2019 William James Fellow

Lynn Nadel
The University of Arizona

For almost half a century, Lynn Nadel has helped to set the international research agenda in studies of the hippocampus, spatial cognition, and episodic memory. His 1978 book, The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map, coauthored with John O’Keefe, drew on a careful review of decades of studies. With his colleague, Nadel laid out a comprehensive vision for how the hippocampus learns and stores cognitive maps of space and context-dependent memories. Though initially met with skepticism, this idea drew support from other research over time — including the discovery of head direction and grid cells in the brain that help animals navigate their environment, as predicted by the cognitive map theory.

Nadel later collaborated with Morris Moscovitch to advance the multiple trace theory, which holds that the hippocampus is always involved in storage and retrieval of episodic memory but that semantic memory can be established in the neocortex. Nadel also has investigated fundamental aspects of spatial learning and cognition, the impact of stress on hippocampal function, and the contribution of hippocampal dysfunction to intellectual disability in Down syndrome. His recent work on memory reconsolidation, spurred by multiple trace theory, has led to new ideas about managing enduring change in psychotherapy.

Nadel’s work has had an important impact on the field of cognitive neuroscience. The cognitive map and multiple trace theory have stood the test of time and have been assimilated into a “vernacular” shared by many. Psychological science would look very different today without his contributions.