Vierordt’s Law and experimenting with time

Karl von Vierordt has a relatively short Wikipedia bio (compared, for instance, to this) for someone who pioneered the measurement of blood pressure, the measurement of lung function and – the activity that would link his name with a “law” for posterity, the experimental study of the time sense. Indeed, he seems to have been one of the first experimental psychologists.


This excellent set of slides gives an overview of Vierordt’s career and a very detailed discussion of the time experiments, their methodology, context, and implications. So what is Vierordt’s Law? As stated by Wearden in the talk:

the proposition that short intervals
of time are judged as longer than they are,
whereas long intervals are judged as
shorter, with an indifference point, where
intervals are judged correctly, somewhere
between the two

In 1868, Vierordt published Der Zeitsinn nach Versuchen
– “The Time Sense According to Experiments.” This was not the first study of time perception, but by had by far the most data. Wearden describes Vierordt’s experimental methodology:

The data collected in Der Zeitsinn come from
experimental studies in which Vierordt himself,
or sometimes his pupil Höring, was the sole
experimental participant
• Höring [Vierordt’s student] not only carried out time perception
studies to qualify for a medical degree, but his
thesis work has the oddity that Höring was the
participant and not the experimenter (who was
• The data were derived from very extensive
experimentation, often involving hundreds of
experimental trials carried out over many days

Two taps (on a glass plate) define a target
time interval and the participant must
make a response so that the time between
the second tap and the response is equal
to the time between the two taps

A very full account of the Vierordt effect (perhaps a better term than “law”) is given in Wearden’s paper linked to above. Wearden has an intriguing conclusion:

A potential conclusion is that the Vierordt effects
shown in different tasks don’t actually have any
common cause, and that different processes are
responsible in the different cases

• Here, unusually, theoretical analysis seems to
suggest that things that look the same aren’t
really the same at all, a kind of theoretical
“disintegration” rather than the usual theoretical
“integration” of different phenomena within the
same theoretical framework

He ends with two points that should give pause to those who see the science of today as inherently superior to the science of the past:

You can see that this 19th. Century work, in spite
of some peculiarities, not only produced reliable
data, but also has posed some problems which
are unsolved (and, it seems, quite difficult to
solve) even today in the light of many recent
advances in our understanding of time
• More generally, Vierordt seems to be a pioneer
of experimental Psychology who is unjustly
neglected….until now

Beyond Knowing Nature – 5 Pathways to Nature Connection

Once again I am reblogging an interesting post by psychologist Miles Richardson on connection with nature and well being.

Particularly interesting is the research finding that factual knowledge does not necessarily correlate with emotional connection with nature. As Richardson writes, “the brain feels before it thinks”, and by focusing too much on how well species can be identified, we can miss the potential of emotional, experiential connection.

Finding Nature

Owing to the benefits to both human and nature’s well-being, and wide spread disconnection, a connection with nature is something many people and organisations are keen to increase. So there is a need to know how best to do this. We’ve already developed specific interventions, such as 3 good things in nature, but our wider framework of effective routes to nature connection has just been published in Plos One. I’m excited about this work is it provides guidance for those seeking to re-connect people with nature, indeed it has been central to much of our recent nature connections work, for example, guiding the type of activities promoted as part of The Wildlife Trusts highly successful 30 Days Wild campaign.

General nature contact and knowledge based activities are often used in an attempt to engage people with nature. However the specific routes to nature connectedness have not been examined…

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The Boy Who Never Saw Pictures – The Dabbler Blog, May 2014

I came across the paper described in this piece in a book on the pictorial world of children. I also emailed one of the authors, with no reply. It was circulating around my mind for a few years and finally The Dabbler seemed like the right place to write it for.  It was literally only when writing the piece I realised what seems obvious; the authors of the paper were the parents of the boy described.

A certain wry scepticism about experimental psychology is evident here.

As this piece deals with child development, I thought it was an interesting place to start.

Originally published at The Dabbler

Here it is:

Imagine if, in infancy, your parents made every effort to ensure that you never saw a picture. This is what happened to the anonymous subject of Julian Hochberg and Virginia Brooks’s 1962 paper “Pictorial Recognition as an Unlearned Ability in a study of one child’s performance”; a title which has the virtue of describing precisely what they set out to do.

It had been claimed that certain tribal groups, for whom pictorial depictions were unknown, found pictures frightening and inexplicable. Various accounts from David Livingstone himself and others from his era had included dramatic accounts of natives running in fright from pictures of lions and so on. Later, perhaps more purely anthropological, studies had suggested the same thing. Therefore a theory that the ability to recognise pictures as pictures and also representations must be a learnt ability. Hochberg and Brooks observed there is a weaker version of this hypothesis; claimed that learning was needed to recognise line-drawings, but “the naïve recognition of photographs, with their higher ‘fidelity’, would be admitted.” Hochberg and Brooks embarked on their study “to determine whether a child who had been taught his vocabulary solely by the use of objects, and who had received no instruction or training whatsoever concerning pictorial meaning or content, could recognised objects portrayed by two-dimensional line-drawings and by photographs.”

The paper recounts the story of S: “since birth, the subject (S), a boy, had been exposed to and taught the names of a wide variety of toys and other solid objects … S never was told (or allowed to overhear) the name or meaning of any picture or depicted objects In fact, pictures were, in general, kept from his immediate vicinity.”

Such a regime in the mid-twentieth century was difficult to sustain: “this is not to say that S never had been exposed to picture. There was a Japanese print on one wall of a room through which he frequently passed; a myriad of billboards fronted the highways on which he travelled frequently; a few times (six in all) he accidentally encountered a picture book (which was gently withdrawn) or caught a glimpse of the label of a jar of baby food (these were normally removed or kept covered). (All these encounters were unaccompanied by instruction or naming play)”

You have to love the precise cataloguing of how often the picture book was accidentally encountered, and the regret that the Japanese print and the myriad of billboards happened to float into S’s ken. Not only that “one toy (a top) had picture of elves on it and, accordingly, it was available for play only under strict supervision to prevent any naming in his presence; a high chair had a decal of babies on it, which could be glimpsed (without parental comment) only when S was being placed in the seat.”

Not for nothing do Hochberg and Brooks comment “the constant vigilance and improvisation required of the parents proved to be a considerable chore from the start – further research of this kind should not be undertaken lightly.” This line made me wonder if S may in fact have been the offspring of Hochberg and Brooks themselves, although I can find nothing explicit and no other internal evidence, apart from the absence of any comment as to how S was recruited (there are later papers credited to Julian Hochberg and Virginia Brooks Hochberg)

By 19 months, the boy began to seek out pictures for himself, and testing began. 21 pictures, mixing line-drawings and photographs of the same objects, were presented to S one at a time, “a somewhat unsuccessful attempt being made to convert the test to an interesting game.” After this, the boy was given picture books, but adults did not engage in picture-naming activities with him. This continued for a month, with “free (but monitored) access to still pictures, but motion pictures, TV and picture-naming play still were completely avoided.” Another round of testing along similar lines took place. Both tests were tape-recorded and independent judges assessed if they could identify that picture based on S’s utterances. Hochberg and Brooks were able to conclude that “it seems clear from the results that at least one human child is capable of recognising pictorial representations of solid objects (including bare outline drawings) without specific training or instructions.”

S pics 2

Psychology textbooks and popularisations are replete with certain key case studies and experiments. There’s the case of Phineas Gage, a Vermont railway worker who suffered a catastrophic injury to his frontal lobes and suffered, so the textbook story goes, a spectacular personality change. There’s Little Albert, conditioned to fear furry things including beards and Santa Claus, thereby (supposedly) proving the tenets of behaviourism. There’s the obedience and prison experiments of Zimbardo and Milgram, thereby (supposedly) proving the essential sadism of humankind.

It almost invariably turns out that these stories are more complex than they are presented. Phineas Gage did survive a pole through his frontal lobes; but the most immediate report described him as “in full possession of his reason”, and two years later the Professor of Surgery in Harvard stated he was “quite recovered in faculties of body and mind.” Only later did a narrative of dramatic personality change emerge. The Zimbardo and Milgram experiments have been rigorously criticised on methodological grounds, and certainly do not seem to “prove” all that much about human nature in the end.

Little Albert is perhaps the most infamous experiment from the early years of experimental academic psychology. In 2009, Little Albert was tracked down. Or rather his grave was; for Albert had died of hydrocephalus only a few short years after the experiment. Typically, it turned out the experiments may not have proved all that much after all.

The subject of Hochberg and Brooks’ experiment is, more than likely, still out there (a couple of years ago I found an email for Julian Hochberg and wrote to see if he could update me. I never heard back). Julian, who got his PhD in 1949 from Berkeley, has a web bio on the Columbia University site. A ballet site lists dance films made by a Virginia Brooks and produced by a Julian Hochberg. One wonders did the effort to deprive S of pictures end at 20 months or were there any attempts at extending it.

S’s story is not as striking as Little Albert’s, or Phineas Gage’s, and it doesn’t seem he suffered all that much. It is hard to imagine such a study happening today, not so much due to ethical reasons as that with the endless trumpeting of the importance of the early years of infancy for development, what parent would agree to allow their little treasure to be deprived of any form of sensory stimulation?