A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Consciousness

Etzel Cardeña[1]

 

Max Velmans at 80 Years of Age

‘I eventually discovered the universe of the individual psyche to be far more interesting and unfathomable than I could possibly have imagined.’ (Velmans, 2017, p. 12)

This Special Issue celebrates the 80th birthday of Max Leopold Velmans, born in Amsterdam during the German occupation. Forced to flee the war with his family, he lived on three continents and learned three languages. This geographical displacement fed his ‘existential fluidity [and] search for meaning’, and the exposure to multiple cultural perspectives made him question dogmatic beliefs and existential systems (Velmans, 2022). During his youth, he took a hitchhiking trip for three months. Although he did not gain all the existential answers he wanted then, insights and questions from his early life have fed onto his lifetime’s work, which has advanced our understanding of that inexhaustible purveyor of experience, the psyche.

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (see for example https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hitchhikers) was a worldwide cultural phenomenon that made its first appearance in 1978 as a BBC radio series and later spawned spin-off books, a film, a TV series, and a video game. In it, an eponymous book guides Arthur Dent, the hap­less hero, through his travels in the universe. Through his decades-long efforts, Max Velmans has become a foundational figure in the study of consciousness, providing a sort of hitchhiker’s guide to it at a time when the study of consciousness was an academic liability.

I first heard of Max as a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, in the late 1980s. I had chosen UC Davis because Charles Tart, the world’s foremost authority in altered states of con­sciousness, was faculty there and became my supervisor. Another initial member of my dissertation committee, Thomas Natsoulas, had published sophisticated conceptual analyses of consciousness. It was most likely he who posted in the mailroom a flyer about a lecture on consciousness at the University of California, Berkeley. I could not attend it, but the name Velmans stuck in my mind. Many years later, I met Max during a dinner at a Parapsychological Association confer­ence in which he gave an Invited Address on ‘Unconscious Inter­connection’, showing that he was not afraid of the small but vocifer­ous ‘thought police’ that punishes anyone daring to even discuss the scientific study of parapsychological phenomena (Cardeña, 2015; 2022). A few years later, I got an invitation by that same Velmans to be part of an expert’s conference on different aspects of consciousness and got to know him personally. It was one of those not so common instances in which meeting someone whose work I admired did not become a letdown. As Margaret Atwood (2003, p. 30), quoting a magazine epigram originally attributed to Arthur Koestler, wrote: ‘Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.’ On the contrary, Max turned out to be a warm, affable, and supportive person, with a wonderful social network of family and friends in that UK bastion town of insane sanity known as Totnes.

To give even a shallow overview of Max’s contributions is not an easy task, given the vast territory that his thought and interests have covered, both through his own work and his championing of that of others. I have, nonetheless, committed myself to carry out this fool’s errand. First I will focus on Max’s contributions as a researcher/ inventor/theoretician, and then segue into his contributions as an anthologist of consciousness works and as a ‘good citizen’.

Max Velmans as Researcher/Inventor

It may surprise some that Max’s first degree was a Bachelor of Engineering (University of Sydney, 1964) and that his early work after his 1974 PhD in Psychology (University of London) centred on inventing and testing a Frequency Transposing Hearing Aid (FRED), which obtained international patents. The goal of FRED was to double the range of perceivable frequencies for those with little or no residual hearing above 4 kHz, allowing them to detect the higher frequency components of speech and other environmental sounds. He then led a 10-year multidisciplinary programme, including psychoacoustics and deafness rehabilitation, to evaluate the benefit of bodily-worn devices to adults and children with hearing loss (e.g. Velmans et al., 1988). This programme was covered extensively by the BBC, the Royal Society, and other institutions. At first (and even second) blush, it would seem that these activities would have little to do with his later foundational work on consciousness but, as he has clarified (Velmans, 2022), his activities relating to hearing aids addressed the fundamental question of why humans have the sensory range they have (because that range captures the most important ecological aspects for human survival, he concluded).

The contributors to this issue of JCS consider various aspects of Velmans’ work. Neuroscientist Alfredo Pereira. Jr.’s ‘Neurobiological Underpinnings of the Projection of Conscious Contents’ discusses how the feedback of motor and sensory processes helps explain how perceptions become predictable and may support the projective aspect of Velmans’ theory. Transpersonal psychologist Les Lancaster explains how Velmans’ embeddedness of consciousness in the world matches the increasingly popular view that consciousness is a primary aspect of reality and not a mere epiphenomenon. This view, by the way, has been held for decades by such luminaries as philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel (1986) and neuroscientists including Nobel prizewinner John Eccles (1994), and Christof Koch (2012). Velmans’ monism treats consciousness and matter as different but comple­mentary perspectives, neither reducible to the other.

For this issue, philosopher Jeremiah Joven Joaquin interviewed Velmans on a wide range of topics, including the development of his ideas, how his position differs from more traditional monist and dualist views, and how his view leads to an interconnected universe in which the everyday phenomenal world has an importance and dignity that has been denied by some philosophers and psychologists. Finally, an eminent contributor to the study of unconscious processes and hypnosis, John F. Kihlstrom, honours Max Velmans by discussing four problems of mind–body relations that can be addressed without solving the hard problem of consciousness, i.e. the nature of the relation between neural processes and qualia: identifying the neural substrates of consciousness, exploring the interaction between con­scious and unconscious processes, understanding psychosomatic pro­cesses such as the placebo effect, and whether mind might exist without a body.

Max Velmans as Theoretician

Velmans’ work as a consciousness theoretician is probably his most important gift to the field. In all issues, his prose is exact, clear, and shows knowledge of philosophical arguments and relevant psychol­ogical and neuroscientific research. Among many other fundamental questions, he has described how to define consciousness in a broad but not too indiscriminate way, so as to differentiate it from non-conscious processing (Velmans, 2009; reprinted in Velmans, 2017; taking a different approach, Natsoulas, 1983, provides a very useful discussion of different concepts of consciousness).

Velmans (e.g. 1991a; excerpts reprinted in Velmans, 2017) has developed a model in which first-person (i.e. phenomenal) conscious­ness is irreducible, although complementary, to third-person (e.g. neurophysiological) accounts, justifying neurophenomenological approaches in which experiential reports are essential to clarifying neurophysiological dynamics (e.g. Cardeña et al., 2013; Lutz and Thompson, 2003). I recommend an exchange Velmans (2011a) had with philosopher Daniel Dennett on the nature of the intrinsic qualia of conscious experiences. Dennett, after stating his neutrality about qualia, makes a parallel between beliefs in qualia’s phenomenal properties to the belief in evil spirits as causes of illnesses(!). Velmans, instead, maintains a critical but not dismissive view of phenomenological reports (see also Searle’s 1995 condemnation of Dennett’s take on consciousness as an intellectually pathological way of avoiding consciousness itself).

Velmans has also proposed a non-reductionist answer to the question of how voluntary pre-conscious and conscious experiences (including making decisions) affect the brain and other physiological processes (Velmans, 2002; reprinted in 2017), although he accepts, at least in principle, that the physical world appears to be causally closed. Nonetheless, it should be mentioned that the ordinary notion of unidirectional causality has been questioned by some eminent quantum mechanics theoreticians (e.g. Delbrück, 1986), backward causation experiments (for a review see Faye, 2021), and results from precognition/presentiment experiments (for a review see Cardeña, 2018).

Velmans’ theory of reflexive monism (RM), a type of indirect (critical) realism, deals head-on with the ontology of consciousness. RM partly follows the Husserlian view that in perception the world presents itself, rather than our perception being of a representation or appearance of it within the nervous system (cf. Hopp, 2020). Contrary to reductionist or dualistic models in which the experiences we have are only ‘inside’ the brain or ‘nowhere’ (thus splitting the experiencer from the experienced), RM proposes that the perception of, say, a cat (in which light rays reflected from its surface may impact the visual system and produce the neural representation of a seen cat) are reflexively ‘projected’ to the judged location of the real cat, to encom­pass the cat as perceived. Consequently, in terms of their phenomenol­ogy, there is no distinction between a conscious percept of the cat and the cat as perceived. This also applies to the perceived body as well as the rest of the perceived world. So, following the phenomenological tradition, he embeds the perceiver within the perceived world rather than being apart from it. Within RM, the entire phenomenal world is a peculiarly human representation of a deeper reality or the thing-itself (Velmans, 1990; 2008; 2009).

Granting the limitations of our perception, Velmans nonetheless defends the validity (although submittable to analysis) and dignity of our experiences. I fully agree with this stance. Third-person, neuro­physiological accounts of my experiences (e.g. of changes in my limbic system) of the colours of a sunset or the laughter of my wife and boy are not only poor substitutes of the experiences themselves but fail to consider a long chain of conscious and non-conscious events preceding them, current ‘neuromania’ notwithstanding (see Tallis, 2011, for a devastating critique of reductive neural explana­tions). As for the limitations of our perception, besides the work on non-conscious processes, research on psi phenomena strongly suggests that we do not typically perceive stimuli that may impinge on us (cf. Cardeña, 2018), but this just means that the experiences we have provided only a sliver of the multifarious stimuli impinging on us. Underpinning reality as perceived, there may be far broader and expansive processes, which two distinguished theoretical physicists called ‘veiled reality’ (d’Espagnat, 2006) and ‘implicate order’ (Bohm, 1980), and Velmans (see below) refers to as the ultimate ground of being.

Relatedly, for Velmans (1991a,b) the conscious self is the tip of a much larger pre-conscious mind, but consciousness is not just the inconsequential flotsam of non-conscious processes. Once non-conscious processes become conscious, they can access a vast array of information and deliberations that can be integrated more fully and interact with further cognitive processes (see also Baars, 1997). Becoming consciously aware of one’s pre-conscious processes has implications not only for experience but for thought and behaviour, as most if not all introspective readers will likely agree.

Regarding the distinction between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ phenomena, Velmans points out that there are different meanings for ‘objective’, which is ultimately intersubjective in the sense that differ­ent participants can adopt a similar stance and produce similar reports (see also Cardeña, 2017). For Velmans, consciousness has first-person ‘privately accessible’ and third-person ‘publicly accessible’ aspects, and neither aspect can be reduced to the other.

Max Velmans as Convener and Editor

Throughout his life, Max Velmans has sought to gather diverse groups of thinkers and researchers working in diverse areas of consciousness. In his recent lecture at the Consciousness Café he created in Totnes to disseminate research and ideas on consciousness, he (Velmans, 2022) quoted the writer E.M. Forster’s phrase ‘Only Connect’, an ambition accompanying Velmans’ life like a gentle shadow. A landmark example was his organization of a Ciba Foundation Symposium that gathered 25 eminent scientists and philosophers working on con­sciousness (e.g. Daniel Dennett, Thomas Nagel, Anthony Marcel; Bock and Walsh, 1993), at a time when those working in conscious­ness were looked at askance, followed by scores of other symposia and public debates with such figures as John Searle and Francisco Varela.

Max Velmans has also been the editor of important anthologies covering many areas in consciousness, including The Blackwell Com­panion to Consciousness. Its second edition (Schneider and Velmans, 2017) includes 54 chapters ranging widely through philosophical discussions of the problems of consciousness; children, animal, and machine consciousness; altered states of consciousness; contemporary theories of consciousness; and various related topics including con­scious and unconscious perception and neurophenomenological approaches.

Impressive as that anthology is, it pales in comparison with the scope and breadth of the four volumes of Consciousness (Critical Concepts in Psychology), which traverse widely across history, topics, and perspectives. I know many experts in diverse aspects of con­sciousness, but probably only Max could have covered the enormous range in these volumes. Volume 1 (Velmans, 2018a) starts with an historical review of early writing on consciousness, including texts by Aristotle and Descartes, along with a review by Skrbina of the history of panpsychic perspectives (see also Theise and Kafatos, 2013). There is then a big jump (the reader wanting to bridge it may want to consult Robinson’s 1981 intellectual history of psychology) to papers on con­sciousness by pioneers of modern psychology, including G. Stanley Hall, William James, and more recent works by U.T. Place and George Miller. The second part of the volume centres on ‘Establishing Psychology as the Experimental Study of Mind and Consciousness’, with texts on psychophysics, structuralism, functionalism, and behaviourism by Fechner, Wundt, James, Watson, Titchener, and Boring, as well as more recent contributions by Ericsson and Simon (on verbal reports), and Jerome Singer (on the ‘stream of conscious­ness’). Part 3 covers early proposals on the relation of the conscious to the unconscious mind, with papers by E.W. Kelly (on the neglected theoretical contribution of F.W.H. Myers to the study of anomalous experiences), and Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung, on their respective views of the unconscious. The next section deals with early theories of the relation between consciousness and the brain, with contributions by Thomas Huxley and George Romanes, as well as, closer to our time, Mandler’s important ‘Consciousness: Respectable, Useful, and Probably Necessary’. The volume ends with a work by Velmans on how to define (and not define) consciousness.

Volume 2 (Velmans, 2018b) covers more recent cognitive and neurophysiological studies of consciousness. The first part centres on pre-conscious, unconscious, and conscious processing, including modern classics on the cognitive unconscious, cognitive dissociations of neurological patients, perception without awareness, and other areas, by Shevrin and Dickman, Kihlstrom, Velmans, Weiskrantz, Merikle, Goodale, and Jeannerod. The next section covers attention and consciousness, starting with the foundational and still very much worth reading analysis of the stream of thought by William James, selective attention (by Treisman), attention and consciousness (by Koch and Tsuchiya), and various others. The following section is about learning, memory, and consciousness, including a foundational paper on the types of memory and consciousness by Tulving, and contributions on implicit learning (by Reber) and visual imagery (with contrasting papers by Paivio and by Moulton and Kosslyn). The following three sections cover non-canonical aspects of consciousness including sleep and dreaming, and consciousness in infants and non-human animals, with contributions by Hobson and McCarley, Llinás and Paré, Trevarthen and Reddy, Panksepp, and Allen and Bekoff. To these could be added recent proposals on sentience among fungi (Sheldrake, 2020) and plants (Frazier, 2021).

Volume 3 (Velmans, 2018c) continues the focus on cognitive and neurophysiological work, with the first section on the search for neural correlates of consciousness (NCC), with works by Libet, Crick and Koch, Singer, and Dehaene and Changeux, followed by an over­view by Bogen on the neurophysiology of consciousness, and challenges to NCC research by Merker and by Aru et al. The next module centres on the implications of research of hemispherically disconnected patients, with papers by Sperry, Gazzaniga, and other collaborators. A section on the reintroduction of first-person methods has various contributions by Varela, Lutz and Thompson, Bitbol and Petitmengin, Price and Barrell, and Velmans (see also Cardeña and Pekala, 2014, for a review of various introspective methods). The volume ends with three contributions on free will, with chapters by Libet, Frith, and Schhurger (that might be supplemented by a recent video by Velmans on free will and the nature of the self).[2]

The fourth and final volume (Velmans, 2018d) focuses on altera­tions of consciousness and non-reductive theories. It includes chapters on imagery (Sheikh et al.), hypnosis (Cardeña), placebos (Finnis et al.), psychoneuroimmunology (Kiecolt-Glazer et al.), altered states of consciousness (Ludwig et al.), meditation (Wallace et al., Kabat-Zinn et al., Keng et al.), mystical experiences (William James, Wulff), and psychoactive drugs (Hoffman, Griffiths et al., Carhart-Harris et al., Presti). The final chapters present alternative integrative theories of consciousness (by Tononi and Koch, Solms, Kelly, and Velmans; regarding the IIT theory of Tononi and Koch, see also Kelly, 2022).

In addition, Velmans has online companions to each volume that introduce and summarize their contents, available at researchgate.edu (Velmans, 2018e–h). A fascinating one- to two-year intensive course on consciousness could be based on just these volumes and a few additional readings.

Max Velmans as a
Good Transpersonal Citizen

Besides his early invention to help the hearing impaired, Velmans has applied his knowledge of consciousness to encourage beneficial trans­formations of his fellow folk. To give two examples, during his invited tenure in 2011 in India, he lectured on social issues (Velmans, 2011b,c). At home, he launched and has organized the Totnes Con­sciousness Café, where he presents his and others’ take on conscious­ness to a general but interested audience of townspeople and visitors.

In his recent lecture at the Café (Velmans, 2022), he revealed that his lifelong quest to understand consciousness owes much to an LSD trip during the swinging 60s London days. During it, he experienced a timeless being forming into worlds, manifesting into individual beings, with all information required for the development of one’s realization of that timeless being immanent in every action. When he returned to his ordinary state he wanted to pierce through the façade of this extraordinary experience and had a number of questions: how do the senses relate to consciousness and how do the latter relate to the brain and to an external reality? How could an eternal consciousness be evolving? And how could it manifest into seemingly separate indi­viduals?

Most of Velmans’ career has centred on the first questions, but recently he has connected his thought as well to Eastern proposals of transcendental consciousness. In one of his works (Velmans, 2013; reprinted in Velmans, 2017), he analyses the convergences and divergences of his RM and Rao’s Body–Mind–Consciousness model, which seeks to integrate monist with dualist perspectives within Indian philosophy. Velmans’ anthologies and authored works show that, following William James’s (1902/1958) imperative to account for other states of consciousness, he treats mystical and other anoma­lous or extraordinary experiences (Cardeña, 2020; Cardeña, Lynn and Krippner, 2014) as expressions of consciousness that require under­standing and integration with models of the ordinary (for a particular time and place) apprehension of reality, and not mere curiosities or expressions of pathology. At the ultimate metaphysical level, Velmans (2021; 2022) considers embodied consciousness as a field of energy/ information in which we are immersed, a manifestation of the ultimate ground of being, and concludes that through reflexive processes the universe experiences itself.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything was given in jest as ‘42’. I doubt that an answer to the puzzle of consciousness will be as simple as that (or centre on Brodmann’s area 42, if you will), but I have no doubt that we will have gotten closer to it through the multi­faceted contributions of Max Velmans.

References

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Baars, B.J. (1997) In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind, New York: Oxford University Press.

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Cardeña, E. (2015) The unbearable fear of psi: On scientific censorship in the 21st century, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 29 (4), pp. 601–620.

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Cardeña, E. & Pekala, R.J. (2014) Methodological issues in the study of altering consciousness and anomalous experience, in Cardeña, E., Lynn, S.J. & Krippner, S. (eds.) Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence, 2nd ed., pp. 21–56, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi: 10.1037/14258-002

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Robinson, D.N. (1981) An Intellectual History of Psychology, revised ed., New York: Macmillan.

Schneider, S. & Velmans, M. (eds.) (2017) The Blackwell Companion to Con­sciousness, 2nd ed., Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

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Sheldrake, M. (2020) Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, New York: Random House. doi: 10.1126/ science.abb5841

Tallis, R. (2011) Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresenta­tion of Humanity, Durham: Acumen.

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Velmans, M. (1990) Consciousness, brain, and the physical world, Philosophical Psychology, 3 (1), 77–99. doi: 10.1080/09515089008572990

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Velmans, M. (1991b) Is human information processing conscious?, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 14 (4), pp. 651–669. doi: 10.1017/s0140525x00071776

Velmans, M. (2002) How could conscious experiences affect brains?, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9 (11), pp. 3–29.

Velmans, M. (2008) Reflexive monism, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 15 (2), pp. 5–50.

Velmans, M. (2009) Understanding Consciousness, 2nd ed., London: Routledge.

Velmans, M. (2011a) Heterophenomenology versus critical phenomenology: A dialogue with Dan Dennett, ResearchGate. doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.21030.16968

Velmans, M. (2011b) Only connect, National Conference on Individual and Collective Transformation: Insights from Indian Psychology, The Indian International Centre, India.

Velmans, M. (2011c) Violence, the fragile ego, and the peaceful self, Invited Lecture at the Center for Ghandian Studies, GITAM University, India.

Velmans, M. (2013) How to arrive at an Eastern place from a Western direction: Convergences and divergences among Samkya Yoga, Advaita Vedanta, the Body–Mind–Consciousness (Trident) Model and Reflexive Monism, in Prasad, B.S. (ed.) Consciousness Gandhi and Yoga: Interdisciplinary, East–West Odyssey of K. Ramakrishna Rao, pp. 107–139, New Delhi: D.K. Printworld. doi: 10.4324/9781315516776-17

Velmans, M. (2017) Towards a Deeper Understanding of Consciousness: Selected Works of Max Velmans, London: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9781315516776-7

Velmans, M. (ed.) (2018a) Consciousness. Volume 1: The Origins of Psychology and the Study of Consciousness, London: Routledge.

Velmans, M. (ed.) (2018b) Consciousness. Volume 2: Cognitive and Neuro­psychological Approaches, London: Routledge.

Velmans, M. (ed.) (2018c) Consciousness. Volume 3: Cognitive and Neuro­psychological Approaches, London: Routledge.

Velmans, M. (ed.) (2018d) Consciousness. Volume 4: New Directions, Psycho­genesis, Transformations of Consciousness and Non-Reductive, Integrative Theories, London: Routledge.

Velmans, M. (2018e–h) First volume: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/ 325442826_A_Companion_to_Velmans_M_ed_2018_Consciousness_Critical_Concepts_in_Psychology_Volume_1_The_Origins_of_Psychology_and_the_Study_of_Consciousness_Major_Works_Series_London_Routledge.

Second volume: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325595915_A_Compa nion_to_Velmans_M_ed_2018_Consciousness_Critical_Concepts_in_Psychology_Volume_2_Cognitive_and_Neuropsychological_Approaches_to_the_Study_of_Consciousness_Part_1_Major_Works_Series_London_Routl?_iepl%5BgeneralViewId%5D=2ZHqXM0pcjwswk2DmQ42TWvnlToFf0K2LF51&_iepl%5Bcontexts%5D%5B0%5D=searchReact&_iepl%5BviewId%5D=bQJwfE8lADyhD1ySMHzb5KNqwgCz7aZYMX3c&_iepl%5BsearchType%5D=publication&_iepl%5Bdata%5D%5BcountLessEqual20%5D=1&_iepl%5Bdata%5D%5BinteractedWithPosition3%5D=1&_iepl%5Bdata%5D%5BwithEnrichment%5D=1&_iepl%5Bposition%5D=3&_iepl%5BrgKey%5D=PB%3A325595915&_iepl%5BtargetEntityId%5D=PB%3A325595915&_iepl%5BinteractionType%5D=publicationTitle.

Third volume: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325711387_A_Companio n_to_Velmans_M_ed_2018_Consciousness_Critical_Concepts_in_Psychology_Volume_3_Cognitive_and_Neuropsychological_Approaches_to_the_Study_of_Consciousness_Part_2_Major_Works_Series_London_Routl.

Fourth volume: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325818914_A_Compani on_to_Velmans_M_ed_2018_Consciousness_Critical_Concepts_in_Psychology_Volume_4_New_Directions_Psychogenesis_Transformations_of_Consciousness_and_Non-reductive_Integrative_Theories_Major_Works).

Velmans, M. (2021) Is the universe conscious? Reflexive monism and the ground of being, in Kelly, E. & Marshall, P. (eds.) Consciousness Unbound, pp. 175–228, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Velmans, M. (2022) Only connect: A personal journey into consciousness, Talk at Totnes Consciousness Café, [Online], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX-2_VxcwPw.

Velmans, M., Marcuson, M., Grant, J., Kwiatkowski, R. & Rees, R. (1988) The use of frequency transposition in the language acquisition of sensory-neural deaf children, Report to the Medical Research Council, Grant No. G8319832N, p. 131.

[1]      CERCAP, Department of Psychology, Lund University, Sweden.

[2]      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-BQsXASRcc.

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