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One on one… with Peter Venables

‘go on analysing data into your later years’

16 February 2015

One glimmer that started your interest in psychology
When I was about 15, in 1938, I came across a book, called something like Know Yourself. I remember being intrigued by the content but more by the method it used, a branching structure, starting with a question such as ‘Do you have many friends? If Yes go to page 5, if No page 12’, and so on until a final conclusion. It may have sown the first seed of interest.

One critical point
After the war I was determined to go to university and found that it was possible to get a grant. I had joined the BPS as an attached member while in the Navy as a radar mechanic. I applied to and was accepted by University College London. However, they had a first year where you had to take four subjects, two of which had to be languages. At the end of the first year I failed in French and was chucked out. My brother in law – I had married just before the failure – was a language teacher, and he put me through a crash course after which I resat. Without him and wifely support, no university, no psychology.

One point of decision.
My first two years at UCL were with Cyril Burt as Head of Department, followed by a year with Roger Russell (an American behaviourist). I was immersed first in factor analysis and individual differences and then learning theory, awkward bedfellows. After my finals I decided on a post at the MRC Social Psychiatry Unit at the Maudsley under Aubrey Lewis. I was to do research on chronic schizophrenia – an area that determined much of my future work.

One scariest moment
After attending a conference in 1972 held by the Soviet Psychiatric Association in (then) Leningrad, I was in the airport to fly home, and was hauled out of line by a formidable security guard because the entry in my passport by the hotel was incorrect. When I was eventually cleared and allowed to get on the plane my colleagues cheered with relief.

One piece of research that influenced my direction
When Aubrey Lewis wanted me to do experiments with schizophrenics, I said to myself, ‘You can’t, they are mad and won’t participate’. But I came across work by David Shakow in which he had conducted a reaction time study on patients and obtained intriguing results. I replicated it and found the same results. Yes, you could do experiments on schizophrenics. At that time the MRC APU in Cambridge was doing work on information processing, which influenced me. However, I did not want to rely solely on the measurement of overt responses. I started work using psychophysiological methods, an area where my electronic background in the war came in useful in making devices to measure electrodermal activity.
One publication that influenced the course of your career
In 1963 I was asked by Brendan Maher to contribute to a new series of books he was editing. My chapter on ‘Input dysfunction in schizophrenia’ was favourably acknowledged in the US, and I received many invitations to lecture there. This involved me in much of the work in my area in US, and so for many years I felt more at home with their work than in the UK.

One person who was critical in what you are now doing
One of the people I met in US was Sarnoff Mednick. He had initiated a project in Denmark on children at risk for schizophrenia. This was a development that I was interested to follow, as by this time work on schizophrenics in hospitals was difficult in view of the medication they received. This work in Denmark spawned another high-risk study in Mauritius in which I was to take a major role and which became my major research interest. It now has my colleague Adrian Raine as PI.

One continuing disappointment
As one of the last surviving members of the first British Psychological Society Council formed after the granting of the Royal Charter exactly 50 years ago, I am still irritated that the Royal Charter did not mean ‘Royal British Psychological Society’.One happy by-product of research in Mauritius Walking along the shore in the evening in the warm tropical water with my wife, on the way to a friend’s party.

One saddest piece of music, which is nevertheless a favourite
Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, particularly the third where the violin plays a haunting phrase to be taken up by the soprano.

One outcome of my research that gives hope of eventual usefulness
The very evident role of undernutrition as a precursor to many handicaps, a factor which can be dealt with by direct action.

One piece of advice to psychologists about to retire
Get involved in research that is so productive that you can go on pleasurably analysing data into your later years.

One incident that I recall with wry pleasure
On a 1964 visit to the US I attended, with some BPS colleagues, the annual APA meeting at LA. We were invited out in the evening and were taken to Whisky a Gogo on Sunset Strip. The American colleague who took us had influence and had the front row chucked out so that we could get seats and see the scantily clad ladies dancing in cages. Some of my (female) British colleagues were not amused.