In Memory Of

 

In Memory Of…Warren H. Meck

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


WARREN H. MECK
SCHOLAR, MENTOR, FRIEND
17 November 1956 – 21 January 2020

Throughout his long career, Professor Warren H. Meck systematically uncovered and explained the mechanisms that allow humans (and other animals) to mark the passage of time in the seconds to minutes range – a process now known as “interval timing”. He crossed traditional disciplinary boundaries and had profound impact upon psychology, cognitive science, behavioral neuroscience, and even interventions for clinical disorders. His work showed how the seemingly simple process of interval timing could form the foundation for much of human cognition.

Warren grew up on a family farm in Schuylkill Haven Pennsylvania where his love for animal behavior was cultivated. His mother, a junior high school math teacher, and his father, a part time farmer and night worker at Bethlehem Steel, instilled in him a strong work ethic and a curiosity about the greater world. Warren began studying biology at the Pennsylvania State University’ Schuylkill campus, and then transferred to the University of California, San Diego, to complete his undergraduate degree in Psychology. He then moved immediately to the Ph.D. program in psychology at Brown University, where he collaborated with Russell Church on seminal empirical studies of interval timing behavior. Upon completion of his Ph.D., he moved into a faculty position at Brown – and then was on the Columbia psychology faculty from 1985 to 1994 as an Assistant and then Associate Professor of Psychology. Thereafter, he moved to Duke University and became Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, remaining an active member of its scholarly community throughout his lifetime.

Warren’s pioneering research developed physiologically plausible models for interval timing that not only challenged prior scholarship, but also shaped the direction of modern psychological and neuroscience research. Through a series of papers with Church and John Gibbon, Warren argued that accurate estimates of time intervals rely on a clock process that contains an initial pacemaker, a switch that can gate the pacemaker output, and an accumulator that stores a current estimate of time within working memory. The elegance of this model comes from its parsimony: Each of its elements could be altered independently, as when drugs sped or slowed the pacemaker’s rate, which allowed the model to integrate seemingly disparate findings into a single, comprehensive story.

Over the remainder of his career, Warren continued to push forward our understanding of timing through many important discoveries. His work using animal models, human neuroimaging, and pharmacological manipulations provided new insights into the neural circuits that support time processing, while also revealing deep connections between timing, reinforcement learning, and numerical cognition. The scholarly impact of his discoveries was matched by similar impact in the popular media – including features on National Public Radio, a documentary program produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation, a science feature in The New Yorker magazine, and even a shout-out on Saturday Night Live.

His research program was striking in its productivity and breadth. He published more than 200 academic articles, many of which remain canonical papers for his field. Notably, his most influential articles shaped subsequent scholarship in distinct ways: empirical papers that brought new methods to interval timing research, theoretical papers that linking timing to deep principles of information processing, review articles that provided the definitive accounting of the brain circuits that support timing, and creative extensions of timing research to numerical cognition, memory, and emotion. Warren showed that a scientist could remain focused on an extraordinarily big question (i.e., “How do we understand the passing of time?”) while also recognizing that big questions often have unexpected implications.

In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Warren is remembered for his mentorship and collegiality. He mentored dozens of undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows – many of whom are now prolific scholars in their own right. He challenged scholars around the world to think about brain mechanisms for timing, both through personal contact and through a series of theoretical and review articles that made major findings more accessable and demonstrated connections between timing and other domains of cognition and perception. Warren also grew an audience for timing research by organizing edited volumes (e.g.,Functional and neural mechanisms of interval timing; CRC Press, 2003) and editing  special issues of Cognitive Brain Research (2004), Brain and Cognition (2005), Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience (2012), and Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences (2016). In 2013, Warren, Agiro Vatakis, and Hedderik van Rijn founded the first journal Timing & Time Perception fully dedicated to timing research, and served as co-Editors-in-Chief. From a two-issue inaugural volume, the journal has expanded to four issues per year, and has become, as its name implies and Warren desired, “a home for everyone in the timing family”.

He was committed to undergraduate education, teaching courses in behavioral neuroscience, research methods, timing and related processes, and many other topics, and he excelled at mentoring research-interested undergraduates and graduate students at Duke and around the world. For many years he ran Duke’s NSF-supported “Mechanisms of Behavior” summer research program for undergraduates; many of its students now have academic positions. He and his wife, colleague, and collaborator Christina “Tina” Williams often ran evening lab meetings in their home, complete with pizza and beer, where they welcomed their graduate students along with other interested visitors. Former students described these evenings as feeling like they were part of an intellectual elite—like the salons of the Enlightenment. His colleagues remember him for his kindness, his thoughtful approach to problems, and for his wry sense of humor.  At Duke, he was at the vanguard of neuroscience education and research, teaching some of the first undergraduate neuroscience classes and leading some of the first neuroimaging studies. His impact on science extends well beyond his own work; he touched the lives of countless students and colleagues, and their continuing contributions provide an ongoing legacy.

This page was created with the generous support of the Duke University Psychology and Neuroscience Department.

Individuals Honoring Warren Meck:

Harris Cooper, Duke University
Sara Cordes, Boston College
Sarah Heilbronner, University of Minnesota
Scott Huettel, Duke University
Elizabeth Marsh, Duke University
Eve Puffer, Duke University
Henry Yin, Duke University
S. Aryana Yousefzadeh, Duke University

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