Letter/Observer Forum

Observer Forum

Tulving Ends Controversy

The following is a letter from Convention Keynote Speaker Endel Tulving to Immediate Past President Roddy Roediger.

Endel Tulving sips water during presentation
Endel Tulving, Keynote Speaker at the APS 16th Annual Convention, sips water during his presentation. “This was the time some of the hallucinators had mentioned as the time of the appearance of tehi maginary gorilla,” Tulving said.


Thank you once again for your most gracious invitation for me to give the keynote address at the recent 16th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Society, an organization over which you have so ably presided over the now past 12 months. As I had already told you before, it was not only an honor but a pleasure, and for both I will remain in your debt forever.

As a final act of this interlude, I am writing to ask you to exercise your (ex, past) presidential powers to put an end to a needless minor controversy that seems to have arisen over my address, which, I must admit, mars the aforementioned pleasure a bit. It has to do with an imaginary gorilla.

Right after my lecture at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago, some members of the audience came up and asked me about the gorilla that they claimed to have seen on the stage during my lecture. I was flabbergasted and astounded to hear these assertions, because they made no sense whatsoever.

It is true that, as a didactic device, I had asked my audience to imagine that there was a gorilla on the stage. I also told them that if the imagined event really were true, they would remember it well, because it was novel and distinctive, and as everyone knows, such events are remembered well. But the event itself clearly was imaginary. I myself was on the stage, and I can swear that I did not see any gorilla there. Nor can I imagine that there was a living gorilla anywhere in the vicinity of the Sheraton Hotel. As I pointed out, they do not admit gorillas as guests at the Sheraton. I should also note that I had also asked the audience to imagine a polar bear walking in on the lecture, but no one claimed to have seen that.

Now, if ordinary people, especially if they happen to be under the influence of some psychoactive drug, hallucinate and see nonexistent objects in their environment, we all, as psychologists, would understand. But for a number of our own professional and scientific colleagues to be struck in such a manner is clearly worrisome.

I believe that I can clear up the puzzle. Fortunately the solution will also unburden you of the unwelcome task of having to try explain what otherwise might have been interpreted as mass hallucination suffered by the attendants of the APS Annual Convention.

As it happens, a friend of mine took several snapshots of my giving the talk, and has sent me a few copies of them. I am enclosing one of these herein. It was taken while I was pausing to take a sip of water. This indeed was the time that some of the hallucinators had mentioned as the time of the appearance of the imaginary gorilla on the stage.

Now, if you painstakingly examine the left side of the picture you can detect a couple of tiny, subdued blotches of light. The (purely accidental, of course) configuration of the blotches renders plausible the hypothesis that someone with a vivid imagination might take these as the eyes, the snout, and the paws of an upright-standing gorilla. Because of this, even if flimsy, perceptual input it seems reasonable to conclude that we can forget about hallucination. It seems to be just a case of highly practiced imagination for which our science and profession is well known.

Please feel free to share this intelligence with your Board, executives, staff members, and the membership of APS as you see fit. As scientists we always disdain mystery, and remain committed to seek, find, and disseminate the truth.

Once more, many thanks for your invitation, and many thanks for putting up with these scribbles which I felt it was my duty to forward to you, in order to set your mind at ease about what could have been seen as mental frailties of the rank and file of your great Society.

Yours sincerely,
Endel Tulving
Rotman Research Institute of Baycrest Centre, Toronto, and
Washington University in St. Louis

Reflect on Today’s ‘Learned Opinions’

I READ WITH interest Ludy Benjamin’s “Centennial Retrospective of Psychology at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair” [Observer, July 2004]. I note especially his closing paragraph in which he instructs us to reflect upon the significance of this “august gathering of psychologist dignitaries seeking unity of knowledge and its [the Fair’s] psychology laboratory assessing differences among races” in light of a “contemporary psychology that is seen as ever-fragmenting and still obsessed with the search for individual differences.” By so writing, Benjamin equates the massive “intelligence” testing performed on approximately 1,100 “primitive peoples” at that Fair with a quest for understanding individual differences.

It seems to me that the legacy of psychology’s participation in the 1904 St. Louis World Fair more appropriately equates with its “still involvement” in understanding group differences, where the groups are often defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. Yes, the field of social psychology has developed very important theories that help us understand how these group differences (when there are any) are most likely the product of environment and social situation. (James S. Jackson’s research, highlighted in the same issue, does just that.) Yet, it seems to me that psychology still persists in looking for non-environmental explanations for group differences. Publication of The Bell Curve was not all that long ago. Similarly, Sandra Graham in her 1992 article, “Most of the subjects were white and middle class: Trends in publishing research in selected APA journals, 1979-1989” reports that the vast majority of papers published in six APA journals during this time period that included African-Americans as a focus of study were race comparative studies: comparisons which utilized tests of intelligence, perceptual abilities, attitudes, etc. Hopefully, as a science we are beyond this; but are we?

Finally, I think the most important legacy of psychology’s participation in the 1904 World’s Fair relates to the way in which psychologists lent both their expertise and tools to support what Benjamin calls the “learned opinion” of the day, i.e., “the white race was superior to people of color.”

In addition to the reflections Benjamin encourages, I ask that we also reflect upon what are the “learned opinions” of our day, and how the science of psychology, either wittingly or unwittingly, may support them.

Ann L. Saltzman
Drew University

The Behavioristic Taboo

PROFESSOR ROEDIGER writes that “Behaviorism is alive and well and nothing ‘has happened’ to it” [Observer, March 2004]. As the author of the most detailed study of the cognitive revolution (Baars, 1986), I must agree. Behaviorism still pervades our thinking, especially about fundamental questions like consciousness, volition, and self. But I can’t agree that it is a good thing. To put it plainly, our continued avoidance of conscious subjectivity seems to me a great scientific embarrassment.

In neuroscience the taboo against subjectivity is largely gone. Each year we see some 10,000 scientific citations to the word “consciousness” in the biomedical literature. Significant discoveries emerge on almost a monthly basis. And of course psychologists continue to deal with consciousness by euphemisms – “explicit cognition,” “focal attention,” and the like. In fact, we cannot successfully evade consciousness in psychology; we can only call it something else.

At a time when we have no trouble tackling other inferential constructs – imagery, meaning, emotion – it is still astonishingly difficult to address the most basic idea of all, the one all humans wake up to each morning.

A major reason, I believe, is that many psychologists still believe a “myth of professional origins” first popularized by John B. Watson. They believe that before behaviorism “careful experimentation was in short supply.” Behaviorism is thought to be synonymous with objective, careful experimental work.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. As careful scholars like Ernest R. Hilgard have repeatedly pointed out, rigorous experiments in psychology go back to Fechner, Helmholtz, Wundt, and dozens of others, at least a century before behaviorism appeared. The evidence of their work is all over the 1,400 pages of William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890). All the findings they explored have been rediscovered since the height of behaviorism. And where the evidence involved consciousness, they had no hesitation in saying so.

In major respects, therefore, we have still not caught up with William James. The strongest impetus to do so is now coming from neuroscience, where the facts are so indisputably physical that no one doubts their scientific respectability. But that is a very odd state of affairs – after all, the most obvious evidence for consciousness has always been psychological. We do not need brain scans to know that people are conscious. Evidently Roediger is right: in much of psychology the behavioristic taboo is still alive and kicking.

Bernard J. Baars
The Neurosciences Institute


Baars, B.J. (1986) The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology. NY: Guilford Press.

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