Professor Ross Day, psychology

Professor Ross Day

Ross Henry Day was born in Albany, WA in 1927. Day completed his secondary education at Albany High School in 1945 and then started a BSc (Hons) at the University of Western Australia (1946-49). While in his third year, Ross Day was offered a graduate assistant position in psychology, which he held throughout his honours year. In 1950 Day moved to the University of Bristol, first as an assistant lecturer (1950-51) and then research fellow (1951-55). Whilst at the University of Bristol, Ross Day completed a PhD in psychology (1952-54).

Dr Day returned to Australia and the University of Sydney as lecturer (1955-59), then senior lecturer (1959-61) and finally reader (1962-64). Monash University then offered Dr Day the foundation chair of the department of psychology, which he accepted. Professor Day was at Monash from 1965 to 1992 and, as well as establishing a strong experimental psychology department, he served as associate dean of the faculty of science from 1981-83. After retirement Professor Day became adjunct professor in psychology at La Trobe University where he continues to conduct experiments into perceptual illusions.

Interviewed by Professor Max Coltheart in 2011.


My name is Max Coltheart and I am here today to interview Professor Ross Day. Ross is an experimental psychologist, Fellow of the Academy and somebody whom I have known for 53 years.

Idyllic Albany

Ross, it is always interesting to trace the career trajectories of scientists. I know that you came from a little country town. Albany, is that right?

Albany is right.

How big was Albany?

The town was small, about 3,000 people. In many ways, it was an idyllic existence. Even though it was the 1930s, which was the middle of the Depression years, we weren’t affected by the Depression. My family were bakers and well to do and my grandfather had a prominent role in civic affairs. I wasn’t aware of the poor. Somebody sent me an old photograph taken in 1935 and there I am, one of three boys in the photograph, and the only one with a tie on. All the others had rag tags and bobtails. People were out of work. But, by and large, we were given freedom. We wandered all around town. It was a safe place to be. We had regular trips to Perth for holidays and that sort of thing. So, by and large, it was an ideal existence. Not quite out of the movies but, nevertheless, we were free to do more or less what we wanted to do.

You went both to primary and secondary school in Albany. What were those schools like?

I went to three schools in Albany. The first was called the Albany Infant School, which was for my first two years of schooling – I think it might have been three. Then I went to the Albany State School and then the Albany High School. They were all within walking distance of home, so there was no long travel or having to be collected or anything of that sort.

How did you feel about school? Did you enjoy it?

I loved it. I was always the first to put my hand up – it embarrasses me to say that now. But, if we were asked a question, especially in areas like history and geography, I was always the know-all. My reputation in that regard was firmly established and then when I got to high school I was known as ‘the doc’.

At school, did you like every subject or were there special favourites?

Biology and chemistry were the two subjects I enjoyed most. Physics threw me a bit, but I still enjoyed it and we had good teachers. Because books were freely available, both at home and in the local library, I always used to go and read up on things which I had been taught in the course of the lessons.

Did your two brothers go to the same school as you?

Yes, but they didn’t last. My older brother left high school when he was 14. He wanted to be like his grandfather and make a lot of money, which in due course he did with a vengeance. My younger brother was only interested in boats and sailing. He left around that age as well so that he could engage in all the sorts of hobbies that he had on the water in his launches which he built himself.

This is like your own son, who is also interested in boats.

Yes, very much so. In fact, they have met on two or three occasions and were immediately in conversation about this and that. But my two brothers were never interested in anything academic. I went in a completely different direction – or they went in a different direction to me.

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Clear path to university

Was it typically for people to go on to university from your high school? Did many do that?

I once counted the high school class, there were about 25 students. I think about eight of us went on. I have since decided that Albany High School was a very good school. One of them, whom I haven’t met for years and years, finished up in the University of Illinios. Others went into medicine and engineering. Maybe four or five of them did well, in that sort of professional sense.

When you finished high school, were there various alternatives in your mind, or was it quite clear that you were going to go on to university?

It never occurred to me to go anywhere else. My father was not an easy man to get on with. He was, by and large, uneducated in the formal sense but well read. He was very reserved. I don’t think I ever heard him laugh aloud. He had a brother who was a distinguished ophthalmologist in Perth and who had studied in London. I think that Uncle John became an example to me, an exemplar of the sorts of things that I wanted to do. I hadn’t formulated any ideas to do with medicine, although it was often talked about in the family.

So you went on to do a BSc at the University of Western Australia. And, I suppose, to study biology and chemistry. What other subjects did you study?

In my first year, I did physics, chemistry and biology. I did psychology in my first year because I had read a lot of it in magazines when I was at school – God knows what sort of psychology it was – so I wanted to study it some more. I also wanted to do botany. I had five first-year subjects and botany was added on. You were allowed to do a first year subject in your second year. I passed all of those subjects and then became more involved in psychology because the teaching was good. I know some of it was pretty low-level stuff. When Tim Marshall came along I discovered something called ‘experimental psychology’, that is where I took off.

In psychology at the University of Western Australia, was the first year a mixture of practical classes and lectures?

Yes. I went up to the university in 1946 when the ex-servicemen were flooding into all of the universities. I seem to remember Sydney University had 2,000 students doing psychology in 1946 and 1947 and for the few years after that. So there wasn’t space to have the formal practical classes which I later set up when I was at Monash. At Sydney, even in the time when you and I were there, a good deal of the work was in a tutorial form. You gave demonstrations, but you didn’t have any actual practical work until third year. That was the same in Western Australia.

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Tim Marshall

I know that Tim Marshall made a big impression on you when you were at Western Australia. Why was that?

First of all, even though he was a very incoherent man, he had gone to London in the years before the war to study at University College.

To study psychology?

Yes. Tim graduated in psychology from Western Australia, where the psychology was at a very low level and where the head of the school was a reader. He finished his degree in London and then the war broke out. This was during the period when we were called the British Empire, so Tim went into the air ministry. He was concerned with the selection of various categories of men for the Royal Air Force. His interest was in crew. I think the big aircraft were just coming along - the Lancasters – and ‘bomb aimers’ were one of his specialties. There were probably hundreds and hundreds of people doing those selections at the time. When he came back, he was more interested in what he had been doing before the war than in what he had done during it and he took up that work again. As far as I can remember no­one else was interested.

What was Tim Marshall interested in? What work did he do?

He had done his work on visual dark adaptation. He had published two papers, one in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, and one of them had got quite a lot of publicity. It had been mentioned five times in subsequent papers. I read this, and I knew nothing about the eye.

You read it when you were in first year, is that right?

No. He came along when I was in second year. I went up in 1946 and he appeared on the horizon in late 1947, and that’s when I got to know him.

So Tim was basically an experimental psychologist.

He was, yes. He invited me to do my honours with him, or I asked him whether I could – I can’t remember which way it went. I was switched on even more by that because he had set up a lab which, even by present standards, was pretty good. I mean, there were no electronics but certainly lots of quite cunning electrics. There was one technical officer whose name was ‘Whizzy’ something-or-other – that was his nickname – who was very adept in the workshops at making things. Tim probably took up 80 per cent of his time in getting this lab set up.

You have mentioned that Tim Marshall was rather incoherent. Were you and he, nevertheless, able to communicate effectively?

He could to me personally. I am sorry if this movie is being seen by one of his two sons, who are now well grown up, but it’s true to say that he was among one of the most incoherent lecturers I have ever heard. When he gave lectures he asked me to listen to at least three practice runs. But even then he got it wrong. I don’t know what it was about him. I mean, I knew the language and I had read a lot in it and I knew what he was getting at. It was essentially rods and cones and the way in which the information at the retinas was absorbed and transmitted. His original work for a PhD was outstanding and he got top marks for it. As soon as he came back to Western Australia, he started to do this experimental work.

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Teaching, tracking, thesis

So you got an honours degree in psychology at Western Australia. At that point in your life, what were your options?

I finished my honours degree at the end of 1949 and I was asked to stay on. When I was in my third year, I was appointed by Tim Marshall to a staff position. It was called a graduate assistantship and there was only ever one in the department. I got a salary, 600 quid a year or something. It was quite handsome. I had never had money like that before in my life.

I have always had the impression that Tim had mistaken me for someone else. Many years later, when I got to know him well and we were colleagues, he visited and stayed with us when we lived in Sydney. I tackled him about it and said, ‘Do you remember when you appointed me?’ and he did. I said, ‘Did you think I was someone else?’ and he wouldn’t give me an answer!

So I see you were already a staff member even though an undergraduate. Did you just continue that after graduating?

What I did was to continue my degree. I got first-class honours and came top of the honours year. That led Tim to talk with some of his colleagues in Britain and I was offered two jobs, one in Manchester working in hearing and somebody in Bristol.

Were these teaching positions?

They were teaching positions. The one in Bristol was because somebody had gone abroad for a year and I could fill in for that time, so I did. It was a very small department. I think there were only five people in it. The enrolment in psychology was anywhere between 18 and 22, I would say.

You went overseas for two or three years?

I went overseas, in all, for five years, in 1950. I came home in 1955 to the University of Sydney.

While you were at Bristol in a teaching position, you also did a PhD.

Yes. I did it while I was teaching and my salary was paid by the air ministry. The air ministry had suddenly come to know psychology because of the Cambridge successes in it. They established and gave jobs to individuals in six universities, of which Bristol was one, so that someone could follow through on some of the early findings.

This was on applied psychology and not pure experimental?

No directives were ever given. But the big deal was visual tracking. For one of the tests I had the SMA3. It was an electronic device which had a circular television screen and a joy stick and you had another thing here (indicates). The dot on the screen could either go in a predetermined regular course or be random but always at the same velocity. Although you could vary the velocity been tests. I chose to look into tracking under different degrees of difficulty as well as regular situations – where you could judge what was going to happen next. That was the PhD. Now, how that applied to aircraft I don’t know.

That wasn’t your problem.

It wasn’t my problem. I presented the thesis. George Drew, who was head of the department, never helped me at all. I had great difficulty in writing the preface saying that I owed a great deal to my supervisor. But I made some bow in George’s direction. He was a lazy man. He was later head of department at University College London.

Yes. I came across him then when I was Head of the Board of Studies there.

He succeeded Roger Russell in that job.

When you were doing your PhD at Bristol, did you get much intellectual input from your supervisor?

The Experimental Psychology Society had just begun and was publishing a journal – which is still going. They had two conferences a year and I went regularly to them. I met lots of people and exchanged ideas with them. It was very scholarly. It wasn’t a drunken rort, as so many of those occasions have become. I built up contacts with various people and listened to their work. By and large, I got as much out of that sort of activity as I did out of the department.

Was Richard Gregory in the department?

No. Richard Gregory, who died recently, became one of my best friends. John Brown was on the staff at Bristol and he and Richard had been together in Cambridge. So Richard came down regularly. This was well before Richard went to Bristol on a permanent posting. Do you remember the illusory effect with the bricks along a wall called the Cafe Wall Illusion? I discovered the cafe wall before Richard did, but he never accepted that.

It was in some coffee stop in Bristol.

Yes, it was a coffee shop. It was a fish and chip shop at one stage. Anyhow, he got in first. When Richard had published that paper, I followed up with another one in the journal Perception. John Brown also had an effect on me. He was still writing his PhD thesis when he was on the staff in Bristol.

So Bristol, in general, was a good place for you to spend those few years, even though it was a very small department.

It was a very good university. There is no question about that. Because it was relatively small, in principle I was in the Department of Philosophy! GC Field was head of philosophy, he was an eminent philosopher, and psychology was a subdepartment. Now, never the twain did meet. Field never interfered with psychology and certainly he was so eminent that George never would have interfered with him. But I got to know a good deal beyond psychology.

How was your PhD examined? What was the process?

By the usual British method. It was submitted. I should say and I will say it again – while George Drew was very helpful and got me all the things that I wanted, including money for bits and pieces of equipment – he did not have very much intellectual input. Not as I have always done and I know that you have done as a supervisor. I have always interacted with the person or been shoulder to shoulder in the lab, as I was with Tim, for example. I was disappointed about that. So I did it my own way, as Frank Sinatra once said.

Who were your examiners?

Oh God, there was an internal examiner and an external examiner. I can’t remember the name of the external examiner. I spent a good deal of time last night trying to remember it. He was quite well known in experimental psychology circles and he worked in applied areas.

What was the experience of being examined like? Was it pleasant or unpleasant?

With the examination, first of all, the thesis was sent to this external examiner. He then came down to Bristol from where he was, somewhere in Wales, having read the thesis. This was the standard British procedure. Then he and the head of school, George Drew, examined me for a whole morning. I think this was probably required by the rules, although a good deal of that time was not spent in talking about psychology. Then there was a break in the middle for morning tea and I left and spent a terrible two hours wondering what was going to happen. I got the impression that they weren’t very impressed with my brilliancies. Then they called me back in – I went in trembling – and they said that they were pleased to say that my dissertation was appropriate for the degree of PhD and they congratulated me. The external examiner said, ‘But I would draw your attention to page 45 line 3, I think there might be a little problem there,’ and it was a spelling error.

What is your opinion about this particular method of examining PhD theses?

It’s pretty thorough. We ranged over the whole area of experimental psychology. I had gone and read the great volume by Woodworth called Experimental Psychology. It is no longer read by most people. I had read that through and some of the questions I got were, in fact, from that. That might even have been a practice among examinees too, but I came across it on my own initiative.

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Attention and perception hand in hand

So your examiners weren’t just quizzing you about your own research?

No. It was a bit Oxonian in that sense. They kept coming back to what significance I attached to tracking behaviour: ‘Is it something which could be applied?’ After all, you don’t go around following a little spot on a screen. But one thing did come out of that, and the examiner was very interested in it. You could have an arrangement whereby, in a random fashion, a little red spot would come on the screen and, as quickly as possible, you had to pull this little lever on the side of the cockpit. The difficulty of the input which you were tracking was analysed with anticipation of this with it actually occurring and when there was none. So it was interesting from the point of view of getting down to the nitty-gritty of attention.

I think these are still questions that people are interested in working on right now.

Yes, exactly. It interests me a great deal. When I was a lad, perception was something which nobody really understood. It began to loom as a major issue over the years I have worked in perception and read in it deeply. I then made my own observations that you never see, hear or feel anything if you are not attending. I pointed this out to my students a year or so ago. I said that they would all have had the experience of driving to the university and, when they had got halfway there, they would have no memory whatever of having passed a particular intersection or that set of red lights. Even though they had behaved properly, they couldn’t remember the details because they weren’t attending to that particular feature of the intersection or that particular vehicle coming towards them. This was my breakthrough in the last 15 years, so to speak, that attention and perception are inextricably intertwined with each other. You can’t have one without the other. That sounds like the name of a popular song!

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Family matters

There you were in 1955, having graduated with a PhD. What were the possible options then and were you always intending to come back to Australia?

I applied for a position, and family matters came into this. We had a baby – and we still have, at the age of nearly 60 – and we were so bloody cold. We were poor. The salaries then were awful. We had a little top-floor flat. It was quite pleasant but the heating was terrible. I remember going to the nursing home to see my first born, with the snow up to my knees. I arrived frozen in that particular position. I thought, ‘I can’t bear much more’, I have always felt the cold. Then I saw this advertisement for a lectureship in the University of Sydney, so I applied for it. I went to London to be examined, where there was some reluctance to appoint me. The person in London who was examining for the University of Sydney said that I suffered from asthma. Well, I used to as a child, but I didn’t really have any. But he thought this was an ill omen and I might collapse with an asthmatic attack before my first class, with implications for the university. I managed to convince George Drew, who was my chief referee, that that was all nonsense and I got the job.

Before we talk about your move to Sydney, perhaps we should backtrack a little and talk about your wife, Grecian. Did you meet her when you were an undergraduate?

We were in the same hall of residence. Immediately after the war, because of the huge influx of personnel from the forces, the University of Western Australia opened up a whole set of buildings for accommodation. These buildings had been put on university land, under national emergency regulations, to house the crews flying aircraft out of Perth searching for submarines. They were not quite Quonset huts but they were long corridors, and four of those were made over for undergraduates. Another two were set up just across the way as the beginnings of the women’s college, which now has been going in Western Australia for the last 50 or 60 years.

Grecian was one of the people who was invited to the university, because she was in the forces. She was in the women’s college and I was in this men’s college, called the university hostel. We all ate together. That was the point. She was an undergraduate. She had joined the forces because after a year, she would receive the £3.10 a week. All people who had worked in the Australian Women’s Army Corps, or in the AIF, were remunerated. Her mother couldn’t have kept her, so she joined the forces in order to get that benefit.

What did she think about the trip to England?

We didn’t go together. I went first to check out England and I found that it actually existed and that there were places that you could live in relative comfort. She followed after. We were married eight or nine months after we were engaged.

While you were there, you had your first child.

That is right, yes.

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Ten years at Sydney University

Around 1956, you moved to the University of Sydney?

It was in January 1955, the year of the great floods in the Hunter River Valley, the last lot of severe floods. I stepped out of a tram and found myself up to my waist in water. But, yes. I went on to Sydney to find a place to live and Grecian stayed in Western Australia with my parents, who were in that stage of child or baby worship. She came on afterwards.

You were a lecturer at the University of Sydney initially.

Lecturer first. I was there for 10 years almost exactly. I stayed on for an extra two months, so I got the benefits of being in this job for 10 years.

When you moved to Sydney, what did you do about setting up a lab?

I really didn’t have a lab. I did things which were easily done in my room. I was interested in motion after-effects. To produce motion after-effects all you need is a rotating thing or something which is moving in an aperture under different conditions of illumination. We moved from the main university site across Parramatta Road to what was a commercial organisation. A factory – down the steps and up the steps. I had a lab there and expanded this work with motion and other sorts of after-effects.

Were you mostly teaching perception at Sydney?

No. I taught everything. You reminded me once about the embarrassment I felt when I couldn’t get something right in a lecture. I was a bit nervous because the students were pretty sharp.

And the classes were fairly big, I imagine.

Yes, very big. I was okay for lectures in the Wallace Lecture Theatre, which I have since discovered holds 685 students. Only a few of us were thought to be capable to lecture in Wallace by the head of the department, Bill O’Neil. I don’t know where he got his information from. But some were hopeless and couldn’t cope. If the students didn’t like you, they would bowl the dustbin lids down the aisles. They didn’t do that to me. They did it to some other people whose names I shan’t mention. All I had was this huge expanse of blackboard and a bit of chalk. That was all one had to use to lecture on the very complex issues and experimental situations which we were accustomed to in the study of human perception. We had nothing like a presentation on a screen of the structure of the visual system. It all had to be by word. They would all scribble away. Danny Latimer was one of my students in those classes. He will give you an account of what it was like.

I still give lectures, although not very many these days, only about eight every year to a second-year group. What worries me now is that there they all are, with their feet up, listening to me. They know that, when they get home or in a few months when they are going to sit for an examination, all that they have heard me talking about will be on the web. I have my slides, my overheads and all the usual paraphernalia of the modern lecture theatre on web CT. They will just dial it up at home. They probably watch it while lolling on their beds! I don’t criticise that, because they do go and look at it. But, at one time, they would come away from my lecture and all they had were their lecture notes – and no doubt they swapped them from time to time. From my standpoint, from examining the essays, the quality of the students and the sort of stuff they turn up with in their honours year is really not very different in standard to what I recall from those distant ancient days, when I had my bit of chalk. In fact, at one stage I had to buy some chalk.

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Colleagues at home and abroad

In your 10­year period at Sydney, who were the people you particularly liked talking to there?

Dick Champion was the person who was closest to me, because he was very experimental. He gradually withdrew from science. But for the whole time that I was there, he was the person who was closest to me in interests. Bob Pollack, who was an American, had very similar interests to mine.

He arrived at about the same time as you did, I think.

Yes, a year or so before. He was very helpful. Even though I disagreed with him on a whole lot of issues, there is no question that he was a person I could go and talk with. He had very firm ideas, many of which I questioned. Nevertheless, we engaged in scholarly discourse. He and Gordon Hammer were my friends.

Was Hammer a clinical psychologist?

He was not so much clinical. He and Bill O’Neil were interested in selection, essentially – in intelligence. The nature of human intelligence was a major issue in those days and it had all sorts of applications for schooling and for the development of tests. It was a very active group. But the person who stood out head and shoulders above everyone else was Bill O’Neil.

What was special about him?

First of all, he was known to often have dislikes of people on his own staff. Then again, I can relate to that because all of us do at some time or another. But he was as much a philosopher as he was a psychologist. His main contribution to me was to put me in touch with issues like the nature of human consciousness and some of the philosophical principles which one must follow.

Which you’re still interested in?

Yes, very much so. He was very coherent.

Unlike Tim Marshall.

Yes. He was very clear. He was the opposite number to Tim Marshall. Bill put into one of his books that the moon looks larger at the horizon than it does at its zenith, especially when it is just coming over the horizon. It is called ‘the moon illusion’. It is an illusion because what gets onto the eye is exactly the same, and the distance along the ground and to the dome of the sky is also constant. Why then is the size of the moon greater at the horizon than it is when it’s up top? I now know what the answer to that is. It is because you take distance into account. The apparent distance to the ‘dome of the sky’ – if I can call it that – is slightly less. That gives rise to the appearance of it being larger because it seems further away at the horizon. That, by and large, is it.

During the period that you were at Sydney, did you take any sabbatical leave?

Yes. I went to the USA to Brown University in Rhode Island. I had got a small emolument from Sydney and I wrote to the head of the school at Brown. They offered me a quite considerable income for a year.

Was this to teach at Brown?

Not to teach, but to undertake research with Lorrin Riggs. I was attached to his unit. He made the remarkable discovery that, when you are looking at something, even though you think your eyes are perfectly steady, there is always a tremor – a very small visual angle. This was brilliant as a bit of research. What Lorrin did was to put a little mirror onto one part of an old-fashioned contact lens. The lens sat over the eye, rather than just on the front of them. It was very uncomfortable. I was one of his subjects in a group of experiments. The little mirror is then reflected onto a screen so that every time the eye moves. What you are looking at, this little reflection from the small mirror is projected on to the screen.

He was the man who did that?

Yes. There was a group in the University of Reading that published the same year, but the two groups took equal honours for it. I met the British group a year or so later. But Lorrin published that in the Journal of the Optical Society of America. It became a set piece, it was so cleverly done. I worked with him on that. What he taught me was how to do intricate experiments and to do them with enormous care. So I took that message with me when I went to Monash, where I had much more money and much more control over my own future.

Did you choose Brown because you already knew about the work of Riggs?

I had read two or three of his papers, yes, and I thought, ‘How very clever this is.’ I made some inquiries and found that Brown was among the top experimental departments in the United States. It came up, along with California, Harvard and a few others, as the place to go to do experimental research. By which I mean research in experimental psychology. Since I had always worked in the visual system, with a bow occasionally to other systems, I wrote to Lorrin and he was only too pleased to have me. He had a large grant from one of the agencies. He also had three people working with him, and he allocated one of them to me.

How long was it when you came back to Sydney from Brown and moved to Monash?

I was in the United States in 1961 and I went to Sydney in 1955. So going to Brown was the sabbatical after six years, with a whole year off, as was the common practice. So I came back to Sydney at the beginning of 1962 and was there until 1965, when I was appointed to Monash.

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Move to Monash

So you moved to Monash, where you started up a completely new department with a very experimental psychology bent.

Yes. I did well at the interview, I later discovered. We all find these things out eventually. I insisted that psychology should be treated as an experimental discipline and funded in the same way as chemistry, physics, biology, etc.

Also located in the faculty of science.

Entirely in the faculty of science.

That was a first for Australia, I think.

Yes. To my surprise, money was slopping around your ankles in those days because it was during the great rise of the universities. Under RG Menzies they were well funded. Whoever speaks ill of Bob Menzies incurs my wrath because he did a great deal for the universities. So not only did I have all of this money but also the university allocated a large amount to build a department. It was especially built for the practices of experimental work and not only in my area but also in other areas. We were on top of botany in one large building. I once asked the vice-chancellor, Louis Matheson, why he put botany and psychology together in the one building. It seemed to be so bizarre. He said, ‘When you don’t know each other, you don’t squabble,’ which is probably true.

In all, I had 28 years there – not all in that building, but certainly 25 of them. I was on a contract for as long as my appointment lasted. I was head of school. They could do that then. I took the view that the way to establish and run departments was that one should have units working in separate areas. I don’t mean geographical areas but as separate entities.

So you mean that you didn’t try to cover the whole of psychology.

Certainly not the whole of psychology, as it is generally understood. I don’t think the word ‘psychoanalysis’ was ever uttered there – at least not in my hearing. It would have been disastrous for the person if I had.

So I established my group and this is not in any order of importance – Ken Forster came along and started all of that quite outstanding work in the general area of psycholinguistics. There was also Bill Webster and Dexter Irvine, who were in the auditory system. And there was John Bradshaw, a loner, in essentially what nowadays we would call neuropsychology – it didn’t have a name then. They all thrived. They all got grants.

I was then invited to become a member of the Australian Research Grants Committee. It’s the ARC now. The tour of duty was for three years, but they asked me to stay on for another three years. So for six years I was on the ARC. I saw just what the physicists were getting and I thought that psychology ought to get a bit more. I didn’t lean on anybody, but I gave the impression that they really ought to think of psychology as an experimental discipline rather than some treatment procedure for people with emotional problems – not that I deny that some people do. But every department which was starting up then was clinically oriented. There is very little experimental work done in a lot of universities now.

How did you manage to combine your first major administrative job without losing contact with your research?

I had two research assistants. One of whom stayed with me for a very long time and ran the lab, actually he has now died some years ago. I always had a group of about four or five graduate students, not to mention honours students. But that was the same for all of these groups. People were coming from overseas to work with me as well. Like any department, whether it’s in chemistry, physics or earth sciences, you build up a bit of a reputation. You publish some papers, people become interested in your work, they ask to come and they ask if we have any money to support them. In those halcyon days we did. So they would come. Nick Wade was a British Commonwealth Universities’ Scheme graduate. He worked with me for four years altogether and he did his PhD with me. There were a number of other people of that ilk.

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Human Perception: the book

You wrote a book called Human Perception. When did you write that?

I went to Monash in 1965 and that book was commissioned as one of a group of books. I was the first to finish one of them, which was in about 1967 or 1968.

At the same time, you were starting up a completely new department?

Yes, I also wrote the book. In order to get it done within the deadline I put two hours a day aside and, frequently, weekends as well. I had to do all the business of writing a book. You have to get permissions, reread what you are talking about and so on. I have been under pressure from time to time to update it. But there just wasn’t time to do it. I was always so much involved in some other area and also not being a full-time writer and with running a department. So I never did. But I still refer to it. I sent my mother a copy of the book, the only time I ever sent her anything that I had ever done. She never had any idea of what I did. She was in her mid- or late-70s then, and she wrote back and said, ‘Thank you for the book, I enjoyed reading it very much. But, if you look on page 145, first line from the bottom, I think you’ve made a mistake.’

The same old story.

That’s true. I have got the letter still.

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Motion After-Effect, Ames Room and the Müller-Lyer Illusion

When you think back about the research that you’ve done, what are the things that you are most proud of?

Three or four things that I have done were firsts. One of them involves the motion after-effect. If you have a pattern of bars moving up or down within an aperture and you stop the motion, they appear to be moving in the opposite direction. Nick Wade and I looked at the Falls of Foyers in southern Scotland, which was the first mention of motion after-effect in 1832. We did a lot of work on it. Quite casually, one afternoon when I was working with one of my graduate students, we put out the lights and all you could see was this little aperture with the bars in it moving up and down and, when we stopped it, nothing happened. We were pretty tired, as we had been looking at it all day planning an experiment. So I said, ‘Let’s come tomorrow morning,’ which was a Saturday. We came in the next day and the same thing happened. The answer seems simple now, it is relative movement. If you don’t have anything stationary to relate to, there are just bars moving in space, moving relative to you rather than to the surround, you don’t get an effect.

That’s quite important. You could think what happens is that there are cells sensitive to upward movement and cells sensitive to downward movement and you tire out one group of cells and disturb the imbalance.


If that is the explanation, then you should still get the effect in the eye.

That is still referred to. About two or three years ago now, a new book was published on motion after-effects and that gets a real wrap-up. Of course, that had all sorts of implications for the way that visual systems work. I am very pleased about that. That was a high point. Ed Strelow was a very good graduate student and he and I shared the paper which might have been my first paper in Nature, of which there have been about four or five over the years. He moved out of psychology and became an attorney in California. But it certainly put him on the map and it certainly put me on the map.

So that’s the first of the things that you particularly like about your work.

The second thing was that very curious phenomenon that occurs when you look through an aperture into a room. The back wall is in this direction (indicates) and the floor is up and down and so on. If you take the front off, the room’s all higgledy piggledy. If you look through a little aperture in the wall, so that you see the inside of the room only, rather than the outside, it looks like a normal room. So a person standing against the back wall looks hugely bigger than somebody in the near space [Ames room].

One of my last experiments at Monash before I left was with a girl who did her honours year and then her PhD with me. We studied this Ames room very carefully and discovered that it was another instance of perceptual constancy. I haven’t mentioned perceptual constancies, which have always interested me. They are effects which remain absolutely constant under certain conditions. The point is that once you block off all the surrounds, you are just looking at the space itself. Again, it is a referential process or experience, and that also got a good deal of publicity in the literature.

What about the work that you’ve done in the area of geometrical illusions?

I think I shall die in an illusory set of circumstances. They have fascinated me all my life. I became interested in them before I had a lab at Monash, and they were phenomena that you could do fairly easily in a room or even at home, if you wanted to. For example if you draw two lines of equal length and you arrange them at an acute angle to each other like that (indicates) and then compare them with the same system so that it is an obtuse angle, the two lines look very much longer than with the acute angle. Now, of course, this is the Müller-Lyer illusion in its fundamental form. No­one had ever bothered to read the original paper by Müller-Lyer. I had it translated and sent to Richard Gregory, who published it straight away. That was a long time ago now. Here are two lines, that are joined together at an acute or an obtuse angle and they look completely different.

Now, this brings it right up to current work. If you leave a little tiny gap between the two lines, you don’t get the illusion. So the gap is the critical thing. Think of the number of times in the real world where you see situations or have to do something, where you have gaps rather than joins, I think this is a significant discovery. Again, it is something which came up when I was messing about. I just happened to come across it. And there is a paper which I am writing at the moment which has come out of it.

So you started off working on dark adaptation and then you worked on tracking for your PhD. But later you worked on geometrical illusions. When did that work begin in your career?

When I went to Sydney, I didn’t have a laboratory and there was nobody working in my area of perception and perceptual processes – and it was so easy. There was an old gramophone in the department which I could slow down and then look at the motion after-effect. Here was an illusion that you got as a result of extended stimulation of a system. Then, when George Singer was in Sydney, he and I became interested in the same effects in the haptic system. All of the geometrical illusory effects that are associated with vision, like the one that I have just described, also occur in the haptic sense. That is, in the sense of touch. For example, with the Müller-Lyer illusion – and that classical figure with inward and outward directed fins at each end – if you move your finger backwards and forwards across that and you don’t see anything, the one which is between the outward director feels extraordinarily longer as you are moving at a constant speed than the ones which occur with the inward directed angles.

So the haptic system and the visual system are in almost complete harmony with each other. I published that work, some of it relatively recently. Most of the illusions which I have studied, both with those little gaps and with variants of the Müller-Lyer effect get around to very fundamental things like this, which tells you something about the importance of joints in judging the world around you. Things that join together take on the property of being a large assembly. But, if you leave just little tiny gaps which are minimal, it is much reduced.

So it was lucky for you that there was no experimental laboratory in Sydney when you arrived.

In a way it was, yes.

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Post-Retirement activity

Monash was a very successful psychology department, but eventually did you begin to think about retiring?

I didn’t think about retiring, I never gave a thought to it. But at Monash in the 1990’s you had to retire at the age of 65. The last thing I wanted was to retire and then stay on in the same school. People within that same school wanted to go off in all sorts of different directions and to change the kind of directions I had gone in and the sorts of things that I had developed. So it seemed to me imperative that I not be in the same department. So I withdrew from Monash altogether. By that time I was on the Council of La Trobe University. It was at the time when Mr Justice McGarvey, who later became Governor of Victoria, was chairman of Council. Anyhow, he took over and kept me on the Council for some time. So, when I retired, the second Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe, John Scott, invited me to an honorary position.

So I cast my blessing on La Trobe rather than on Monash. However, I was only away from Monash for a matter of a year and I was asked to come back. I like to say ‘on a rescue mission’, but it wasn’t that at all. Nowadays animal welfare is an absolutely key issue and so much research is done with animals. Some of it was dreadful and cruel, and then it got better. Monash now has an animal welfare committee which oversees the work. It monitors the work of, in all, about ten or eleven AECs. All of the units, both within the university itself and the outposts of empire, have their AECs. It is made up of four categories of people and usually they are in groups of up to about eight or nine. The then Vice-Chancellor asked me to serve as chair of this overriding committee, which I still do and they pay me for that.

When you arranged to move to La Trobe, did that involve any explicit duties for you?

No. They asked me to. But, since it is not remunerated, I do what I want.

Did you have to set up a new laboratory at La Trobe?

Yes. I have a lab. I have had it since I went there. I also have regular honours and graduate students there and have them now.

So you haven’t really retired.


You are still doing research and some teaching?

I’m still doing research and I’m still publishing. One of my daughters or grandchildren, I forget which, pointed out to me some time ago that I have now be been in a university teaching for over 60 years. Now, whether you can get a prize for this or not, I don’t know. There has to be something.

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Twists and turns of fate

Can you imagine having had a different career or a different profession?

I never thought about that. If I did, it would probably have been in history, only because I have written and semi-published – at least privately published – a family history. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it, as I knew I would. It took a long time, 12 or 15 years, to get it all together. But it is now out there for a poised and impatient world to read. Grecian is an historian and taught history at various schools. An enormous number of books which we now have in our house are history books. So history is something I think I could have followed up on or engaged in with the same sort of interest as I did experimental psychology, if I had ever been swayed in that direction.

So you enjoyed experimental psychology so much that you never even thought of some kind of mid­career change?

No, no. There are certain biological changes, of course, but not intellectual ones! Having started off on that track a long time ago I didn’t change. But you don’t plan these things in advance. I didn’t plan on studying attention and perception originally but did different things early on. In my years in Britain, when I was with the Air Ministry, I was involved in commenting on various human factors and features of aircraft and aircraft control as the big jets were coming on. So, when I came back to Australia, I got involved with Ron Cumming, Russ Baxter and John Lane in designing the head-up display for landing aircraft at the right angle in fog and in other hazardous visual conditions. That was my applied work and it was essentially experimental. I could have gone in that sort of direction after I had completed that work, but other things beckoned.

But that would have been applied experimental psychology.

It was applied experimental psychology, yes. If anybody were to ask me at a social gathering, as they often do, ‘What do you do in life?’ and you are stupid enough to say that you’re a psychologist they will say, ‘I have a friend who’s got a problem’, the “friend” is always them. But, under those sorts of circumstances, if I talk about the work I do, they don’t think of that as psychology at all. It comes as a great surprise that people do these sorts of things. When I ask the question: ‘What sort of people do you think they are?’ some might say ‘engineering’, but that doesn’t quite fit the bill.

When I’m asked by a taxi driver what I do, I say, "I’m a cognitive scientist."

I made a terrible error once. I was on an aircraft travelling to Britain and sat down next to a rather pleasant lady. In the usual way, we fell into a conversation and she then asked me what I did. I couldn’t bear the thought of ‘psychologist’, so I said, ‘I’m a biologist’ – I might have been a bit more specific. She said, ‘That’s very interesting. Do you know my son?’ He turned out to be quite eminent.

Your career trajectory as a scientist seems to be somewhat random, but I don’t think that is unique to you. I think that’s quite common in science. I wonder what you think about that?

It has been entirely accidental. The fact that Tim Marshall arrived in the Department of Psychology in the University of Western Australia in 1948 and the fact that he knew somebody in Britain who was interested in having me on the staff for a year when someone in his department was on sabbatical leave. None of these things were planned, you just blow with the wind. But, in running through all of that, there is a particular group of interests. Now, whether you create those interests or whether they are there for you to find and study, I don’t know.

Thank you very much, Ross. That was a fascinating account.

I have enjoyed myself immensely. Thank you for asking the questions and allowing me to remember things that I had almost forgotten.

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