Behind the picture: Sailors in the hot room
In the latest of a series of posts delving into our photo archives, Katherine Nightingale takes a look at sailors scribing in the ‘hot room’ in what is now the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
It’s pretty safe to say that these five sailors, shirtless as they are and with some sporting makeshift sweatbands, are being ‘cooked’ in the hot room of the MRC Applied Psychology Unit (MRC APU) in Cambridge, which became the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in 1998.
This photo was published in a 1974 research paper, but the MRC APU first began using naval ratings as experimental subjects in 1961, testing them for two hours a day on a range of tasks and paying them an hourly honorarium for their troubles.
The work was carried out on behalf of the Royal Navy Personnel Research Committee, which was interested in how the sailors made decisions when under stresses such as extreme heat, noise, boredom and sleep loss, or strange atmospheric pressures.
“Once a fortnight you got a new group of six sailors and you could test them every day for two weeks, so basically you were given ten sessions, or nine if you were worried about the sort of demob-happy effect on the final Friday,” Professor Peter McLeod, who worked at the MRC APU from 1969 to 1983, told a Witness Seminar on the MRC APU in 2002.
A unit of naval ratings was stationed permanently in Cambridge to participate in experiments until it was closed in 1974. The closure was probably in part because research at the unit was shifting from testing the effects of extreme environments and situations to studying more everyday behaviours, such as language.
Housewives became a larger part of the group of subjects used in experiments, albeit it through a gradual transition. Dr Ivan Brown, who worked at the unit for 40 years, told the Witness Seminar: “I remember early on that there was a time when we tested both naval ratings and Cambridge housewives. I knew someone who lived across the road from the building we were in and he would leave in the morning as naval ratings came to get tested and, when he came home for lunch, they were apparently walking out as Cambridge housewives, and he wondered what on earth our research was doing to them!”
The MRC couldn’t do much of its work without the valued involvement of the public in research. To find out more, visit our public involvement webpages.