‘Conscience’ of the Memory Field

Robert G. Crowder

Robert G. Crowder, noted experimental psychologist and memory theorist, died on July 27, 2000 at age 60 from complications of diabetes. He leaves behind a legacy of accomplishment, both personal and professional, and will be sorely missed.

Crowder’s career began coincident with the birth of cognitive psychology and he brought scholarship and sensibility to a developing field. Trained by the functionalist Arthur Melton, he proudly claimed an intellectual lineage that included John McGeoch, John Dewey and William James. He embraced his intellectual past and, unlike many early cognitive theorists, used it as a foundation for his work. He willingly adopted the role of “referee,” gently reminding the field of its origins and frequently showing how the latest “insight” could be recast in terms of old ideas. He became a conscience of the memory field, a characteristic that profoundly shaped his colleagues and, especially, his doctoral students.

Crowder, a Fellow and Charter Member of APS, may well be remembered best for his brilliant 1976 textbook on human memory. Although now 25 years old, it remains a top resource for researchers and perhaps the finest scholarly textbook on memory ever written.

To those who knew him, the book is the perfect embodiment of Crowder’s career as scholar and teacher. The writing is lucid, the scholarship deep, and the insights many. Unlike most textbooks, which simply review a field, Crowder interpreted the memory literature, adding many original contributions to theory. Even the title itself – Principles of Learning and Memory – was a bold statement of his core philosophy.

True to the spirit of his mentors, Crowder was convinced that the processes of memory were principled and few. For example, he eschewed the popular structural distinction between short- and long-term memory. There is a difference, he claimed, between a system called short-term memory and simply remembering over the short-term. The latter, he believed, shares the same principles as long-term memory, except for the time scales involved, thus leaving little need for a distinct short-term memory system with its own operating rules.

Crowder steadfastly refused to reject the past, but his research often tapped the cutting edge. In the 1970s, for example, he proposed a neurologically-plausible account of sensory memory based on lateral inhibition in neural networks. This neural accounting predated the rise of neural networks in cognitive theory and the shift toward cognitive neuroscience that dominates the field today.

In the 1990s, he began to dabble with proceduralist accounts of memory, arguing that memory is essentially a residual property of information processing. Drawing comparisons to astronomical events, which can be witnessed eons after their original occurrence, Crowder vexed the memory community by suggesting that memories might not be stored events, but rather forms of continued, or residual, processing. Retention, he argued, is just an aspect of the original event itself, manifest at some temporal remove.

Fortunately, Crowder’s talents were generally recognized by the community of experimental psychologists during his lifetime. He was widely published – over 100 articles and book chapters – and he was the recipient of many honors, including the editorship of Memory & Cognition, a term on the governing board of the Psychonomic Society, and election to the prestigious Society of Experimental Psychologists. In addition to being a Fellow of APS, he was also a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and he spent a year as an invited Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Crowder was on numerous editorial boards and a frequent invited speaker, both nationally and internationally. To celebrate his lifetime of work, a Festschrift was held in his honor in the summer of 1999; a companion book, The Nature of Remembering: Essays in Honor of Robert G. Crowder (APA Press) appeared in Winter 2001.

Bob Crowder spent his entire professional career at Yale University, an institution he loved and respected, reaching the status of Full Professor in 1976. He served Yale with distinction and he is remembered not only as an important researcher but as a committed and caring teacher. Fittingly, a portion of his ashes resides in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, on corner of the Yale Campus, next to the building that housed his office. Bob is remembered by the community of researchers worldwide, but most especially by his wife Julie and three children.

James S. Nairne
Purdue University
Observer Vol.14, No.7 September, 2001

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I am convinced that cognitive processes are enhanced when the way of researching is supported by a lot of curiosity. Learning was never an easy task. I was fascinated when, still adolescent, I was involved in the image-lined avenues of my teacher’s fantasy. I felt and saw all that was around him. He stimulated my imagination and creativity and left a mark in my emotional life. In all probability my images were not like his. No matter, they were mine. But I still wonder: where were they before he stimulated their appearance?

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