On Oct. 7, President Barack Obama presented University of Oregon psychologist Michael Posner, PhD, with the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for engineers, scientists and inventors. Obama honored Posner, along with eight other researchers, for "embodying the very best of American ingenuity and inspiring a new generation of thinkers and innovators."
Posner, the eighth psychologist to win the honor, was one of the first scientists to use brain imaging to explore the mind's inner workings. He's perhaps best known for a 1988 Nature paper that described his use of positron emission tomography to investigate how the brain processes single words. His application of the subtraction method—which allows researchers to determine which brain areas control specific cognitive functions—was particularly groundbreaking.
Through this line of research, Posner helped pioneer the field of cognitive neuroscience.
"His work cuts across a number of scientific areas, creating new fields and performing some of the most exciting research in each field," says longtime colleague Mary K. Rothbart, PhD, also of the University of Oregon.
Posner went on to map the neural networks that underlie attention control, and he outlined an overarching theory of the development of attention control systems in children in the oft-cited book, "Educating the Human Brain" (APA, 2006), co-authored with Rothbart.
Throughout his highly productive career, which spans almost 50 years and more than 200 journal articles, Posner has found time to mentor young scientists, says Rothbart. He helped establish the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, as well as the Brain Biology and Machine Initiative at the University of Oregon.
"He is both creative as an individual and remarkable as an organizer, deeply interested in scientific questions and supporting the people who are asking them," Rothbart says.
Though Posner is semi-retired, he's still involved in many research projects, including a collaboration with psychologist Yi-Yuan Tang, PhD, of China's Dalian University of Technology, to explore how meditation changes people's ability to focus.
"We are also beginning to work on individual differences in brain networks by studying differences in the genes people have," Posner says. "That work has only just begun, and I'm sure we have much more to learn."