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Anne Marie Treisman
In Memoriam

Anne Marie Treisman

Professor of Psychology, Emerita

UC Berkeley
Anne Marie Treisman, née Taylor, was one of the most influential cognitive psychologists in the world. She revolutionized the way we think about cognitive functions and the human brain. She argued that scientists cannot know the brain’s purpose until they understand what it has evolved to do, and the job of cognitive psychology is to figure that out. She provided elegant methods that were creative and resilient in the study of memory and attentional systems that select what we perceive in the world and leads to our coherent (if perhaps illusory) understanding of that world. She became a member of the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1986.

Anne (as she preferred to be called) was born in Yorkshire, England, on February 27, 1935, shortly before World War II. She spent the war years listening to “doodlebugs” flying over her home on their way to bomb London. She attended Cambridge University, graduating in 1956 with a B.A. degree in modern and medieval languages (to please her father), but was always fascinated by the science of the mind. She immediately went back to university to study psychology and completed another bachelor’s degree the following year which led to a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in 1962.

While still in graduate school, she performed what have become classic experiments on auditory selection. When two streams of speech are heard at the same time, we can attend to one and ignore the other even while carrying on a conversation (as in a busy restaurant or at a cocktail party), but how much of the ignored speech is actually ignored? Anne used a method called “shadowing” where study participants are asked to repeat a conversation projected to one ear and to ignore the conversation in the other. The trick is to have them repeat the words on the attended channel at the same time they hear them, so that attention is highly focused. It may not be surprising that participants detect their own names on the ignored channel since a person’s name is very salient, but there is far more information that gets in. The changes of language or the gender of the speaker as well as similarity of features of words on the two channels all affect what we hear. Her work led to decades of debate about whether we filter information early or late; as Anne predicted over 40 years ago, it is both. It depends on the task at hand and the complexity of the selected information.

In a review paper in 1969, Anne foresaw how her early work might generalize to other stimulus input, to memory, and to theories of consciousness. For instance, she demonstrated that visual features (e.g., color, motion, orientation) are processed in parallel independent of their location, while objects themselves required focused attention to integrate their features together at a particular location. Feature Integration Theory was the result, and its formulation led to thousands of new studies in a range of disciplines, including psychology, cognitive neuroscience, neuropsychology, computational neuroscience, and vision sciences. Anne’s work also caught the attention of philosophers around the world. In her autobiography published in The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography: Volume 7 (Squire, L. R., Ed., 2011, Oxford University Press), she stated, “We have no sense that stimuli are in any way decomposed and recomposed. The implication of the theory was that in some ways we create our experience rather than its being determined directly by a camera-like process. Perception is more like a controlled hallucination than like an automatic registration of stimuli.”

Dr. Treisman was repeatedly acknowledged for her work, the most prominent honor being the National Medal of Science presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2013. It was noted then that “her creativity and insight have often challenged investigators to think outside the box, to reach beyond their own specialties and to address the hard questions of human cognition.” She was also an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Society of London, all conferred on her while she was a professor of psychology at Berkeley. She left Berkeley and joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1993, where she was the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, Emeritus.

During Anne’s career she also held professorial positions at Oxford University and the University of British Columbia, Canada. Along the way she gave birth to and raised four children, one a special needs child.  When asked how she did it all, she would typically reply “badly.” In fact, she excelled at all of it. One daughter is fiction editor for The New Yorker. Another is a prominent neurobiologist at the New York University School of Medicine. Her son is a professor of political science at UC Los Angeles. Her Down’s child remains in England where his father, Michel Treisman, lives. Anne was married twice, most recently to Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, and best-selling author.

Anne Treisman was driven by the best kind of scientific curiosity. In an interview after receiving the National Medal of Science, she said, “for me what has always been fun is the excitement of the new ideas, so let your imagination go and shake it out if you can. Think of ways of bringing it down to earth so that you can actually test it.” It was the message she gave to her students, and they followed her advice joyfully. She was the complete academic and a loved mentor and colleague.

She died on February 9, 2018, in New York, New York.

Lynn Robertson