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History of the EPS: Meetings

J. D. Mollon

The Inaugural Meeting of the Experimental Psychology Group was held in the (old) Library on the first floor of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory on Saturday, October 19th, 1946, at 2.30 p.m. Two papers were presented and discussed. One by G. C. Grindley and Valerie Townsend (then Dees) was entitled 'The Transposition of Visual Patterns' (later published in the British Journal of Psychology, 1947, vol. 37, p 152). The second, by N. H. Mackworth, was entitled 'Some Internal Inhibition Effects in a Vigilance Test' (later published in the Quarterly Journal, 1948, vol. 1, p 6). Grindley, known to everyone as 'C', was a modest and charming figure, much loved by his colleagues despite being alcoholic for a large part of his life. In a letter to me of June 1995 Valerie Townsend writes of the Inaugural Meeting: "I was very nervous, which is probably why I remember very little else. I was nervous for C who badly wanted to do well; it was a long time since he had done anything in front of his peers. I knew only too well what could happen when C got nervous. I also knew I would not do his work credit if I had to take over. He did cope and I think all went well.' The Minutes in fact record: 'A keen discussion followed, in which the relative merits of physiological and psychological theories of learning were warmly debated by their respective protagonists.'

The second meeting of the EPG was held in the Senior Common Room of the London School of Economics on January 4th, 1947. Eysenck read a paper on 'The Measurement of Personality', which was based on experimental work done at Mill Hill Emergency Hospital and at the Maudsley. The Minutes (in Zangwill's hand) record: 'His paper was followed by a lively discussion, and there was considerable difference of opinion as to the interpretation of the "neuroticism" factor revealed by this work.' The second paper was by W. E. Hick and entitled 'Man as an Element in a Control System'. At a meeting in Burt's Department in April of that year, Blackburn read a paper entitled 'Intelligence and Social Class', which was in part critical of Burt. The Minutes record that Sir Cyril replied at some length. 'He made it clear that he regarded the existing evidence regarding intelligence and fertility inadequate for any final conclusion to be drawn but that it was his private opinion that some decline had taken place. He did not deny that environmental influence affected intelligence test scores but he would not place this influence greater than 20 p.c. He also criticized strongly Holzinger's work on identical twins.'

During the 1940's and 1950's British experimental psychology took an international lead in developing the idea of man as an information processing system, an idea quite alien to most laymen before the war but now a commonplace to the average television viewer. The EPG was a primary forum for this movement: central to the Group's proceedings were papers on reaction times, information processing, selective attention, dual-task performance, motor control, and the role of external and neural noise in determining sensory thresholds. It was the Quarterly Journal that carried W. E. Hick's celebrated paper 'On the rate of gain of information' (1952, vol 4, p 11).

The EPG and the EPS have had a particularly important role in developing the field of neuropsychology, the application of the techniques and concepts of experimental psychology to the study of brain-damaged patients.Oliver Zangwill himself was central to the early developments and to the specialist use of the term 'neuropsychology'.(Henri Hécaen and he were also prominent in the 'International Symposium of Neuropsychology', a group that first met in 1951 and that was originally organised somewhat on the EPG model.). As early as July 19, 1947, at its first three-day meeting, held in Oxford, the EPG arranged a symposium on retrograde amnesia. The speakers were W. Ritchie Russell, E. Guttmann and O. L. Zangwill. Neuropsychology in the technical sense remained a small British and European speciality during the 1950's and 1960's, but by the 1980's the discipline had become much more populous, and neuropsychological papers were a dominant feature of the meetings of the EPS. In 1991 a joint meeting was held in Sussex with the British Neuropsychological Society. There can be little doubt of the contribution of the EPS to the dramatic expansion of neuropsychology.