Anne Treisman, 82; studied how we perceive

In 2013, Dr. Treisman received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama.
In 2013, Dr. Treisman received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama.(Charles Dharapak/Associated Press/File)

NEW YORK — Anne M. Treisman, whose insights into how we perceive the world around us provided some of the core theories for the field of cognitive psychology, died Feb. 9 at her home in New York City. She was 82.

Her daughter Deborah Treisman said the cause was a stroke after a long illness.

Dr. Treisman considered a fundamental question: How does the brain make sense of the bombardment of input it is receiving and focus attention on a particular object or activity?

What she came up with is called the feature integration theory of attention, detailed in a much-cited 1980 article written with Garry Gelade in the journal Cognitive Psychology, then refined and elaborated on in later work.


“Perhaps Anne’s central insight in the field of visual attention was that she realized that you could see basic features like color, orientation and shape everywhere in the visual field, but that there was a problem in knowing how those colors, orientations, shapes, etc., were ‘bound’ together into objects,” Jeremy M. Wolfe, director of the Visual Attention Lab of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explained in an e-mail.

“Her seminal feature integration theory,” he continued, “proposed that selective attention to an object or location enabled the binding of those features and, thus, enabled object recognition. Much argument has followed, but her formulation of the problem has shaped the field for almost four decades.”

Dr. Treisman did not merely theorize about how perception works; she tested her ideas with countless experiments in which subjects were asked, for instance, to pick a particular letter out of a visual field, or to identify black digits and colored letters flashing by. The work showed not only how we perceive, but also how we can sometimes misperceive.

Her studies also included neurological disorders like Balint syndrome, in which damage to the parietal lobes of the brain limits what is seen in a field of vision or otherwise disrupts perception. Her insights into how the brain interprets have also had practical implications.


“Applied psychological scientists have relied on her work to help improve operations ranging from traffic signal design to airport baggage inspection,” the Association for Psychological Science wrote in an online memorial.

The phenomena she examined are experienced by people every day, though they don’t realize it.

“Anne Treisman’s major contribution was to show that basic visual properties like color and motion can be perceived over the whole visual field at once, but combinations of these properties can only be correctly perceived by inspecting each object in turn,” said Nancy Kanwisher, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who did her postdoctoral work under Dr. Treisman. “This is why the red can opener ‘pops out’ in your kitchen utensil drawer, but the stainless steel fruit peeler does not.”

The Association for Psychological Science called Dr. Treisman “one of the world’s most influential cognitive psychologists.” But her career could easily have gone in an entirely different direction.

Anne Marie Taylor was born on Feb. 27, 1935, in Wakefield, England. Her father, Percy, an education administrator, was British, but her mother, the former Suzanne Touren, was French, and young Anne learned French before she learned English.

Her first degree from Cambridge University, earned in 1956, was in modern and medieval languages.


Cambridge offered her a research fellowship in French literature, but she took the unusual step of asking if the money could instead be put toward a second undergraduate degree, this one in psychology. She received that in 1957 and her doctorate in psychology at Oxford in 1962.

Working in the Medical Research Council’s Psycholinguistics Research Unit at Oxford, she studied how the brain receives and interprets auditory signals. In 1966, she and her husband, Michel Treisman, whom she had married in 1960 when both were graduate students, spent a year as visiting scientists at Bell Labs in New Jersey, and she became interested in visual perception as well.

That subject came to dominate her work, which she continued as a researcher and professor at the University of British Columbia, the University of California Berkeley, and several other stops, the last of which was Princeton University, where she was a professor from 1993 until her retirement in 2010.

Dr. Treisman’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1976. In 1978, she married Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who in 2002 would share the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Vernon L. Smith, and who survives her. In addition to him and her daughter Deborah, she leaves her sons, Daniel and Stephen; another daughter, Jessica Treisman; and four granddaughters.

In 2013, Dr. Treisman received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama.