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Established in 1944, the Unit is one of the largest and most long-lasting contributors to the development of psychological theory and practice. Its origins lie within the Industrial Fatigue Research Board that was set up during the First World War to increase munitions workers' productivity, and the Industrial Health Research Board that replaced it in the inter-war years. With the rapid technological changes that accompanied the Second World War, the emphasis changed from environmental aspects of the workplace such as lighting, temperature and hours of work, to the operation and maintenance of equipment, and in 1944 the MRC established the 'Unit for Research in Applied Psychology' within the Psychological Laboratory of Cambridge University, under the Directorship of Kenneth Craik.
Craik was tragically killed in a cycling accident a year later, and was succeeded by Sir Frederick Bartlett, who was also Professor within the University's psychology department. Craik was a pioneer in the use of computers as models for human information processing, developing what was probably the first computational model of skill and applying it to the wartime task of gun-aiming. Bartlett had a great talent for combining careful experimentation with the development of theory that was applicable to naturalistic as well as experimental data. These two influences on the early direction of the Unit positioned it well for the 'cognitive revolution' of the sixties.
Bartlett retired in 1951, being replaced as Director by Norman Mackworth, who found that the Unit had outgrown the space available within the Psychology Department and the annex that it had acquired. Noticing a pleasant Victorian house on the outskirts of the city, with a very large garden, he bought it, and then informed the MRC! This building in Chaucer Road, with its subsequent extensions, has remained the home of the Unit since that time.
The Unit's early work, closely related to military problems such as pilot fatigue, the vigilance of radar operators, and the effects of environmental stress, was gradually succeeded by related research prompted by other government departments such as the Ministry of Transport and the Post Office. In 1958, after Mackworth had resigned to emigrate to Canada, Donald Broadbent became Director, and continued the information processing approach to psychology that Craik had initiated. His classic book Perception and Communication, published a few months later, was a major influence in the years that saw cognitive psychology become the dominant theoretical paradigm. Donald Broadbent was an outstandingly successful Director, and over his sixteen years at the Unit established its international reputation with a unique blend of pure and applied research.
Alan Baddeley succeeded Donald Broadbent in 1974, and as Alan himself noted at the time, Donald would be a hard act to follow. Of course, Alan did follow that act with great distinction over the 22 years of his directorship. He ensured that core strengths in the major areas of cognitive psychology were maintained, while at the same time seeking areas of application that were tractable and fundable. With the increasing importance of computers in the workplace in the seventies and eighties, a larger part of the Unit's work was conducted in association with industry, although this later diminished as recession affected industrial R&D budgets. In the beginning of the 1990's health-related problems provided the major basis for applying and enriching cognitive psychology. Initial ventures in neuropsychology involved single case studies of patients with relatively pure and specific cognitive deficits. The field was developed to the point at which it could deal with a wider range of cases where the deficits are less specific. This in turn stimulated the new field of cognitive neuropsychiatry. Cognitive psychology was also extended to encompass the relationships between cognition and emotion, which became part of a vigorous area of interaction between academic and clinical researchers. A significant contribution towards blending theoretical and practical work was reflected in the neuropsychological rehabilitation group, which moved into its accommodation in Addenbrooke's Hospital in 1995.
Dr. William Marslen-Wilson took up his appointment as the Director of the Unit in July 1997, following Alan Baddeley's earlier move to Bristol in September 1996. He joined the Unit at a time of substantial scientific and organisational change. As Director, his remit is to reorient and re-develop the Unit's scientific programmes. The main thrust of the reorientation is to concentrate research around the task of constructing explanatory theories of the major components of human cognitive function, marrying psychological and computational accounts of cognitive function and architecture with increasingly detailed analyses of how these functions are realised in the brain. In collaboration with the Department of Experimental Psychology, the Clinical School, the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre, and other Cambridge-based programmes, Unit's future research will be aimed at a greater integration of cognitive science with neuroscience. In the period since the new Director's arrival, existing scientific programmes and resources have been re-organised and a new Unit Programme for the next five years has been approved by the Medical Research Council. In order to reflect these changes, from April 1998 the Unit, which had been known since the 1950s as the Applied Psychology Unit (APU), was re-named the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (CBU).
As part of this process of change and renewal, the Unit has undergone a major programme of remodelling and rebuilding. Along with the refurbishment of the old Edwardian mansion which forms the old heart of the Unit, the centrepiece of these developments is the recently completed West Wing. This is a dramatic two-storey addition to the CBU facilities, which houses extensive laboratory space for behavioural testing on the ground floor and excellent lecture theatre and seminar room facilities on the first floor. Beautifully integrated with the old house and with the CBU gardens, this new building provides an appropriate setting for the Unit's future as a major UK centre for 21st century interdisciplinary science.
In an effort to increase the amount of access scientists within the unit have to advanced neuro-imaging equipment, the CBU has added its own Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner to the Chaucer Road site.