Skip to main content

Records of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.10308

Scope and Contents

The historical archive of the Cognition and Brain Science Unit (CBSU), formerly the Applied Psychology Unit (APU), comprising: directors’ correspondence; assorted committee papers; Unit publications such as 'Unit news'; equipment receipt books; an extensive series of photographs of the APU premises, staff and events; a large collection of audiovisual material (8mm, 16mm and 35mm film reels, VHS video tapes, videocassettes) documenting many aspects of the Unit's research work and social interactions.


  • Creation: 1943 - 2016


Conditions Governing Access

Researchers wishing to consult this collection will be required to complete a data release form. Additionally, some material is closed following the Archive's confidentiality guidelines for sensitive data (in compliance with the Data Protection Act (2018)). Please see individual catalogue entries for details.

Biographical / Historical

The early work of the unit built on wartime experiments conducted in the University of Cambridge experimental laboratory funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) on intelligence and sensory and motor ability. These included the first flight simulator to study the effects of long flight hours, the Mackworth clock test which studied the optimal periods over which submariner’s attention could be focused on detecting intermittent sonar signals and the SMA-3 pilot aptitude test for assessing people's suitability for various wartime roles.

The Unit continued this work when it was created in 1944 and the first Director, Kenneth Craik, developed the first computational model of skill applied to gun-aiming, using computation as a theoretical model for human information processing. The findings of this research had an impact on military practice including the design of the control room for the Battle of Britain. Other studies developed by the Unit included the application of statistical methods to the study of accidents, methods to assist with rehabilitation of hospital patients and prisoners-of-war. Following Craik's death in a bicycle accident, under subsequent directors including Sir Frederick Bartlett (1945-1951) and Norman Mackworth (1951-1958), topics of research broadened to encompass civilian transport, industrial production and telecommunications studying medical students, textile mills, and using eye-tracking devices, head-mounted cameras, and instrumented cars.

Studies were influenced by information theory, influencing the fourth director Donald Broadbent's (1958-1974) work on short-term memory, attention, and cognition within the theoretical framework of cognitive psychology. Experimental studies of signal detection, motor performance and unusual environments continued for a range of government departments including the Post Office, transport authorities, the Decimal Currency Board, the Gas Board and Cambridge Hospitals. New studies on sleep, learning, memory, deafness in children and the effects of aging on cognitive performance were developed. The unit acquired its first computer in 1970 allowing computational theories of mind to be studied more widely and under the fifth Director, Alan Baddeley (1974-1997), scientists with new expertise in neuropsychology, rehabilitation and clinical studies of anxiety and depression were recruited. The increase of computers in the workplace created more research with industry in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s health related problems were explored through neuropsychology with various applications including rehabilitation, and cognitive neuropsychiatry.

In 1997, William Marslen-Wilson became the sixth Director of the MRC Applied Psychology Unit with a new MRC remit for studying theories of human cognitive function, drawing on psychology and computational accounts with analysis of their realisation in the brain. To reflect this, the Unit was renamed the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in April 1998. In 2001 the Edwardian mansion that houses the unit at 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge, was refurbished and a two-story West Wing extension was added including a laboratory for behavioural studies on the ground floor and a lecture theatre and seminar rooms on the first floor. At the end of 2005, the MRC invested £1.7 million to house a 3 Tesla Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner and installed a Magnetoencephalographic (MEG) facility at a further cost of £1.5 million in 2007, strengthening the shift of the Unit's activities to neuroscience research.


2.1 cubic metre(s) (23 archive boxes and 10 plastic crates)

Language of Materials


Immediate Source of Acquisition

On deposit from the Medical Research Council, UK Research and Innovation, Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon, SN2 1FL.

Related Materials

Material held in the Department of Archives and Modern Manuscripts: GBR/0012/MS Add.8076, papers of Sir Frederick Charles Bartlett.

Material held in the University Archives relating to the establishment of the Unit: GBR/0265/UA/GB 000.033 Box 1261, General Board subject file 000.033 Experimental Psychology (includes references to MRC Applied Psychology Unit), 1944 - 1993; GBR/0265/UA/R671/1947 Box 174, Registry subject file Research Unit in Applied Psychology in Department of Experimental Psychology: establishment by MRC, 1944.

Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom