Feature

Mathematical psychologist and researcher Richard M. Shiffrin, PhD, known for developing explicit computer and mathematical models of human memory, has been honored with this year's prestigious David E. Rumelhart Award in recognition of his contributions to the formal analysis of human cognition.

Shiffrin, a professor at Indiana University, will receive a $100,000 prize and be a guest speaker at the Cognitive Science Society's annual meeting next August.

Though he knows his work has contributed greatly to the field of mathematical psychology, the self-described "cognitive scientist who is a mathematical modeler" says he was "flabbergasted" when told of the award. "I didn't expect it," he says.

Mathematical psychology, which developed into a field during the 1960s, is based on the creation of computer-simulated models of mental processes that can be tested against human data to explain psychological phenomena. Shiffrin is known for several models of human cognition. The Rumelhart selection committee noted in particular his SAM (Search of Associative Memory) model, which shows how information is retrieved from long-term memory, by using Bayesian methods. These mathematical techniques are used to determine whether or not a process, like memory, is simple enough to create an accurate model.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Yale University in mathematics, Shiffrin "sort of fell into psychology." He developed an interest in psychology after helping his college roommates, who studied behavioral sciences, with their research. He decided to pursue a psychology doctorate in one of the then-fledgling experimental and mathematical psychology programs.

In 1968, the final year of his doctoral program at Stanford University, Shiffrin co-wrote a book chapter with University of California President Richard Atkinson, PhD, which laid out the components of short- and long-term memory, and described the processes that control memory operations. The chapter was a compilation of existing mathematical and computer simulations of memory that Shiffrin and Atkinson analyzed and tested. Their findings resulted in a new model of memory that combined the best of existing knowledge and became known as the Atkinson-Shiffrin model of memory.

Through that work, Shiffrin became nationally known in the then-burgeoning field of mathematical psychology.

When asked about his plans for the $100,000 award money, Shiffrin says he hasn't really thought about it, but he will most likely use the money for his two teen-agers' educations.

Looking toward the future, Shiffrin says he is glad to see psychology evolving into a more technically sophisticated science and will continue to contribute to that progress by creating models for a variety of cognitive tasks that have not yet been mapped, such as processing information into knowledge. Shiffrin insists that working with students is the best part of his job and credited them for his success.

"Scientific discovery is inherently exciting when you succeed, but I could never do it without the wonderful work and support of my students."

Shiffrin is only the second recipient of the award. Entrepreneur Robert Glushko, PhD, created the David E. Rumelhart Award in honor of his former cognitive psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, who was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative illness Pick's disease in 1998. In 2000, psychologist Geoffrey Hinton, PhD, of the University College, London, was awarded the Rumelhart Prize for his work in analyzing the neural networks that control learning, processing and representation in the brain.