Ulric Neisser Is Dead at 83; Reshaped Study of the Mind

Ulric Neisser, past President of the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology (1990-1991), recently died.

Excerpts from Neisser’s New York Times obituary follow. Here is the link to the full text.

Ulric Neisser, a psychological researcher who helped lead a postwar revolution in the study of the human mind by advancing the understanding of mental processes like perception and memory, died on Feb. 17 in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 83.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his son Mark said.

Advances in information theory, computers and experimental methods after World War II enabled scientists to challenge the dominant psychological discipline, behaviorism. Behaviorism examines stimuli to the senses and the resulting responses. In its purest permutation, it rejects the idea that the mind even exists.

Dr. Neisser (pronounced NICE-er), who loved to challenge orthodoxy and devise theoretical frameworks, sought to prove that people could think and to describe how they did it. He even named the new field with the title of his 1967 book, “Cognitive Psychology.” It set forth ideas advanced by him and other scientists that internal mental processes not only mattered, but could also be studied and measured.

“He galvanized this whole discipline,” James E. Cutting, chairman of the psychology department of Cornell University, said in an interview.

As computer technology advanced in the 1960s, students of the mind began to imagine it as an information processing system. Work in information theory, growing out of code-breaking operations in World War II, fed into the new discipline. So did new theories of linguistics that posited an innate structure to the mind.

James R. Pomerantz, a psychology professor at Rice University, said in an interview that Dr. Neisser’s genius was to combine these new understandings in constructing a new view of the mind, much as a paleontologist assembles a dinosaur skeleton from scattered fossils. The result, Dr. Pomerantz said, was “a single coherent way of thinking how the mind works.”

Dr. Neisser’s work showed that memory is a reconstruction of the past, not an accurate snapshot of it. He found that however much people think they are remembering actual events, they are really remembering memories — and probably memories of memories. The mind, he said, conflates things.

In a much-publicized experiment the day after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, Dr. Neisser asked students to write down their immediate experience upon hearing the news. Nearly three years later, he asked them to recount it. A quarter of the accounts were strikingly different, half were somewhat different, and less than a tenth had all the details correct. All were confident that their latter accounts were completely accurate.

Another memory experiment compared the testimony of John W. Dean III, the former aide to President Richard M. Nixon, during the Senate Watergate hearings with tapes of Mr. Dean’s conversations that the president had secretly recorded. He found discrepancies in detail after detail.

But Dr. Neisser said the testimony was accurate about the most important truths: that there really had been a cover-up, and that Nixon did approve it. […]

Ulrich Gustav Neisser was born in Kiel, Germany, on Dec. 8, 1928, and his family immigrated to the United States in 1933. He later dropped the “h” in his first name to sound more American, he said. His boyhood friends called him Dickie, and he was later known as Dick. He grew up in Swarthmore, Pa.; Washington and New York. His father, Hans, a noted economist, expected him to be a scientist. The boy had a chemistry set he did not use.

He went to Harvard and found psychology more interesting than physics. He was attracted to the Gestalt school of psychology, which takes a complex, holistic view of mental processes but lacks the scientific rigor of what became cognitive psychology. He even did some unsuccessful research on extrasensory perception, citing in an autobiographical statement “a soft spot in my heart for exciting but unlikely hypotheses.” […]

Dr. Neisser came to the realization that his own memory was as fragile as those of his research subjects. For years, he had said that he was listening to a baseball game on the radio when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Finally, he said, it dawned on him that he could not have been listening to a baseball game in December.

In a graduation speech at the New School for Social Research in 1998, Dr. Neisser asked how the graduates could be sure they remembered anything accurately. He told them they could not be sure. Then he struck a more hopeful note, adding: “This is a graduation, your graduation, or perhaps your son’s or your daughter’s; for that reason you are not likely to forget it. Everything is happening just as it should, just as you will remember it years from now.”

Lecture with KU researcher to offer strategies to alleviate depression

Feb. 21, 2012

LAWRENCE – A University of Kansas professor who has developed a depression treatment based on lifestyle changes will share his research in a lecture called “Banish the Blues” on Thursday, Feb. 23, at Douglas County Senior Services in downtown Lawrence.

The presentation will feature Steve Ilardi, an associate professor of clinical psychology at KU and author of “The Depression Cure.” The event starts at 4 p.m. and is open to the public.

Ilardi will discuss his findings that humans were never designed for the modern pace of life, which can be both sedentary and frenzied, sleep-deprived and fast food-laden. As a result, depression rates have increased more than 20-fold in the last century. Pharmaceuticals are a common treatment, but Ilardi suggests there are other options that may be more effective.

In Ilardi’s work, he has created an alternative treatment borrowed from elements of the primitive human lifestyle. His research suggests that helping people reclaim healing habits from a way of life that was more physically active and socially connected can be an effective treatment for depression. Ilardi heads a large treatment study, dubbed the Therapeutic Lifestyle Change project, which calls for patients to adopt six healing elements from the ancient past.

In addition to positive results from his own ongoing research study, Ilardi points to low rates of depression among contemporary peoples whose lifestyles mirror those of our ancestors. The American Amish, for example, have rates of depressive illness far lower than that of the broader American population.

Ilardi’s research career has been focused on investigating the phenomenology and the successful treatment of depression. He is the author of more than 40 professional articles on mental illness. Through his active clinical practice, he has treated several hundred depressed patients.

“Banish the Blues” is part of the CLAS Acts lecture series sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which aims to take KU research off campus and into the community. Ilardi is a faculty member in the College. The event is co-sponsored by Douglas County Senior Services.

For more information about the event, contact Jessica Beeson by email or at 785-864-1767.

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers dozens of diverse majors in natural sciences and mathematics, social and behavioral sciences, humanities, international and interdisciplinary studies, and the arts. More than 60 percent of KU students are enrolled in a major in the College, making it the largest academic unit on campus.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU’s Lawrence campus.

kunews@ku.edu | (785) 864-3256 | 1314 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045

Contact: Jessica Beeson, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, 785-864-1767

from http://www.news.ku.edu/2012/february/21/depression.shtml

2nd Annual Midwest Cognitive Science Conference

2nd Annual Midwest Cognitive Science Conference
Indiana University, Bloomington
May 7th, 2012

The Indiana University Cognitive Science community would like to invite you to the 2nd annual Midwest Cognitive Science Conference. Last year we had a very successful inaugural meeting at MSU, and this year we are expecting an even larger turnout. The conference is aimed at providing an affordable local forum for faculty and students (graduate and undergraduate) within the cognitive sciences to present scientific papers/posters, and to foster a network of cognitive scientists in the Midwest.

The meeting will be held May 7th, 2012, at Indiana University in Bloomington IN.

This year’s keynote speaker is Dr. Mark Steyvers from UC Irvine.

Paper and poster submission deadline is March 1, 2012.

More information on the conference can be found on the conference website: http://www.indiana.edu/~clcl/mwcogsci/