UCL History of the Psychological Disciplines Lecture

Monday 1st December

Marcia Holmes (Birkbeck)

Performing Proficiency: Psychological Experiments on Man-Machine Systems in the United States, 1950-1965

Historians have traced American psychology’s ‘Cognitive Revolution’—and its defining metaphor of the mind as information processor—to World War II, when the American and British militaries employed experimental psychologists to improve servicemen’s proficiency in operating the war’s complex electronics for communication, command and control. Yet the problem of matching men’s abilities to the design of machines not only encouraged the theorisation of cognition and information processing; it also motivated a new field of applied experimental psychological research, now known as human factors engineering. During the early years of the Cold War, this field of psychological engineering pioneered an elaborate form of behavioral experiment called ‘man-machine systems simulation.’ In this talk I will argue that interpreting these man-machine systems simulations through a cognitive or cybernetic lens, as some historians have done, misses their more direct, contemporary significance. For the psychologists conducting the experiments, these simulations performed the possibility of maintaining liberal-democratic sociability within the Cold War’s regimented networks of military command and control. Recognizing the performative aspects of man-machine systems simulations, I argue, sheds new light on the political and epistemological stakes of the Cognitive Revolution in psychology.

Date: Monday 1st December

Time: 6-7.30pm

Location:  Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place, University College London.


UCL/BPS History of the Psychological Disciplines Seminar

Monday 24th November 2014


Professor Joel Eigen (Franklin and Marshall College)

Medical Testimony and the Dynamics of Forensic Diagnosis at the Old Bailey, 1760-1913

With the enigmatic diagnosis of Homicidal Mania, forensic psychiatric witnesses in late Victorian insanity trials introduced a form of mental derangement that for the first time excluded cognitive impairment. How medical men constructed a disease out of distracted volition and the role played by an administrative change that brought doctor and prisoner before trial is the subject for this talk. The research is based on a study of courtroom testimony given in 1,000 Old Bailey insanity trials. Joel Eigen has written of the origins and evolution of forensic psychiatry in Witnessing Insanity, Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court (Yale, l993) and Unconscious Crime, Mental Absence and Criminal Responsibility in Victorian London (Johns Hopkins, 2003). He is currently working on the third and final book in this series, the subject of this seminar.

Organiser: Professor Sonu Shamdasani (UCL)

Time: 6pm to 7.30 pm.

Location:  Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place, University College London.

BPS/UCL History of Psychological Disciplines Seminar

Monday 10th November 2014

  Dr. Alan Collins (University of Lancaster)

 The right kind of remembering: Nineteenth-century popular texts on memory training and the psychology of self-improvement.

 Much has been written on the history of mnemonics and the art of memory but in the twentieth-century memory increasingly became an object of science and psychological science in particular.  The emergence of this science is traditionally associated with the development of laboratory-based studies at the end of the nineteenth century.  However, in this paper I explore a very different literature from the same period: texts and pamphlets on memory improvement intended for popular audiences which began to appeal to the ‘science’ of memory as the basis for their advice.  These texts held out the promise that a well-grounded knowledge of the nature of memory could be harnessed to a firm will and good habits in order to improve oneself.  I explore the claims of these texts to offer means of improving memory that connected a grounded knowledge of memory with everyday practices.  These renewed efforts were not task-specific nor about resisting the effects of ageing but instead were offered up as contributing to social and financial betterment and improving one’s self generally.  The texts sought to weld together a somewhat sketchy science of memory, the improvement of the self and social advancement.  Following the work of Mathew Thomson on psychological subjects, Michael Billig on banality and Sally Shuttleworth on science in periodicals, I also reflect on how literatures often considered marginal might contribute to our understanding of how certain concepts, such as memory, have become primarily psychological concepts.

Organiser: Professor Sonu Shamdasani (UCL)

Time: 6pm to 7.30 pm.

Location:  Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place, University College London.


From the Torrington Place entrance to UCL, enter the campus on Malet Place. After fifty metres, you will find Foser court on the right hand side. Turn right under the underpass, and enter via the second door on the right. The common room is straight ahead.