Independent Choice: Science Books
Dixon, Bernard, The Independent (London, England)
Stupid things, mirrors," the comedian Tony Hancock said in one of his Sixties radio programmes. "Why can't they reflect things properly?" For many years, the neuropsychologist Richard Gregory has persisted in believing that Hancock's question deserves an answer and that many of those on offer are plainly wrong. His mission has been to show that our experience of mirrors, and of optical illusions, can help us to think about the still mysterious processes of perception. With abundant examples drawn not only from science but also from art, psychology and other domains, his latest book Mirrors in Mind (WH Freeman/ Spektrum, pounds 25) brings these issues to life with exceptional clarity and vitality.
Hancock's irritation stemmed from the fact that things seen in a looking- glass are reversed from left to right, but not top to bottom. "Mirror writing", for example, does not appear upside down. But this is by no means the only oddity. Look at each of your eyes alternately in a mirror. They do not appear to move. Yet a friend's eyes clearly do move if you ask him or her to look at one of your eyes and then the other. Why?
As Richard Gregory indicates, the first step towards understanding these phenomena is to realise that they raise questions at all. Gregory is an illuminating pilot, leading us through many competing interpretations to his goal of establishing that perception is not a passive acquisition of information from the outside world. It is an active process in which our brain uses past experience as well as incoming sensory cues. "The paradox of seeing oneself through a mirror while knowing one is in front of it . . . is not in the mirror or the light," Gregory writes. "It is in our perception. If we were either more or less stupid, such paradoxes might change, or disappear, or become even richer." Mirrors also appear in How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 11.99). The neurophysiologist William Calvin describes how some animals can recognise themselves in a mirror, while others try to attack or befriend the reflected image. A capuchin monkey will spend weeks threatening the "other animal" when a mirror is placed in its cage, whereas chimpanzees know who it is either immediately or within a few days. Calvin considers and then eliminates the idea of self-recognition as something that intelligence is not. He discards IQ, too, because it is simply "one fascinating aspect of intelligence", which should not subsume others. The capacity for complex behaviour is another tempting definition of intelligence, but not a plausible one because it can be innate, wired in from birth. Calvin is much more taken by Jean Piaget's notion that intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do: "This captures the element of novelty, the coping and groping needed when there is no `right …
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Publication information: Article title: Independent Choice: Science Books. Contributors: Dixon, Bernard - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: March 1, 1997. Page number: 7. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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