Anne Treisman, 1935 - 2018

Feb. 12, 2018

Anne Treisman, pioneer of perception and attention and namesake of our center, passed away peacefully on February 9, 2018.  She was 82.  

The University's official obituary includes a link to a blog intended to honor Treisman’s life and legacy, where visitors can view or share comments about Anne and her work.  The New York Times and The Edge also eloquently covered her passing.

"I first learned about Anne Treisman's work in the 1970s, and was deeply impressed with her insights on how attention shapes perception and psycholinguistics," said the anonymous donor who endowed and named the Center and who has a longtime personal and academic interest in psychology.

Born in Yorkshire, England, Anne joined the Princeton faculty in 1993, following university appointments at Oxford, the University of British Columbia, and the University of California–Berkeley. Her academic honors include election as a fellow of the Royal Society, London (1989), American Philosophical Society (2005), National Academy of Sciences (1994), American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1995), honorary degrees from the University of British Columbia and University College London (2004, 2006), the Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists (1990), the Grawemeyer Award in Psychology (2009), and the National Medal of Science (2013). Her work has appeared in 29 book chapters and more than 80 journal articles and is heavily cited in the psychological literature, as well as prominently included in both introductory and advanced textbooks. She was named the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology in 1995 until attaining emeritus status in 2010.

Her early work, including her Oxford dissertation “Selective Attention and Speech Perception,” focused on how attention can filter perceptual input, allowing only potentially relevant information to reach consciousness.

The dominant theory at the time postulated a general, non-selective filtering mechanism. Anne used a selective listening paradigm to see what kinds of information get through the general filter. People wore earphones and were instructed to attend to only one ear. Messages in the attended ear were understood and remembered, those in the unattended ear were filtered out—they were neither noticed nor remembered. However, potentially important information, such as mention of one’s name in the unattended ear, is instantly noticed, demonstrating that the attentional filter is selective.

In the 1970s, Anne’s research interests turned from audition to vision, and to the feature integration, or binding, problem. Anne began with two observations: (1) perceptual features, such as shape, color, and motion are processed by different subsystems of the brain; (2) nonetheless, we experience multi-featured objects as integrated wholes. Anne proposed that there is a “spotlight” of attention that serially moves around in the representations of space in the brain, perhaps as often as 25 time a second. The features of an object are bound together when the spotlight of attention lands on the location of that object. In a sense, this suggests that, counterintuitively, we need to know where an object is before we can know what it is.  She became best know for her Feature Integration Theory (FIT).

The impact of Anne’s work on theory and practice has been enormous. Her original 1980 paper on FIT is the most cited paper in the last 12 years in the main cognitive psychology journals. Her papers on attention have been cited more than 8,200 times. Her theory was instrumental in bringing together the behavioral phenomena of focused and global attention with what neuroscientists have discovered about the functions of the various pathways involved in representing locations and actions. And her work has been used by applied psychologists who work to improve the discriminability of such things as railway and traffic signals, or the search for weapons by baggage inspectors in airports.

We are proud that the Center bears her name along with that of her husband Daniel Kahneman.