif[unclear: uscly] from the pool of neurones in the [unclear: train] stern. The effect was to replace the [unclear: csting] rhythm by an active rhythm; the [unclear: at] woke up or became active, yawned, [unclear: nd] so on. He was alerted. "But after a [unclear: hile] if you go on feeding in the same [unclear: timulus] you will go on picking up the [unclear: ingle] signal at the cortex, but the active [unclear: hythm] will fail to appear—and the animal will fail to be alerted," explained Dr. Scott.

This was what was known as the habituation of the activating mechanism There came a time when the cortex ceased to be alerted by a given stimuli. But if there was any change in the pitch or tone of the stimulus the reaction began all over again.

Maybe for the man concentrating on the radar screen, the stimulus or 'blip' ceased to activate; all the other unchanging stimuli about him likewise. An experiment was carried out to see what effect long exposure to a narrow range of unchanging sensation would have. Subjects were isolated from normal stimuli. Their eyes were covered with goggles which admitted light but did not permit vision; they could hear nothing save the hum of an amplifier and an air conditioner; their cubicle where they lay on a' comfortable couch was semi-sound proof; they could not feel because their hands were covered with cotton gloves and cardboard tubes; they did not shave or wash; they were allowed to go to the toilet and eat with guidance. "The aim was to make the subject's environment as bland, flat and perceptibly characterless as possible." The subject was well rested and eager for things to do, e.g. problems to solve. But his efficiency fell off dramatically; they did not succeed at tasks they set themselves. After 36 hours the students were utterly and desperately bored.

Besides test results demonstrating their inefficiency there were other examples too of their confusion. The musician who believed he had discovered a beautiful cadence for his symphonic work later found that it was one he had rejected a week earlier. In this environment the subjects became quite absent minded: those who attempted to think could not develop a clear, logical line.

Subjects also started reporting odd things. Most observed visual and auditory hallucinations which developed from the simple to the complex, and were similar to those experienced by people who take such drugs as mescal. Although on release the subjects assumed that their behaviour was quite normal they were still for a time quite inefficient. Most behaved as if they were mildly schizophrenic the symptoms of which persisted for several days.

Deterioration of a similar though milder sort, explained Dr. Scott, resulted in mental tasks requiring long concentration. Also, there was certain evidence that habituation to the activating aspects of the environment was accumulative; as the day wore on the brain ceased to be activated without a complete change of scene or activity. Recovery was effected through sleep—which was at the same time a period of perceptual isolation. Thus one had to recover from the ill effects of sleep before the beneficial effects could "come out.

Oh, for those few creative moments

In conclusion Dr. Scott referred to the social implications of these facts about human behaviour. "There are many examples where our institutions force on us periods of perceptual isolation, long or short, as for instance some prisons and long air flights. Further, the high points of human thinking and efficiency require the minimum of obviously distracting and irrelevent stimuli. Yet it is paradoxical that these are the very conditions which will inevitably lead to quick deterioration. Close concentration cuts us off too completely from the range of stimulations with which the brain must be bombarded if it is to remain in its best, most efficiently organised working condition. Most of man's Noblest, most creative moments are indeed moments only; we take off but we remain airborne only briefly. Our best thoughts comes only in bursts."

The Editors regret that a summary of the [unclear: ddress] 'Crime: Sin or Disease'? by Rev. L. C. [unclear: elemenls], Senior Chaplain of Prisons, has been [unclear: able] to be included.

Dr T. H. Scott M.A.. Ph.D. (McGill). Chairman, Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Psychology, University of Auckland. Previously Research Assistant at McGill University, 1952-54, and Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Canterbury. Toured the United States on a Carnegie Grant in 1955. An N.Z.U. Blue in Hockey and a writer for various journals, including "Landfall."