Radhaika Kapur reviews a talk by Professor Richard Wiseman at Younger Hall on 18th September 2015, and wonders why all lectures can’t be more like this.


 

The beginning of a semester is saturated with expectations: of ourselves (I will be in the library by 9am sharp every day!), of our classes, friends, houses, and even the new M&S.

By the end of the first week, I had come to the conclusion that my expectations of fourth year were aligning quite well with the reality, I was finally ready to get serious. For some Friday night fun, I decided to attend the lecture by Professor Richard Wiseman, organised by the School of Psychology & Neuroscience. It seemed a sensible, yet lively, way to engage with my subject.

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Younger Hall was seething, as it had been for the talk by Richard Dawkins on the Wednesday of last week (we’ve been quite lucky with our visiting personalities recently*). Professor Richard Wiseman ensured that he was greeted by whoops and cheers by repeating his entrance twice. But the enthusiasm to hear the bestselling author, experimental psychologist and Britain’s only Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology was real, and there was no shortage of chuckles. Accompanied by an array of visual aids such as youtube videos and tricks from his time as a touring magician, Professor Wiseman took the audience through the topics of illusion, luck and sleep. The Professor used some familiar examples found in popular psychology books such as the rabbit-duck illusion to illustrate bistable images and the gorilla experiment to convey selective attention but these were described in an engaging and nuanced manner.

 

 

The talk was peppered with anecdotes from Professor Wiseman’s years as an experimental psychologist and member of the British Science Association. One particular example I hadn’t seen to illustrate how priming can influence auditory perception was the utter debauching of the medieval Latin poem ‘O Fortuna’.

 

 

Professor Wiseman is incredibly comedic and a great advocate for the applicability of experimental findings in our daily routines. Amongst the absurd retellings of paranormal photography and lost wallets, there were many home truths conjured up during the evening, especially for the students in the audience. The fallibility of the idea of luck and the need for diligence and opportunity grasping echoed my module introductory talks. However, Professor Wiseman also emphasised the need to step back and take in the whole picture, for fear of missing the ‘gorillas’ in our line of vision if we are too focussed on the task at hand. Finally, the horrifying statistic that 66% of UK residents were estimated to be sleep deprived in 2014 reiterated how fundamental our approach to rest is on our health and productivity.

Professor Wiseman began by setting out the idea that holding presuppositions often leads to inaccurate perception. However, in delivering such a fantastic lecture, it appeared that the Professor had met and exceeded the expectations of the audience. This talk instilled a light-hearted nature into scientific research and was an evening of great entertainment. I was pleasantly surprised when I returned home to discover the article I was reading in the New Scientist referenced Professor Wiseman’s research into the art of lying. I am now anticipating the Research Live! Event next Friday  – events like these are surely the way to keep your subject fun!

 

 

*= Professor Wiseman would argue that it is not luck but rather we have been successful at securing these events due to the superb enthusiasm and commitment that effuses from those at the University of St Andrews. What appears as luck is simply the ability to spot opportunity!

 

Radhaika Kapur

 

Photo credit: Facebook Event