Ulric Neisser

Ulric (Dick) Neisser (b.1928) is an American psychologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, whose work in the field of cognitive psychology is considered to have seen the beginning of the movement.

Neisser was born in Kiel, Germany but his family moved to the U.S. when he was only three. His father was a professor of economics and took his family out of Germany in an attempt to flee from the rising Fascist regime. Ulric grew up in Philadelphia and New York City suburbs. Initially, he was interested in physics and planned to pursue a career in this area but later turned his attention to psychology. He received a bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1950, before gaining a Master's degree from Swarthmore College, where he studied Gestalt psychology. He went on to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1956. Neisser began teaching at Brandais, Emory and Cornell universities.

In 1967 he published Cognitive Psychology, his first and most influential work that was to begin a whole new movement in modern psychology. Neisser himself was taken aback by the success of his work. "I've always been in the position of liking what other people don't like, so I was a little surprised when cognitive psychology caught on so well. Of course, I had fantasies of success, but I generally think of myself as a marginal, critical theorist. I was caught by surprise, because I'm usually on the outs. And you'll see that I very quickly re-established my position on the outs. I can't handle the mainstream very well," Neisser said.

Cognitive or mental psychology examines the processes that take place in the human mind and how it works. Activities like thinking, remembering, learning, understanding and perceiving are all of primary interest to cognitive psychology. Neisser's work is mostly concerned with memory, intelligence and self-concept.

The notion of self-representation is central to Neisser. He adopted the view that the self is a social and cognitive construct and cognition is shaped by the context in which it occurs. Neisser differentiates between an individual's "ecological self" and "interpersonal self." The former is the person's connection to experiences in the physical environment and the latter is the person's connections to others through verbal or non-verbal communication.

The two forms of self-representation make the person's perception of experience and are developed in early childhood. Depending on one's personal reflections on experiences, three types of self-representation might evolve as a person matures. The extended self is a temporary state based on a person's past experiences and future expectations. The private self develops with the realization that one's experiences cannot be directly perceived by others and need to be communicated to be shared. The conceptual self is the person's theory or schema of oneself based on their reflections of personal experiences within a cultural and social context. Together these forms of self-representation shape the five kinds of self knowledge. Neisser published a work by the same title in 1988.

In Cognition and Reality (1976), Neisser criticized mainstream cognitive psychology for not being interested in the world outside the laboratory and called for an ecologically based approach to cognition. In his view, other cognitive psychologists did not care enough about internal processes. He thought that contemporary theories of perception focus on the perceiver and ignored the environment. Neisser, in contrast, thought that perception, like evolution, involved adaptation to the environment.

Neisser also worked in the area of memory exploration. During his teaching years, he completed a study on flashbulb memories, extremely vivid and detailed memories of important events that cannot be forgotten. On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded and the next day Neisser asked 100 of his students to fill in statements reporting in details where they were when they heard of the explosion. The students told Neisser about their memories and how they felt. Two and a half years later, he tracked 44 of them down and asked them the same questions again and ranked the answers on a scale from 0 to 7. It turned out that only three of his students received the full score and even they could not entirely repeat the accounts they had given in 1986, whereas 11 were completely wrong. More surprisingly, the students did not even remember that they have filled in statements on the day after the explosion.

Ulric Neisser: Selected full-text books and articles

Ecological Approaches to Cognition: Essays in Honor of Ulric Neisser By Eugene Winograd; Robyn Fivush; William Hirst Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999
Basic and Applied Memory Research: Practical Applications By Douglas J. Herrmann; Cathy McEvoy; Christopher Hertzog; Paula Hertel; Marcia K. Johnson Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, vol.2, 1996
The Nature of Intelligence By Lauren B. Resnick Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1976
Librarian's tip: Chap. 7 "General, Academic, and Artificial Intelligence" by Ulric Neisser
Cognition and the Symbolic Processes: Applied and Ecological Perspectives By Robert R. Hoffman; David S. Palermo Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Direct Perception and Other Forms of Knowing" by Ulric Neisser
Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives By Frank S. Kessel; Pamela M. Cole; Dale L. Johnson Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Development of Consciousness and the Acquisition of Self" by Ulric Neisser
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