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Ulric Neisser

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Neisser, Ulric

Ithaca: Ulric "Dick" Neisser, renowned for his role in ushering in a new field of psychology with his 1967 book, "Cognitive Psychology," died on February 17 in Ithaca, NY at the age of 83. Born in Keil, Germany in 1928, the youngest child of Hans and Charlotte (Lotte) Neisser, he moved with his family to the United States in 1933. Dick believed he was expected to be a scientist, and at Harvard University he was happy to discover a science he could love: psychology. The choice of experimental psychology offered him the added attraction of fighting the good fight against the behaviorism that then dominated the field. In his teens Dick had felt himself to be something of an underdog, socially and on the playing field, and he relished the part of defending other underdogs. When cognitive psychology became a force in the field, Dick, true to form, critiqued its overemphasis on lab work and championed ecological approaches that paid heed to human nature as it functioned in the real world. To this end he wrote "Cognition and Reality." He moved on from perception to the ecological study of memory. His work on "flashbulb memories" is still apparent in experimental questions of the sort 'where were you when you heard about 9/11?' and his work on selective looking gave rise to attention experiments, such as those in which a gorilla appears in a scene and many viewers don't notice. He was also enthusiastic about theories of self-knowledge, co-chairing conferences and editing/co-editing three books on the topic, and he was interested in education and intelligence testing, helping to popularize the work of James Flynn (at the time perceived by Dick to be an underdog) on rising IQs worldwide. Dick wanted to address "important human questions" and he wanted to encourage others to do the same. He taught and conducted research at Brandeis, Cornell, and Emory University, and returned to Cornell in 1996. He is remembered as a generous and inspiring colleague and mentor. He spoke with intellectual authority that was untainted by conceit and he offered those who studied with him or read his books models of well-reasoned argument. Many students learned what it meant to be an intellectual by working with him. A key to his influence was his elegant writing; his clarity of language served not only to illuminate his vision, but to lead readers to examine and develop their own ideas. For all the impact of his intellectual work, Dick Neisser will be remembered just as strongly as a truly nice man. He had a wry sense of humor, loved baseball, and greatly enjoyed puns. He could recite from memory a diverse repertoire that included Homer, Virgil, Auden, Tolkien, Gilbert & Sullivan, folk/labor/sea shanty songs, and the list of the Kings of England. When he first lived in Cornell he lived in a large house within walking distance of the college; when he returned, he bought a small house on Lake Cayuga. He bought a dory and got his exercise by rowing it on the lake, with his standard poodle Rocco for company. In retirement he traveled, attended events at Cornell, kept in touch with former colleagues and students, and drove down the road to pick up his New York Times every Sunday. He is survived by his beloved friend Sandra Condry; his sister Marianne Selph; his children Mark, Juliet, Phil, Toby, and Joe Neisser and Jenneth Seidler; and his grandson Ian Neisser. A memorial celebration will be held at 1:30 in the Sage Chapel on the Cornell University Campus on April 14, 2012. A reception will follow nearby, in Uris 202. Everyone is welcome. A conference tentatively titled "Remembering: The Legacy of Dick Neisser" will be held at Emory University on Saturday, October 6, 2012. Four former students and four former colleagues will present. A reception will follow. Donations may be made to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bangs Funeral Home is assisting the family.

Published in Ithaca Journal on Mar. 14, 2012
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