In Honor Of…Michael Tanenhaus

Honoring scientists who have made important and lasting contributions to the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior.

Michael Tanenhaus, PhD
Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Rochester University

Michael K. Tanenhaus is the Beverly Petterson Bishop and Charles W. Bishop Professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.  He earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1978. After being an Assistant and Associate professor at Wayne State University, he joined the faculty at the University of Rochester in 1983. He has received numerous honors for his research on language processing. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the Cognitive Science Society, and the 2018 recipient of the David E. Rumelhart Prize.

Tanenhaus has made numerous lasting contributions to the field of psycholinguistics in particular, and to the discipline of cognitive science in general. His research program has transformed the field of language processing from embracing modular feedforward information-processing models that strictly limit context effects to instead embracing distributed interactive models that allow a wide variety of context effects. The breadth of Tanenhaus’s thinking, combined with his uncanny experimental skills, have inspired a new generation of researchers to take a fresh look at what it means to communicate by language. In addition to his own individual scientific influence, his prodigious and expert training of graduate students has produced a small army of cognitive scientists with their own influential research programs all around the nation.

Tanenhaus’s contributions to cognitive science were significant even early in his career. He is known as the co-discoverer (along with Swinney, 1979) of the ‘parallel access’ effect in the recognition of spoken words (Tanenhaus et al., 1979). In this now classic study, he and his colleagues demonstrated that when people hear a word with two common meanings (e.g., watch), both meanings are mentally available for a fraction of a second, regardless of the sentential context. Rather than assume this result was evidence for an architectural limitation in the human language processing system, Tanenhaus endeavored to explore the temporal dynamics of why some context effects manifest as delayed or weak, and others manifest as immediate or strong.

In eye tracking-reading experiments, his research team showed that syntactic processing is immediately influenced by lexical information, semantic information, and discourse context.  In the mid-1990s, his research program adapted an eye-tracking methodology for circumstances where participants follow spoken instructions in real-time (Tanenhaus et al., 1995). This methodology became known as the visual world paradigm in psycholinguistics, and has revealed that a wide variety of visual and situational contexts can immediately influence word recognition, pronoun resolution, and syntactic processing. Thus, not only is language processing generally understood to involve distributed interactive processing among different types of linguistic information, due in large part to Tanenhaus’s research program, but cognition now generally understood to involve distributed interaction among linguistic, perceptual, and cognitive processes.

Individuals Honoring Michael Tanenhaus:

Jennifer Arnold, UNC Chapel Hill
Sarah Bibyk, Vanderbilt University
Klinton Bicknell, Northwestern University
Julie Boland, University of Michigan
Curt Burgess, University of California, Riverside
Ellen Campana, KPMG
Craig Chambers, University of Toronto
Qingrong Chen, Nanjing Normal University
Charles Clifton, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Garrison Cottrell, University of California, San Diego
Sarah Creel, University of California, San Diego
Judith Degen, Stanford University
Laura Dilley, Michigan State University
Kathleen Eberhard, University of Notre Dame
Thomas Farmer, California State University, Fullerton
Austin F. Frank
Susan Garnsey, University of Illinois
Edward Gibson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Kris Gorman, Center for Educational Innovation, University of Minnesota
Dan Grodner, Swarthmore College
Robert Jacobs, University of Rochester
Elsi Kaiser, University of Southern California
Natalie Klein
Margery Lucas, Wellesley College
Maryellen MacDonald, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Robert McMurray, University of Iowa
Ken McRae, University of Western Ontario
Jeffrey Runner, University of Rochester
Julie Sedivy
*Michael Spivey, University of California, Merced
*John Trueswell, University of Pennsylvania

* FABBS would like to thank Dr. Spivey and Dr. Trueswell for nominating Dr. Tanenhaus for this honor and for leading the effort.

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