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Ulric Neisser, Father of Cognitive Psychology


We recognize Ulric Neisser as the father of cognitive psychology. This branch of psychology studies the mental processes involved in learning. In the 2002 Review of General Psychology Neisser ranked 32nd among the most cited psychologists of the 20th century.

Uric Neisser devoted most of his life to the study of memory and other mental processes. Indeed, his contributions to this field have been extremely relevant. Furthermore, a number of his claims remain valid today.

Neisser started from the principles of Gestalt psychology but then went his own way. The book that brought him to fame was Cognitive Psychology, published in 1967. Interestingly, and despite being the father of cognitive psychology, he criticized the field strongly in his work Cognition and Reality, in 1976.

“Paying attention is not just analyzing carefully; rather it is a constructive act …What we build has only the dimensions we have given it.”

 -Ulric Neisser-

Ulric Neisser, origins

He was born in Kiel (Germany) on December 8, 1928. His father was Hans Neisser, a brilliant and wealthy economist. In fact, he anticipated the rise of Hitler in Europe. For this reason, he emigrated to England and then to the USA in 1933.

Neisser’s mother was Charlotte Neisser. She was a sociologist who was very active in the women’s movement in Germany. Charlotte was Catholic but converted to Judaism when she married Hans. She had two children, Ulric and Marianne, four years Ulric’s senior. They followed Hans to England and all emigrated to the USA in 1933 where they settled permanently.

The family fitted perfectly into their adopted country. Hans became very fond of baseball and encouraged his son Ulric to also become a fan. Ulric was described as a plump little boy who was both cheerful and practical.

His career

Ulric trained as a psychologist at Harvard University. He graduated with top honors in 1950. Ulric inherited his father’s passion for baseball, although he showed no aptitude for playing sport himself. In fact, he once said that this was why he first became interested in Gestalt psychology, the least prominent school of psychology.

Neisser obtained his master’s degree in 1952 from Swarthmore College, a premier center of Gestalt psychology. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1956. His thesis was on the unusual subject of psychophysics. Afterward, he worked as a professor at Harvard for a year, and later at other academic centers. However, he eventually settled at Cornell University.

During those years, he was greatly influenced by important figures in psychology such as George A. Miller, Hans Wallach, and Abraham Maslow. He also met a young computer scientist named Oliver Selfridge. As a matter of fact, this was a decisive moment as he introduced Ulric to the subject of artificial intelligence. Ulric later went to the University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his masterpiece.

The contributions of Ulric Neisser

Neisser’s greatest contributions were in the understanding of memory. As a matter of fact, he tested a concept that remains valid today. This is the idea that human memory is a reconstruction of facts and not a snapshot of what happens. In this sense, memory is creative, not like a machine. In other words, it takes the memories and reworks them, as opposed to faithfully reproducing them.

Neisser also coined the term episodic memory. This is related to autobiographical memories. Together with semantic memory, the two make up declarative memory. We also know this as explicit memory. It’s the memory that allows us to evoke specific events, as opposed to procedural memory in which we remember ways of doing things.

Neisser used cases or experimental studies to elaborate on his theories. In fact, he elaborated the concept of episodic memory by analyzing his conversations with John Dean, Nixon’s assistant, about Watergate.

Neisser was well known for his studies concerning people’s memories of the 1986 California earthquake. Also, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.

He died on February 17, 2012, in New York from Parkinson’s disease. Neisser gave shape and form to the field of cognitive psychology. Today, he remains one of the psychological greats.


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