Posts Tagged ‘Burden Neurological Institute’

W. Grey Walter’s Tortoises – Self-recognition and Narcissism

Self-recognition and the Mirror Dance

[Image source: An Imitation of Life,  Scientific American, May 1950, p42-45.]

7 . Self-recognition. The machines are fitted with a small flash-lamp bulb in the head which is turned off automatically whenever the photo-cell receives an adequate light signal. When a mirror or white surface is encountered the reflected light from the head-lamp is sufficient to operate the circuit controlling the robot's response to light, so that the machine makes for its own reflection; but as it does so, the light is extinguished, which means that the stimulus is cut off — but removal of the stimulus restores the light, which is again seen as a stimulus, and so on. The creature therefore lingers before a mirror, flickering, twittering, and jigging like a clumsy Narcissus. The behaviour of a creature thus engaged with its own reflection is quite specific, and on a purely empirical basis, if it were observed in an animal, might be accepted as evidence of some degree of self-awareness. In this way the machine is superior to many quite 'high' animals who usually treat their reflection as if it were another animal, if they accept it at all.

Source: p115, W. Grey Walter, The Living Brain, 1953 -see chapter 5 – Totems, Toys, and Tools

What can be seen or determined in the photo of Elsie below?  

1. tracer candle visibility;

2. low batteries (because it enters the hutch which is strategically placed to the right of the mirror).

Figure 7. Elsie performs in front of a mirror, but is probably responding to the candlelight rather than to her pilot light. [RH 2010 -Most earlier comments by others are of this rather un-clear image of the so-called 'mirror dance'.]

Prior to the release of the clearer Life image of Elsie performing the 'mirror dance' (see pic below) Holland in "Legacy of Grey Walter" describes it as follows:

Recognition of self
A pilot light is included in the scanning circuit in such a way that the headlamp is extinguished whenever another source of light is encountered. If, however, this other source happens to be a reflection of the headlamp itself in a mirror, the light is extinguished as soon as it is perceived and being no longer perceived, the light is again illuminated, and so forth. This situation sets up a feedback circuit of which the environment is a part, and in consequence the creature performs a characteristic dance which, since it appears always and only in this situation, may be regarded formally as being diagnostic of self-recognition. This suggests the hypothesis that recognition of self may depend upon perception of one’s effect upon the environment.

The below from Discussions on Child Development,  1971, see Book II 1954-56 p35-6.


With Fig. 6 we come to some of the refinements which emerged only some time after these creatures had been made. This mode of behaviour and the next one were, quite frankly, surprising to us though, of course, we ought to have been able to predict them. Fig. 6 illustrates the situation when a creature of this type is confronted by its reflection in a mirror. It has on its nose a small pilot light, put in originally to tell us what was happening inside; it is so arranged
that it is turned off when the creature sees another light; that is, it tells us when the photo-tropistic mechanism is in operation.
In this case, the light which the creature was allowed to see was its own pilot light in the mirror. In this situation, the act of 'seeing' it makes it automatically extinguish the light which it sees. The apparent stimulus light having been extinguished, it turns it on again, then off and so on, so that you get a characteristic oscillation. You can see how peculiar and regular it is by the zigzag going up the side of the mirror. This is an absolutely characteristic mode of behaviour, which is seen always and only when the creature is responding to its own reflection. This is an example of the situation I described in the second proposition, where the reflexive circuit includes an environmental operator; in such a situation you get a characteristic mode of behaviour which occurs always and only when the model is reacting to itself.


“The creature therefore lingers before a mirror, flickering, twittering and jigging like a clumsy Narcissus” (Grey Walter, 1963, p. 115). Grey Walter interpreted this famous mirror dance as evidence of self-recognition.

The drawing of the famous `mirror dance’ in `An imitation of life’ [from Scientific American] is nothing like the regular alternation between the tortoise's approach and avoidance as shown in the photograph, being an altogether more irregular and complex trajectory. There may well have been a mirror dance that could have been argued to be a form of self-recognition, but unfortunately this photograph cannot be said to be a record of it. The brightest light visible to the camera, and presumably to the photocell, is the candle on the tortoise’s back and its reflection in the mirror. The trace is far more likely to reflect the alternation of behaviour pattern P (approach to the reflected candlelight) with behaviour pattern O (obstacle avoidance on contact with the mirror). We can be sure that Walter used this image as an example of the mirror dance because it appears in the form of a diagram in the transcript of a talk he gave in 1954 (Walter 1956b); the text matches closely the account given in `Accomplishments of an artefact’. Interestingly, the description of the mirror dance in de Latil’s book also matches this photograph rather than Grey Walter’s original description and Bernarda Bryson Shahn’s sketch.

For most people, with regards to the image above (see figure 7), one could hardly refer to this behaviour as "flickering, twittering and jigging like a clumsy Narcissus". However, you could do so to the above illustration by Bernarda Bryson (partner and later married to the artist Ben Shahn), as illustrated in Scientific American (Walter, W. Grey, "An Imitation of Life," Scientific American, May 1950, p42-45.). The above illustration is actually of Elmer, and not Elsie as is the below photo. This also gives more credence to Grey's use of the word Narcissus, being the son of a Greek god who became obsessed by his own image. [Elmer scans clockwise, the opposite of Elsie and the bump aviodance traverse therefore is from right to left. see here.]

[Narcissus : In Greek mythology, a beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection. He was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Leriope. His mother was told by a seer that he would have a long life, provided he never saw his own reflection. His callous rejection of the nymph Echo or of his lover Ameinias drew upon him the gods' vengeance: he fell in love with his own image in the waters of a spring and wasted away. The narcissus flower sprang up where he died.]

Although Elmer was then long gone, Grey Walter continued to use this more interesting description of self-recognition along with the below image, although it didn't and couldn't match with the sometimes erratic behaviour of the original tortoise, Elmer  and could no longer be reproduced with the newer models.

In my opinion, in the cycloidal trace seen above, the 'bottom' of the cycloid appears flattened and bright spots at the start of the cycloid 'flats' appear. To me, this is indicative of 'bump' avoidance behaviour, not self-recognition.  When I visited the Bristol Robot Labs in 2009 to see the replica tortoises, the comment was passed to me that they were unable to satisfactorily reproduce the self-recognition behaviour as described by Grey Walter.

A relatively recent , clearer image of the so-called 'mirror dance' as released by Life Magazine.

A comment on Time-Lapse Photographs in General:
In interpreting all the time-lapse photographs, there are several aspects to keep in mind.
As already mentioned in pervious posts on the Tortoises, the cycloidal gait makes Elsie traverse to the right as her scanner turns in a counter-clockwise direction. Elmer, on the other hand, scans clockwise and because of the trailing action of the rear-wheels, will veer to the left. I must say, though, that the illustrations suggest that with no light source to track towards, Elmer tends to move in a forward direction and not sideways.
Most of the pictures show Elsie heading towards a light, either a candle or the hutch light, sometime a light out of sight near the camera.
Where you see two identical Elsies, it is actually the photographer’s technique of photographing Elsie at the start of the run, then  Elsie at the end of the run. There are not two separate Tortoises except where they look physically different i.e. Elmer has the ‘scaled’ Bakelite sheeting shell. The single trajectory is also an indicator of only a single Tortoise being traced.

Notice also that the flame of the target candle is placed at the same height as the PEC (the Photo-Electric Cell) in the scanning turret. 

Dr. W. Grey Walter (cont)

wgwimage     Ray Cooper, the last director of the Burden Neurological Institute, wrote this bio on Grey Walter  for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ( ) . (William) Grey Walter (1910-1977),  Walter, (William) Grey (1910-1977), neurophysiologist, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on 19 February 1910, the only child of Karl Wilhelm Walter (1880-1965), a British journalist then working on the Kansas City Star, and his wife, Minerva Lucrezia (Margaret) Hardy (1879-1953), an American journalist. His parents had met and married in Italy, where they spent much of their lives. During the First World War they moved from the United States to Britain, where Grey Walter spent the rest of his life. He was educated at Westminster School (1922-8), where he specialized in classics and then in science, which he continued at King's College, Cambridge, from 1928. He took a third class in part one (1930) and a first class in physiology in part two of the natural sciences tripos (1931), and went on to do postgraduate research on nerve physiology and conditioned reflexes. His MA dissertation on `Conduction in nerve and muscle' was accepted in 1935.  Walter then joined Professor F. L. Golla, an eminent neurologist who was director of the central pathological laboratories at the Maudsley Hospital. Golla wanted to apply the new method of investigating the brain by recording its electrical activity (electroencephalogram or EEG) to clinical problems and was able to provide various types of patients for Walter to study. In 1936 a patient thought to be suffering from schizophrenia was found to have abnormal activity in the EEG and then discovered to have a cerebral tumour. Recordings done in the operating theatre confirmed that the activity was associated with the tumour. Between 1936 and 1939 many hundreds of patients were investigated; those with epilepsy were shown to have abnormal activity in the EEG between attacks.  In 1939 Golla and Walter moved to Bristol to open the Burden Neurological Institute as a research centre in neuropsychiatry. There Walter made many novel instruments to analyse the EEG. On-line frequency analysis was developed in 1943, sensory stimuli used to provoke abnormal activity in the EEG in 1947, and the toposcope to analyse the frequency and phase structure of the EEG in 1950. The work on conditioning went on and in the early 1960s led to the discovery of the contingent negative variation, which became a subject of study throughout the world. Walter also developed models that mimicked brain systems and this involved him with Norbert Wiener and others in early work on cybernetics. His `tortoises', displayed at the Festival of Britain in 1951, were designed to show the interaction of two sensory systems: light-sensitive and touch-sensitive control mechanisms (in effect, two nerve cells with visual and tactile inputs). These systems interacted with the motor drive in such a way that the `animals' exhibited `behaviour', finding their way round obstacles, for example.  Walter was a fluent speaker and writer, on general as well as technical subjects. He was fluent in French, Italian, and German. He was the author of 170 scientific publications and gave a number of important lectures. He relished making broadcasts and giving talks; he was a frequent guest on BBC television's The Brains trust. He wrote two books: The Living Brain (1953), which was popular science and was the first introduction that many people had to the brain, and a science fiction novel, Further Outlook (1956), which was not very successful. He was awarded an ScD by Cambridge in 1947, and in 1949 was made a professor of the University of Aix-Marseilles. In 1974 he was awarded the Oliver-Sharpey prize of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1975, the Electroencephalographic Society, of which he was a founder member, commemorated his achievements by striking a Grey Walter medal, `to be presented … in recognition of outstanding services to clinical neurophysiology'. He was the first recipient of the medal.    A member of the Cambridge Apostles from 1933, he was a communist supporter before and during the war but later became more sympathetic, first to anarchism, and then to syndicalism. He was an active member of tile Association of Scientific Workers. He was involved in the peace movement, being a member of the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s and the Bristol committee of 100 in the 1960s; but was never a pacifist, and he served in the Home Guard during the Second World War. A firm atheist, he was interested in, though unconvinced by, the paranormal, and also did research on hypnosis. In 1934 Walter married Katharine Monica (b. 1911), younger daughter of Samuel Kerkharn Ratcliffe, a British journalist and lecturer; they separated in 1945 and divorced in 1946. They had two sons, Nicolas, who became a journalist and lecturer, and Jeremy, who became a physicist. In 1947 he married Vivian Joan (1915-1980), daughter of John Dovey, colour manufacturer. She was a colleague for many years. They separated in 1960; they had one son, Timothy (1949-1976). From 1960 to 1972 he lived with Lorraine Josephine, daughter of Mr Donn, property developer, and former wife of Keith Aldridge. In 1970 he suffered severe brain damage in a road accident which effectively ended his career. For forty years he had been at the forefront of research on the living brain, using its electrical activity to chart normal and abnormal function. He died of a heart attack at his home at Flat 2, 20 Richmond Park Road, Clifton, Bristol, on 6 May 1977 and was cremated on 12 May. TRIVIA: After Grey Walter had his road accident, he wrote about it in a paper called "My Miracle" now in the BNI Archive located at the British Science Museum Archives in Wroughton, Swindon.  In the document, he talks about how he got interested in motor scooters (Italian Vespa's, actually). Here's some dot points from the article:

  • Vespa 125cc scooter – over 20 years ago prior to accident. ie summer of '47. For reduction in transport costs.
  • accident  with horse. Unconscious from June 13 for about 3 weeks.
  • 60 y/o at time of accident.
  • Son Timothy about to start 3rd  yr at Cambridge. Discovered at start of 1st year that Timothy had muscular dystrophy.
  • Mention of lack of alpha brain waves in WGW.
  • 15 in every 100 have no alpha waves.
  • "My experience of what is now called "electronics" is even longer – over 50 years since my father and I started to make "wireless" sets in 1919, before there was any broadcasting in Britain."

Here's the address of the :- Science Museum Library and Archives Science Museum at Wroughton Hackpen Lane Wroughton SWINDON SN4 9NS DSCF0137

next Grey Walter post here