Ulric (Dick) Neisser was the “father of cognitive psychology” and an advocate for ecological approaches to cognitive research. Neisser was a brilliant synthesizer of diverse thoughts and findings. He was an elegant, clear, and persuasive writer. Neisser was also a relentlessly creative researcher, constantly striving to invent methods to explore important questions. Throughout his career, Neisser remained a champion of the underdog and an unrepentant revolutionary — his goal was to push psychology in the right direction. In addition, Dick was a lifelong baseball fan, a challenging mentor, and a good friend.

With the publication of Cognitive Psychology (1967), Neisser brought together research concerning perception, pattern recognition, attention, problem solving, and remembering. With his usual elegant prose, he emphasized both information processing and constructive processing. Neisser always described Cognitive Psychology as an assault on behaviorism. He was uncomfortable with behaviorism because he considered behaviorist assumptions wrong and because those assumptions limited what psychologists could study. In Cognitive Psychology, he did not explicitly attack behaviorism, but instead presented a compelling alternative. The book was immediately successful. Researchers working on problems throughout the field saw a unified theory that connected their research to this approach. Because Neisser first pulled these areas together, he was frequently referred to and introduced as the “father of cognitive psychology.” As the champion of underdogs and revolutionary approaches, however, Neisser was uncomfortable in such a role.

Based on the perceptual cycle, Neisser and Robert Becklen created a series of experiments concerning selective looking (now called inattentional blindness). In these experiments, people watched superimposed videos of different events on a single screen. When they actively tracked one event, counting basketball passes by a set of players for example, they would miss surprising novel events, such as a woman with an umbrella walking through the scene. In describing the genesis of these studies, Neisser told me that he had been trying to find a visual method similar to dichotic listening studies when he was inspired by looking out a window at twilight. He realized he could see the world outside the window or he could selectively focus attention on the reflection of the room in the window. In other attention research, Neisser explored multitasking with Elizabeth Spelke and William Hirst. They found that people can learn to perform two difficult tasks simultaneously without switching tasks or having one task become automatic.

Neisser (1967) outlined a two-process theory that made attention (and hence consciousness) a matter of degree.

According to Neisser’s theory, both properties of the stimuli as well as semantic factors, play a role in attention. Neisser argues for a constructive view of cognition in which perception is shaped by existing knowledge and hence attention is influenced by experience.

Pre-attentive processing

·      Automatic, fast, parallel

·      Mainly analysis of physical characteristics

·      Limited semantic processing (e.g., one’s name)

·      No deep semantic processing / analysis

·      Some initially attentive processing can get automatized through extensive practice

·      Is the basis for perceptual grouping

Attentive processing

·      Controlled, slow, serial

·      Requires attentional resources

·      Enables semantic processing and synthesis

In his influential book Cognitive Psychology (1967), Ulric Neisser argued against the whole idea of a filter for attention. It was too passive, suggesting the cognitive system received information without seeking it out. If we view the thought process as goal-oriented, attention is a construction aimed at accomplishing a purpose. Selective attention results from what we seek, not from what we fail to filter out. Neisser called his proposal analysis by synthesis.

Neisser explained the analysis by synthesis model with an analogy. If we see a man picking apples in an orchard, we assume his activity is determined by what he is seeking (ripe apples) not by what he is filtering out or choosing not to select (unripe apples, twigs, bugs). We make this assumption because we recognize that apple picking is goal directed activity. If attention is also seen as a goal-directed activity, then the problem of selective attention is the problem of explaining what is included, not what is left out.