Just a Reflex

Bruce Bridgeman was a prolific, brilliant experimental psychologist who died tragically a few years ago, well before his time.   I met him once, when I was an undergraduate and he was a young professor at UC Santa Cruz in California.   It was a brief interaction, but one that stuck with me all these decades later.   I had been roaming through the basement of the psychology building, when I came upon a rather large, unopened corrugated box.  Printed on the side were the words “Whittaker Corporation.”

It was a room full of gadgets, remnants of past experiments and artifacts of government budgets that needed fulfillment.  With the curiosity of an avid phone phreak, I opened the box; inside was an odd-looking device called a pupillometer, and I immediately wondered if I could make use of it.   I slowly closed the box back up and dragged it to the elevator to bring it upstairs where I could then take it to my dorm room for further exploration.

When the elevator stopped at the first floor, a tall, bearded man entered.   Sharing my curiosity, he asked me what was in the box.   I told him it was a pupillometer, apparently designed to measure pupil size.   He said something to the effect of, “Oh, so what are you gonna do with it?”  I told him that I had a hunch (which had just come to me) that maybe people’s pupils dilated when they were lying, and it could be used as a device to detect deception.   I don’t remember if he sighed, but the man who I later learned was Bruce Bridgeman scoffed at the idea.   “That’s ridiculous.   Pupil size is an autonomic response controlled by the third optic nerve.   It’s a reflex.  Has nothing to do with anything else.”

He was cocksure of himself.  I was rattled by his statement, as I would likely be by anyone who was cocksure of anything.   I was a jejune undergraduate, immature in all the important ways, but sophisticated enough to be cocksure that the only thing besides taxes and death that was certain in the universe was uncertainty.

Sure, I too have been accused of conceit, but I think unfairly.   I get excited about ideas and though I know very little about a lot of things, sometimes I lapse into that male thing of speaking with authority when I am ignorant.  I know well that mansplaining is dismissive, but it’s not meant to be, at least not in my case.  While I know it can be painful to be on the receiving end, please understand that for most of us in the weaker sex, mansplaining is a thin veneer covering deep insecurity and self-doubt.  It is never intended to cause pain.  I mansplain, but at the same time I rarely think I am right about anything—especially lately as memory for certain details wane.  And  I do enjoy being corrected, as it’s an opportunity to learn, and although I do feel copious amounts of shame when I make a truly dim-witted mistake (such as using the word “touchstone” instead of “milestone” in an invitation), for the most part, I am painfully aware of the extreme limitations of my fund of information.

The devil in me always wanted to reconnect with Bruce Bridgeman, perhaps out of a sense of comeuppance because it turned out my own research with the pupillometer did support my hypothesis, and it became my first ever published research article.   That little article garnered a whole lot of reprint requests (which was the method of choice prior to the internet), several of which came from the C.I.A.  As has so often been the case in this life I dilly dallied and never got around to checking in with Bruce and his death kind of shut that door.   I never learned if his life of stellar research inversely effected his degree of hubris, as it tends to do for most of us who make it past our thirties.  And I imagine as well that he would have a great neuropsychological explanation of pupil dilation that now transcends the simplicity of reflex theory.

Bruce Bridgeman died after being struck by a car while attempting to cross a street in Taipei, the day before he and his wife were scheduled to present at a conference there.   In his lifetime, he had published over 350 articles and a classic textbook.   He was only 71, an athlete, and in stellar health.

2 thoughts on “Just a Reflex

  1. A reminder that there are no guarantees in life and the only real certainty is uncertainty. It is great seeing you sharing again.

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