Anne Treisman to receive National Medal of Science

Psychologist is pioneer in the study of attention.

Anne Treisman, PhD (credit: Hao-Hsiang You)Anne Treisman, a psychologist at Princeton University, is one of twelve scientists who have been named by President Obama as recipients of the National Medal of Science. The awards will be formally presented at a White House ceremony in early 2013.

Treisman’s innovative experimental and theoretical work on attention in humans has had major impacts in cognitive psychology and in neuroscience. Her earliest work, published in the 1960s, examined the simultaneous perception of two streams of auditory input. Treisman developed the idea that attention serves to modulate processing of stimuli, such that an unattended stream receives some degree of analysis rather than being entirely ignored. She went on to examine such questions as whether attention operates at the perceptual or response level and how attention works across sensory modalities.

In later work, Treisman focused on the role of attention in visual perception. Her research indicates that simple visual features, such as colors and lines, are processed independently and in parallel and that attention is required to “bind” the features into a representation of a single object. As evidence for this model, Treisman and colleagues produced demonstrations that perceivers may construct “illusory conjunctions” of features into objects that had not been presented. Further evidence came from their analyses of the time course of perceivers’ search in displays for particular objects that are surrounded by other similar objects.

More recently, Treisman’s work has investigated the influence of attention on perceivers’ determination of the statistical properties of scenes (such as average size or color of objects and their variation) and the role of attention in visual learning and memory. 

Anne Treisman received her D.Phil. from Oxford University in 1962. She has taught at Oxford, University of British Columbia, University of California - Berkeley and Princeton. Among many other honors, she has received the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (1990), the Howard Crosby Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists (1990) and the Grawemeyer Award for Psychology (2009).

The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 and is bestowed annually by the president of the United States. It is considered the highest honor in science given by the United States government. 

Previous Medal recipients who are psychologists include Neal Miller (1964), Harry Harlow (1967), B. F. Skinner (1968), Herbert Simon (1986), Anne Anastasi (1987), Roger Sperry (1989), Patrick Suppes (1990), George Miller (1991), Eleanor Gibson (1992), Allen Newell (1992), Roger Shepard (1995), William Estes (1997), R. Duncan Luce (2003), Gordon Bower (2005), Michael Posner (2008) and Mortimer Mishkin (2010).

As described in Lowman and Benjamin (2012), the APA played a major role in advocating for the expansion of eligibility for the Medal to include behavioral and social scientists. Prior to that expansion in 1980, psychologists who received the award were recognized as biologists. In recent decades, the APA has facilitated the nominations of various psychologists for the Medal.


Lowman, R.P. & Benjamin Jr., L.T. (2012). Psychology and the National Medal of Science. American Psychologist, 67, 174-183. doi: 10.1037/a0026085