Stephen Kosslyn

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Stephen Kosslyn
Born1948 (age 72–73)
EducationUniversity of California, Los Angeles (B.A., 1970)
Stanford University (Ph.D., 1974)
AwardsNAS Award for Initiatives in Research, Guggenheim fellowship, Cattell Award, Prix Jean-Louis Signoret
Scientific career
FieldsCognitive neuroscience, learning sciences, cognitive psychology
InstitutionsMinerva Schools at KGI, Stanford University, Harvard University

Stephen Michael Kosslyn (born 1948) is an American psychologist, neuroscientist, and expert on the science of learning. Kosslyn is president of Active Learning Sciences, Inc., which helps institutions design active-learning based courses and educational programs. He is also founder and chief academic officer of Foundry College, an online two-year college designed to help working adults develop skills and knowledge that will not be automated in the foreseeable future. Prior to that, Kosslyn was founding dean and chief academic officer of the Minerva Schools at KGI (the Keck Graduate Institute).[1] And before that, he was the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in Memory of William James and Dean of Social Science at Harvard University.


Kosslyn was born in Southern California, and grew up in Pacific Palisades. As an undergraduate at UCLA he worked in the labs of Barbara Henker, who studied children with autism, and John P. Seward[2] with whom he published his first publication, a study of learning in rats.[3] Kosslyn also spent considerable time talking to Edward Sadalla, who helped him learn how to structure an argument and identify when a creative idea was worth considering.[3] He received a B.A. in psychology from UCLA in 1970.

Kosslyn attended graduate school at Stanford University. Upon arriving, he discovered that his advisor was resigning so that he could work for the "ecology movement," leaving Kosslyn adrift. He took courses his first quarter and did not engage in research. In his second quarter, he met his future advisor, Gordon H. Bower, who would have a huge influence on all aspects of his life.[4] In graduate school Kosslyn was also fortunate to share an office with Susan Haviland, who was soon to marry Edward E. Smith. Smith loved to "talk shop" and Kosslyn learned an immense amount from him. Kosslyn received a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford in 1974.

On leaving graduate school, Kosslyn first went to the Johns Hopkins University as an assistant professor, specializing in developmental psychology. At the beginning of his third year at Hopkins, Kosslyn received offers from MIT and Harvard, both at the associate professor level. He went to Harvard in large part because of an impassioned letter he received from a first-year graduate student, Steven Pinker, who was seeking an advisor.

After four [5] years at Harvard, Kosslyn obtained a Research Career Development Award and went to Brandeis University. One year later he went back to Hopkins as a visitor; while there he was granted tenure at Harvard. Kosslyn returned to Harvard in 1983, and after 10 years as "Head Tutor" (running the undergraduate program), became chair of the department, and then became Dean of Social Sciences.[6] According to a September 2019 letter from Harvard's president to alumni, Kosslyn's lab was a beneficiary of Jeffrey Epstein’s philanthropy and he nominated Epstein as a visiting fellow in the department of psychology in 2005 (prior to Epstein's 2008 conviction).[7]

Kosslyn remained at Harvard until 2011, at which point he returned to Stanford, as director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.[8] After two years, he had developed a strategic plan for how the center could operate within its means. He then accepted an offer to be the Founding Dean of the Minerva Project, based in San Francisco.[9] The Minerva Project in turn partnered with Keck Graduate Institute, a member of the Claremont University consortium, and Kosslyn was chief academic officer at the Minerva Schools at KGI until early 2018.[10] Foundry College was funded (by Learn Capital) in July of that year.

Kosslyn has received numerous honors for his research. These include the National Academy of Sciences Initiatives in Research Award, the Prix Jean-Louis Signoret, three honorary doctorates (from the University of Caen, France; the University of Paris-Descartes, France; the University of Bern, Switzerland), a Guggenheim fellowship,[11] and a Cattell Award. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, and Academia Rodinensis pro Remediatione (Switzerland).


Mental imagery[edit]

Kosslyn is known primarily for his research and theories on mental imagery. He championed the idea that mental images are distinct from language because they depict, not describe, information. His theory contends that, contrary to a commonly held assumption, imagery is not a single, unified phenomenon; rather, it consists of a collection of distinct functions, each of which is responsible for a different aspect of imagery. For example, he decomposes imagery into four sets of processes, responsible for generating the image (i.e., activating information stored in long-term memory and constructing a representation in short-term memory), inspecting the object in the image (e.g., by reinterpreting it), maintaining the image over time, and—if so desired—transforming the image (e.g., by rotating it, adding or deleting parts, or changing the color).

His research, which includes Positron Emission Tomography and fMRI-imaging and similar techniques, has located some of these functions in different neural networks in the brain, some of which are in different cerebral hemispheres. For example, his laboratory demonstrated that the left half of the brain is better than the right at encoding categories and generating mental images on the basis of categories; whereas the right half of the brain is better than the left at encoding specific examples or continuous distances, and at generating images with such characteristics.

Visual display design[edit]

Kosslyn also works on visual display design, showing how psychological principles can be used to produce displays that can be understood at a glance. Most recently, he has extended this work to show how psychological principles of perception, memory, and comprehension can be used to make and deliver effective PowerPoint presentations.

Individual differences[edit]

Kosslyn has also studied how people differ in their preferred types of information processing. Some of this work is based on neuroimaging, showing that the degree of activation in distinct parts of the brain predicts how well a person can perform particular tasks. Other work on this topic is based entirely on behavior. In this latter category, he and the late J. Richard Hackman used brain-based behavioral measures of individual differences to compose effective teams.

In his 2013 book, Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think, Kosslyn developed another approach to analyzing individual differences in cognition. He and his co-author, G. Wayne Miller, examined a newly conceived understanding of brain function, through top-brain and bottom-brain systems. According to Kosslyn: The top-brain system uses contextual and emotional information to plan, while the bottom-brain system thinks through the consequences of actions by using sensory information and memories from the brain.[12] Kosslyn used this concept to define four cognitive modes, one of which represents a default mode for every individual:

  • Mover: both top and bottom systems are used to both plan and perceive the consequences of actions.
  • Perceiver: emphasis upon bottom-brain mode, whereby analysis and contextual understanding occur.
  • Stimulator: doesn't always think through consequences of elaborate plans.
  • Adaptor: doesn't overly gravitate toward either system and typically allows external factors to dictate a situation.[12]

Science of learning[edit]

Most recently, Kosslyn has developed ways to apply the science of learning to teaching. This work began in earnest when he was at Minerva, and progressed significantly after he founded Foundry College. As part of this effort, he has distilled a set of principles from the empirical literature and developed new teaching methods.


Kosslyn has published over 300 scientific papers and written or co-authored 15 books and edited or co-edited 13 books, including:[13][14]

  • 1980. Image and Mind
  • 1983. Ghosts in the Mind's Machine
  • 1992. Wet Mind, with Olivier Koenig
  • 1994. Elements of Graph Design
  • 1994. Image and Brain
  • 2001. Psychology: The Brain, the Person, the World (2001, 2004), with R.S. Rosenberg
  • 2006. The Case for Mental Imagery, with W.L. Thompson and G. Ganis
  • 2006. Graph Design for the Eye and Mind
  • 2006. Cognitive Psychology: Mind and Brain with E.E. Smith
  • 2007. Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations
  • 2010. Psychology in Context, with R.S. Rosenberg
  • 2010. Abnormal Psychology (2010, 2014), with R.S. Rosenberg
  • 2011. Better PowerPoint
  • 2013. Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think, with G.W. Miller [15]
  • 2017. Building the Intentional University, edited with B. Nelson
  • 2019. Introducing Psychology: The Brain, the Person, the Group (5th edition), with R.S. Rosenberg
  • 2020. Active Learning Online: Five Principles that Make Online Courses Come Alive


  1. ^ Walker, Tim (24 July 2014). "Will The Minerva Project – the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century – change the face of higher education?". The Independent. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  2. ^ John P. Seward, Psychology: Los Angeles 1905-1985, Professor Emeritus. Accessed May 10, 2013
  3. ^ a b Stephen Kosslyn (1980) Image and Mind. p. ix
  4. ^ Mark A. Gluck, John R. Anderson, Stephen M. Kosslyn eds. (2007) A Festschrift for Gordon H. Bower.
  5. ^ Wood, Graeme (13 August 2014). "The Future of college?" (September 2014). The Atlantic. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  6. ^ "Stephen Kosslyn named divisional dean for the social sciences". Harvard Gazette. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  7. ^ "Harvard reviewing millions of dollars in donations late sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein gave to the Ivy League school". CNBC. Retrieved 13 September 2019.
  8. ^ Gorlick, Adam. "Kosslyn appointed director of Stanford's CASBS". Stanford News Service. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  9. ^ Monaghan, Peter (8 April 2013). "Behavior Expert Seizes Chance to Run Ambitious Experiment in Higher Education". Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  10. ^ Wood, Graeme (13 August 2014). "The Future of College?" (September). The Atlantic. Retrieved 12 September 2014.
  11. ^ "Stephen M. Kosslyn". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on 21 August 2014. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  12. ^ a b Jane Porter (10 December 2014). "HOW TO WIN THE IMPULSE WAR INSIDE YOUR BRAIN". Fast Company. Monsueto Ventures. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  13. ^ Details of books published Archived December 23, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ List of publications Archived June 30, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ This book develops a new theory of "cognitive modes" -- different thinking styles that affect how each of us approaches the world and interacts with other people.

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