Joseph Charles Stevens (1929-2014)

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Jan 172015

Larry Marks
John B. Pierce Laboratory and Yale University

A leader in sensory psychophysics during the second half of the 20th century, Joe Stevens died unexpectedly but peacefully at his home on February 7, 2014, three weeks shy of his 85th birthday. Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Joe attended Calvin College, where courses in psychology and philosophy, as well as in his major subject, biology, sparked an indelible interest in human sensation and perception. After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1951, Joe studied vision with S. Howard Bartley, taking a masters degree in psychology at Michigan State University in 1953 before moving on to doctoral studies at Harvard. This move marked the start of a thirteen-year collaboration with S. S. (Smitty) Stevens, first as a student and later as a faculty colleague in Harvard’s psychology department.

Arriving in 1953, Joe was present at the creation, so to speak, for it was in that year that Smitty first proposed a power function to describe how the magnitudes of sensory experiences in both hearing (loudness) and vision (brightness) relate quantitatively to the physical energy level of the external stimulus. Working in Smitty’s lab, Joe assiduously expanded on these early results, reporting his own findings on brightness and loudness in his doctoral dissertation of 1957 and in a series of major articles published between 1958 and 1966. During this period, Smitty and Joe also worked on a monograph, The Dynamics of Visual Brightness, which focused the lens of the new psychophysics on visual perceived intensity. They completed a draft of the manuscript in 1960 but – alas! – never published it, although they distributed it to researchers in vision and in psychophysics. According to a Google search (December 2014), the unpublished manuscript was cited more than 30 times, most recently in 2004.

Joe’s research during this early stage of his career took two main directions: One was to apply the methods of psychophysical scaling to a variety of sensory systems: not only vision and hearing (the subjects of his doctoral dissertation), but other modalities as well, including warmth and cold. Importantly, Joe created a method of cross-modality ratio-matching, reported in his dissertation and cited by Smitty in the same year, 1957, one year before Smitty began his own initial efforts at (conventional) cross-modality matching.

The second direction, and arguably one of his most important contributions, was to use methods of psychophysical scaling to illuminate fundamental sensory processes. This is evident in early findings first reported in his doctoral dissertation and then expanded in a seminal article (J.C. Stevens and S.S. Stevens, 1963) showing how light adaptation affects the perception of brightness. Joe and Smitty quantified the effects of adaptation in terms of changes in the three parameters (exponent, multiplicative constant, and threshold) of a generalized power equation. Demonstrating the utility of psychophysical scaling methods as tools for understanding sensory processes would leave an indelible mark on many subsequent researchers, including this biographer.

In the fall of 1966, Joe left Harvard to establish and lead the psychology-psychophysics division at the John B. Pierce Laboratory, an independent, non-profit institution affiliated with Yale University. Joe held the title of Fellow at the Pierce Laboratory and, at the time of his death, Senior Research Scientist in psychology at Yale. Under Joe’s leadership, the division quickly grew, as Larry Marks and then Ellie Adair, Bill Cain, Linda Bartoshuk and others joined the research group. Over the years, some stayed, some left, but by 1999, when Joe published the last article bearing his name, the number of publications from the division that he had created surpassed 500.

In 1966, when Joe arrived at the Pierce Laboratory, much of its multidisciplinary research focused on body temperature regulation, and Joe quickly began to expand his early work on warmth and cold by studying thermal perception, especially the roles of spatial summation, temporal summation, and adaptation. But, taking another lesson from Smitty, Joe continued to think of himself as a ‘sensory generalist,’ working from time to time on issues in vision and hearing, and expanding his main research endeavors to include taste and smell as well as warmth and cold.

Over the last two decades of his career, Joe’s research increasingly emphasized changes in sensory systems as people age, much of it conducted under a 10-year Merit award from the National Institutes on Aging of the NIH. Hearing tends to worsen with age. So too can vision. But aging takes a toll on other senses too: on touch, taste, and, especially, olfaction – the sense of smell – this being evident both in the great decline in sensitivity to odorants that are sniffed (orthonasal olfaction) and to volatile chemical components perceived as flavors when foods and beverages are taken into the mouth (retronasal olfaction). The consequences of olfactory decline can be serious. Joe showed, for instance, that older individuals, and older men especially, often cannot detect the malodorous agent that is added to natural gas to serve as a warning in gas leaks.

A leading figure in modern psychophysics, Joe was teacher and colleague to many. Those fortunate enough to study with him or work with him benefited not only from his intellectual acuity and creativity, but at least as much from his mentorship, his friendship, and his generosity of spirit.

Reflections on the Life and Work of Bertram Scharf (1931-2011)

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Jan 102015

Robert & Martha Teghtsoonian
Smith College Northampton, Massachusetts

We first met Bert in September, 1955, when all three of us were part of the incoming class of graduate students in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. For us, his most distinctive feature was the black beret that he always wore outdoors, and sometimes indoors as well. We might have taken him for French, but his broad Bronx accent betrayed his true origin. The beret was indeed French; he had acquired it while studying in Paris where he earned a Diplôme at the Université de Paris, and for us it remained a symbol of Bert’s deep affection for France. With his doctorate from Harvard, he was hired to teach and do research at Northeastern University in Boston, and remained there for the rest of his professional career.

In the late 1970s he began to spend his summers in Marseille, working as a Visiting Scientist in the Laboratoire de Mécanique et d’Acoustique. These summer visits grew into full years while on sabbatical leave, and he and his wife Anna-Liisa bought an apartment in nearby Cassis with an eye to becoming permanent residents there. He began a very productive collaboration with Georges Canévet, and they co-authored a number of publications dealing with the subject of loudness.

In 1983 we visited with the Scharfs and discussed the idea of creating an international society for those interested in the field of psychophysics. That discussion, along with conversations with Birgitta Berglund and Ulf Berglund, led to an informal meeting the following year in a sunny plaza in Cassis to consider what form such a society would take. In 1985, the first meeting of the International Society for Psychophysics was held in Marseille, hosted by Scharf and Canévet. It was judged to be a great success, and further meetings have taken place every year since then.

The study of loudness was a continuing interest throughout his career, and he became a leading authority on that topic. Our collaboration with him was based on his work on loudness adaptation. Among the many aspects of loudness that he pursued was the effect of duration on the loudness of a pure tone. Research by others had concluded that prolonged exposure to a tone of fixed amplitude resulted in adaptation: the longer the tone lasted the softer it sounded. But Bert showed that, to a large degree, this finding was an artifact of the method used, adjusting the level of a brief tone presented to the contralateral ear to match the loudness of the continuous tone presented to the other. He showed that when the loudness of the continuous tone is measured by the method of magnitude estimation (a technique devised by his thesis adviser, S.S.Stevens), adaptation occurred to a modest degree but only for relatively weak or high-frequency tones.

Using the same technique, he went on to ask about the loudness of a prolonged tone that was in fact steadily decreasing in amplitude. Canévet had found that as duration increased, the loudness of such a tone became increasingly softer than would have been the case for a steady tone presented at the same level for the same duration. Scharf and Canévet, reporting on further investigations of this phenomenon, named it decruitment, and it has become the focus of many reports on the perception of signals that vary in amplitude.

Of course there were many other research problems that interested him, and in recent years he undertook a program of research on attention with a colleague in Boston. Perhaps others will write further about that interest and others.

We had the pleasure of collaborating with Bert both in his lab at Northeastern and at the LMA in Marseille, and of visiting with him and his wife (always generous hosts) in Boston and Cassis. We had a long-running conversation with him, not only on psychological research, but on politics, religion, and economics, to say nothing of riding a bicycle. Suffice it to say that he had strongly held opinions in all of these areas, and those conversations were very lively.

We miss him—for his expertise in all matters having to do with loudness, for his many contributions to the ISP, and for his friendship


January 1, 2015.

Lorraine Allan (1940-2012)

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Jan 102015

Scott Parker
American University, Washington, DC

Lorraine was a longstanding and dedicated member of the ISP, and was a member of the Executive Board in 1996 and 1997. Born in Toronto, she did her undergraduate work at the University of Toronto and her graduate work at McMaster University. After receiving her Ph.D. she remained at McMaster, becoming Professor of Psychology in 1981 and Professor Emeritus in 2006.

Her research work in psychology spanned and integrated numerous approaches and topics. Much of her research exhibited considerable quantitative sophistication. And all of it exhibited a clarity of thought and expression that we could admire and envy. She had an uncanny ability to combine outlooks from seemingly contrary or unrelated areas of psychology, and she could apply those outlooks to topics that might have seemed unconnected to them. This ability stemmed in part from her thorough understanding of a great many psychological ideas.

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing for decades, Lorraine studied time perception in humans, investigating not only duration perception but also successiveness. Her studies used both “traditional” psychophysical methods such as discrimination, magnitude estimation, and bisection tasks as well as signal detection theory and also other procedures (e.g., masking) more associated with purely sensory research. Some of that work pursued the model that she had developed with Albert Kristofferson.

In the1980s Lorraine undertook the study of several color aftereffects, starting with the “McCullough effect”, with her colleague and partner, Shepherd Siegel. They brought ideas from the conditioning and learning literatures to bear on what had been thought to be purely sensory phenomena. This work demonstrated that what seemed to be purely sensory phenomena could profitably be viewed as products of classical conditioning processes, and that combining approaches from seemingly separate psychological traditions could provide valuable insights. Their studies showed some surprising connections between color-contingent aftereffects, homeostasis, and drug withdrawal.

Her involvement in the study of conditioning processes led her into the study of judgments of contingency and causality. Those had, not surprisingly, been thought of as the result of associative processes, but Lorraine approached them using signal detection theory. And she once again demonstrated the value of integrating several approaches to a single psychological phenomenon.

Lorraine also applied signal detection theory to the study of other topics that could benefit from it, notably the placebo effect and “depressive realism”.

Those of us who knew her, many of us by virtue of her presence in ISP, know that she was smart, thorough, honest, and clear-headed about everything – not just psychology — and she was also personally wonderful to spend time and talk with. ISP and Psychology were fortunate to have her with us, and we’ve lost someone special.


 Posted by at 10:35 pm

Jacques Kornbrot 1938 -2014

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Dec 192014

To all my good friends in ISP, sad to inofrm you of death of Jacques on 6th Nov.

He was my unfailing support in all my work for ISP, so any achievements and contributions of mine are also his.