Ulric Gustav Neisser (December 8, 1928 – February 17, 2012) was a German-born American psychologist and member of the US National Academy of Sciences. He has been referred to as the “father of cognitive psychology." Neisser researched and wrote about perception and memory. He posited that a person’s mental processes could be measured and subsequently analyzed. In 1967, Neisser published Cognitive Psychology, which he later said was considered an attack on behaviorist psychological paradigms. Cognitive Psychology brought Neisser instant fame and recognition in the field of psychology. While Cognitive Psychology was considered unconventional, it was Neisser’s Cognition and Reality that contained some of his most controversial ideas. A main theme in Cognition and Reality is Neisser’s advocacy for experiments on perception occurring in natural ("ecologically valid") settings. Neisser postulated that memory is, largely, reconstructed and not a snap shot of the moment. Neisser illustrated this during one of his highly publicized studies on people’s memories of the Challenger explosion. In his later career, he summed up current research on human intelligence and edited the first major scholarly monograph on the Flynn effect. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Neisser as the 32nd most cited psychologist of the 20th century.
Ulric Gustav Neisser was born in Kiel, Germany, on December 8, 1928. Neisser’s father, Hans Neisser, was a distinguished Jewish economist who had predicted Hitler's militaristic actions in Europe and as a precaution Hans emigrated to the United States of America in 1933. Neisser’s mother, Charlotte (“Lotte”) Neisser, was a lapsed Catholic who had been very active in women’s movement in Germany and had a degree in sociology. Neisser’s parents married in 1923. Neisser also had an older sister, Marianne, who was born in 1924. Neisser was a chubby little kid so he adopted a name that translates exactly into that, “Der kleiner Dickie”. This later was reduced to just “Dick.”
Neisser’s father left Germany very quickly; the rest of the family joined him in England a few months later. They sailed to the United States on an ocean liner called, “Hamburg,” arriving in New York on September 15, 1933.
Neisser’s main goal growing up was to fit in and succeed in America. He took a particular interest in baseball, which is thought to have played an “indirect but important role in the psychological interests” of his. Neisser’s appeal for baseball enlightened him to an idea he would later call a “flashbulb memory”.
Neisser’s name originally had an “h” on the end (Ulrich), but he believed that it was too German and most of his friends could not properly pronounce his name, so he eventually dropped the “h”. Lindzey and Runyan also noted that Neisser also had the nickname “Dick.” Neisser stated that both “Ulric” (without the “h”) and “Dick” were natural to him.
Neisser attended Harvard in the late 1940s working toward a psychology major. Neisser graduated summa cum laude in 1950. He had become an “infracaninophile,” which translates to “underdog-lover”. Neisser had written that his enthusiasm had far outweighed his skill in playing baseball, he said that he was the “kid who was always chosen last” to play. He had contributed this as to why he had a “lifelong sympathy with the underdog”. Neisser also stated that this was probably a contributing factor as to why he was drawn to Gestalt psychology; he considered it to be an underdog in the department.
George A. Miller supervised Neisser’s senior thesis research, which helped him gain admission to the master’s program at Swarthmore College. Neisser wanted to attend Swarthmore College because that was where Wolfgang Kohler, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, was a faculty member. Instead of working with Wolfgang Kohler he ended up working with Kohler’s assistant, Hans Wallach. Neisser had also met and became friends with a new assistant professor, Henry Gleitman. Neisser graduated earning his master's degree in 1952.
Neisser went on to obtain his doctorate from Harvard’s Department of Social Relations in 1956. According to Fancher and Rutherford, he completed his dissertation in Psychophysics. He spent a year afterwards as an instructor at Harvard. He went on to teach at Brandeis and Emory Universities, before establishing himself at Cornell. While at Brandeis University, located in Waltham, Neisser expanded his psychological horizon according to Fancher and Rutherford. Fancher and Rutherford also wrote that Neisser’s department chair was Abraham Maslow. According to Cutting, Neisser felt a “deep sympathy for the idealistic humanism” of Abraham Maslow. Maslow had also been profoundly interested by Gestalt psychology.
Oliver Selfridge, a young computer scientist at MIT's Lincoln Laboratories, was the next individual to influence Neisser. Selfridge had been an advocate of machine intelligence. Neisser and Selfridge had become friends, which was crucial for Neisser’s career. Fancher and Rutherford explain that Neisser had become a part-time consultant in Selfridge’s lab, where the two had begun to work on a program together. Selfridge along with Neisser produced the “pandemonium model of pattern recognition, which appeared in Scientific American in 1950." After working with Selfridge, Neisser received multiple grants and began to work in different areas involving thinking, soon after he moved to the University of Pennsylvania. This is where he would write Cognitive Psychology.
Work and career
The modern growth of cognitive psychology received a major boost from the publication in 1967 of the first, and most influential, of Neisser's books: Cognitive Psychology.
In 1976, Neisser wrote Cognition and Reality, in which he expressed three general criticisms of the field of cognitive psychology. First, he was dissatisfied with the linear programming model of cognitive psychology, with its over-emphasis on peculiar information processing models used to describe and explain behavior. Second, he felt that cognitive psychology had failed to address the everyday aspects and functions of human behavior. He placed blame for this failure largely on the excessive reliance on artificial laboratory tasks that had become endemic to cognitive psychology by the mid-1970s. In this sense, he felt that cognitive psychology suffered a severe disconnect between theories of behavior tested by laboratory experimentation and real-world behavior, which he called a lack of ecological validity. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he had come to feel a great respect for the theory of direct perception and information pickup that had been promulgated by the preeminent perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson and his wife, the "grande dame" of developmental psychology, Eleanor Gibson. Neisser, in this book, had come to the conclusion that cognitive psychology had little hope of achieving its potential without taking careful theoretical note of the Gibsons' work on perception which argued that understanding human behavior first involves careful analysis of the information available to any perceiving organism.
In 1995, he headed an American Psychological Association task force that reviewed The Bell Curve and related controversies in the study of intelligence, in response to the claims being advanced amid the controversy surrounding The Bell Curve. The task force produced a consensus report "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns". In April 1996, Neisser chaired a conference at Emory University that focused on secular changes in intelligence-test scores.
In 1998, he published The Rising Curve: Long-Term Gains in IQ and Related Measures.
During his life, Neisser was both a Guggenheim and Sloan Fellow.
Research on memory
In 1981, Neisser coined the term “repisodic” memory. The term originates from a case study conducted on John Dean, a former advisor to Richard Nixon. The case study compares and contrasts testimony given by Dean on the subject of the Watergate scandal in person to recorded conversations of Dean. Neisser identifies that Dean’s memories were largely ego-centric, focusing more so on his roles and importance in the situations. Neisser identifies, however, that Dean’s memories are neither episodic (autobiographical: times, places, etc.), nor semantic (general knowledge). Instead, Neisser illustrated that Dean was describing particular episodes (conversations), but when compared to the tapes was largely incorrect. Ultimately, this would lead Neisser to distinguish Dean’s memories as “repisodic”, or as Neisser states in his case study, “what seems to be a remembered episode actually represents a repeated series of events, and thus reflects a genuinely existing state of affairs”. Neisser identified Dean’s testimony as a common error in memory, wherein, individuals will mend together repeated experiences or events into a single memory. The John Dean case study illustrated Neisser's belief that memory is constructed, an important aspect of cognitive psychology.
The concept of flashbulb memories is first described by Brown and Kulik in their 1977 paper on memories of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The flashbulb memory concept is derived from the idea that high emotional arousal, in conjunction with surprise, stress, and significance, will produce a vivid, accurate memory of the moment someone learns of an event. Neisser sought to challenge this conception of memory by undertaking a study of individual's memories of the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion. Immediately following the Challenger explosion in January 1986, Neisser distributed a questionnaire to a freshman classroom asking participants to identify key information relating to where they were, who they were with, what time it was, when the Challenger explosion occurred. Three years later, Neisser surveyed the now senior students using the same survey to examine the accuracy of their memory. Neisser found that, indeed, there were some considerable lapses in the memories of the students despite the student's confidence in the accuracy of their memories. Neisser’s findings challenged the conception that flashbulb memories are virtually without error. Neisser continued to conduct research on flashbulb memories in an effort to re-define how we construct the concept of memory.
Neisser continued his research on the construction of memory by studying individuals' recollections of the 1989 California earthquake. In this study, Neisser examined the difference in memory between individuals that experience the event, as opposed to individuals who heard about the event. Neisser examined subjects in Atlanta and the University of California campuses in Berkeley and Santa Cruz. Neisser issued surveys to procure the emotional impact of the earthquake on the individual in addition to accounts of the individual’s memories of the earthquake to better identify the association between memory and emotion. In the spring of 1991, Neisser contacted participants to compare their current accounts of the earthquake with their previous accounts of the earthquake. Neisser found that, in comparison to participants in Atlanta, the California students generally had better and more accurate recollections of the earthquake.
Books and book chapters
- Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive psychology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0131396678
- Neisser, U. (1976). Cognition and reality: Principles and implications of cognitive psychology. New York: Freeman. ISBN 978-0716704775
- Neisser, U. (1987). Concepts and conceptual development: Ecological and intellectual factors in categorization. New York, NY US: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521378758
- Neisser, U., & Harsch, N. (1992). Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger. In E. Winograd, U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of 'flashbulb' memories (pp. 9–31). New York, NY US: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521401883
- Neisser, U. (1993). The Perceived self: Ecological and interpersonal sources of self-knowledge. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521415095
- Neisser, U., & Jopling, D. A. (1997). The conceptual self in context: Culture, experience, self-understanding. New York, NY US: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521153607
- Neisser, U., & American Psychological Association. (1998). The rising curve: Long-term gains in IQ and related measures. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 978-1557985033
- Neisser, U., & Hyman, I. E. (2000). Memory observed: Remembering in natural contexts. New York: Worth Publishers. ISBN 978-0716733195
- Neisser, U. (2003). Cognitive psychology. In, The history of psychology: Fundamental questions (pp. 447–466). New York, NY US: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195151541
- Neisser, U., & Winograd, E. (2006). Remembering reconsidered: Ecological and traditional approaches to the study of memory. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0521485005
- Neisser, U. (2007). Ulric Neisser. In G. Lindzey, W. M. Runyan (Eds.), A history of psychology in autobiography, Vol. IX (pp. 269–301). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association. ISBN 978-1591477969
- Neisser, U., & Fivush, R. (2008). The remembering self: Construction and accuracy in the self-narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521087919
- Neisser, U (1985). "The role of theory in the ecological study of memory: Comment on Bruce". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 114 (2): 272–276. doi:10.1037/0096-34188.8.131.522.
- Neisser, U (1991). "Two perceptually given aspects of the self and their development". Developmental Review. 11 (3): 197–209. doi:10.1016/0273-2297(91)90009-D.
- Neisser, U (1994). "Multiple systems: A new approach to cognitive theory". European Journal of Cognitive Psychology. 6 (3): 225–241. doi:10.1080/09541449408520146.
- Neisser, U (1994). "Self-perception and self-knowledge". Psyke & Logos. 15 (2): 392–407.
- Neisser, U.; Boodoo, G.; Bouchard; Boykin, A.; Brody, N.; Ceci, S. J.; Urbina, S. (1996). "Intelligence: Knowns and unknowns". American Psychologist. 51 (2): 77–101. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.51.2.77.
- Neisser, U.; Winograd, E.; Bergman, E. T.; Schreiber, C. A.; Palmer, S. E.; Weldon, M. (1996). "Remembering the Earthquake: Direct Experience vs. Hearing the News". Memory. 4 (4): 337–357. doi:10.1080/096582196388898. PMID 8817459.
- Neisser, U (2003). "New Directions for Flashbulb Memories: Comments on the ACP Special Issue". Applied Cognitive Psychology. 17 (9): 1149–1155. doi:10.1002/acp.1005.
- Neisser, U (2004). "Memory development: New questions and old". Developmental Review. 24 (1): 154–158. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2003.09.002.
- Roediger, H. L.; Neisser, Ulric; Winograd, Eugene (1990). "Remembering Reconsidered: Ecological and Traditional Approaches to the Study of Memory". The American Journal of Psychology. 103 (3): 403–9. doi:10.2307/1423218. JSTOR 1423218.
- Martin, D. (2012, February 25). Ulric Neisser Is Dead at 83; Reshaped Study of the Mind. The New York Times. Pp. A20.
- Szokolsky, A. (2013). Interview with Ulric Neisser. Ecological Psychology, 25, 182-199. Doi: 10.1080/10407413.2013.780498
- Haggbloom, Steven J.; Warnick, Jason E.; Jones, Vinessa K.; Yarbrough, Gary L.; Russell, Tenea M.; Borecky, Chris M.; McGahhey, Reagan; et al. (2002). "The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century". Review of General Psychology. 6 (2): 139–152. doi:10.1037/1089-26184.108.40.206.
- Fancher, R.E., Rutherford, A. (4th ed., 2012). Pioneers of Psychology (pp. 635-645). New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
- Lindzey, G., Runyan, W.M. (Eds.)(2007). A history of psychology in autobiography, Vol 9, (pp. 269-301). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Cutting, J. E. (2012). Ulric Neisser (1928–2012). American Psychologist, 67(6), doi:10.1037/a0029351
- Harvard Magazine. (May–June 2012) Obituary: Ulric Gustav Neisser. 114(5):64M.
- "Ulric Neisser". American Scientist Online. Sigma Xi. Retrieved May 5, 2011.
- Neisser, U. (1981). John Dean’s memory: A case study. Cognition,9, 102-115.
- Brown, R.; Kulik, J. (1977). "Flashbulb memories". Cognition. 5 (1): 73–99. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(77)90018-X.
- Neisser, U (1997). "The ecological study of memory". Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences. 52: 1697–1701. Bibcode:1997RSPTB.352.1697N.
- Neisser, U. (1996). Remembering the earthquake: direct experience vs. hearing the news. Memory, 4(4), 337-358. Doi: 10.1080/096582196388898
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