William James Fellow Award 2002

Anne Treisman

Princeton University

Anne Treisman is one of the most influential cognitive psychologists in the world today. For over 40 years she has been defining fundamental issues of how information is selected and integrated to form meaningful objects and memories that guide human thought and action. 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.

Very early in her career, Treisman published a seminal paper in Psychological Review that was central to the development of selective attention as a scientific field of study. This paper articulated many of the basic issues that continue to be fundamental and guide studies of attention to this day. Some years later she proposed an enormously influential theory called Feature Integration Theory (FIT) which has had broad impact both within and outside psychology. Her studies demonstrated that early vision encodes features such as color, form, orientation, and others, in separate "feature maps" and that without spatial attention these features can bind randomly to form illusory conjunctions and deficits in selection. This work has formed the basis for thousands of experiments in cognitive psychology, vision sciences, cognitive science, neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience.

At about the same time as FIT was proposed, neuroscientists were independently discovering that the primate cortex contained many different cortical areas where neurons were tuned to selective features (for example, orientation, luminance, color, shape, size, motion, and so on). The neuroscience community was abuzz with the question of how the brain solved the "binding problem": how did the visual system recombine features into the unified wholes we see? Again, Treisman saw the problem from a fresh perspective. By testing patients with selective attention problems, she and her students and colleagues first demonstrated that the binding problem could be a real problem in everyday life and that one solution to the binding problem required spatial attention. These findings have had broad impact, spurring a multitude of imaging, electrophysiological and neuropsychological studies.

From time to time Treisman continues to change the course of study within the field through her critical probing and broad perspective. She continues to be a persuasive figure in the field and seems to never tire in her enthusiasm for understanding the human mind. For the past four decades she has introduced creative methods and innovative solutions for some of the more challenging questions in psychology, including how the brain selects information for conscious awareness and how information that is encoded in bits and pieces is integrated to form the unified world we see. It would be hard to overestimate the contributions Anne Treisman has made to the science of psychology over the course of her career.