Thursday, 1 December 2011

Why Jon Driver was an inspiration to me

Jon Driver studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford before taking up a University Lectureship at Cambridge.  Within eight years of obtaining his DPhil doctoral degree he was a Professor at Birkbeck, and from 1998 a Professor at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN), one of the world’s leading centres of research into the brain basis of cognition.  He was Director of the ICN from 2004-2009, before being one of a small handful of researchers from all across the sciences to be selected for a prestigious Royal Society Anniversary Research Professorship in 2009.  He died this week, tragically young at the age of 49, leaving a young family.

I never worked with Jon directly, and wouldn’t say that I knew him particularly well.  More comprehensive and better informed assessments of his life and career will no doubt be found elsewhere.  However, the times I did spend with Jon were sufficient to leave a lasting impression on me, which is what I wanted to reflect on in these brief thoughts.

First of all, he was an exceptional scientist and an inspirational research leader.  He published somewhere approaching 300 papers in all, including eight in Nature and Science during the first decade of his career alone.  Much of his work, particularly in those early years, was enormously influential, comprising the building blocks on which fields such as visual attention, neglect, and multisensory integration now stand.  It was also often highly innovative, taking previously established ideas and turning them on their head with ingeniously designed experiments.

Here’s just one example of this that sticks with me as a non-expert in the field (apologies if real experts think there are better examples).  For a long time, it was thought that attention worked like a spotlight, roving around the visual field and selecting regions of space that might be worth processing further.  Evidence from patients suffering from the disorder of visuospatial neglect was considered strong evidence for this view.  Such patients, who often have an injury to the right side of their brain, characteristically fail to attend to the left side of space.  For example, they may not notice an object placed to their left or, in an example beloved of generations of undergraduates, may only eat the right half of a plate of food.  Thus, the consensus was that attention selects regions of space and attentional impairments are likely to be spatial in nature.

Jon’s insight (and, as a non-expert, apologies if he may not have been alone in this) was that it’s surely not that advantageous to attend to regions of space; what’s really useful is to focus on the objects located in those regions.  His brilliant way of demonstrating that was to take visual shapes that had a clear principal axis (in other words, an obvious “right way up”) such as those shown on the left of the figure below.  Because the shapes differed on their left side, patients with neglect were unable to judge whether they were the same or different.  This was the standard finding, consistent with the idea of an impairment attending to the left side of space.  Jon’s brilliant innovation was to then present similar shapes tilted by 45 degrees (as on the right of the figure).  Now the shapes still differed on their left side, but critically the difference was located on the right side of the patient.  Strikingly, the patients still failed to detect differences between the shapes, demonstrating that attention must select objects and not just regions of space.

Examples of stimuli from Driver & Halligan (1991)

As inspirational as his work was, the main influence Jon had on me was more personal.  I got to know him when I was the postdoc representative on the ICN group leaders’ committee during the early part of his Directorship, sometime around 2004.  He was, to me at least, a slightly intimidating figure, even amongst the other scientific giants who made up the group leaders at that time.  He tended to speak in quite short, decisive tones during committee meetings, sometimes cutting people off if he disagreed with them, and often failing to hide his displeasure at discussions that went on beyond what he considered justified.  He had something of a reputation as single-minded, determined, driving his people hard, and not suffering fools gladly.

Thus, I was relatively surprised when he and I spent quite a bit of time together early in his Directorship on an in-depth consultation of the junior research staff at the ICN.  Jon was very keen to find out what these individuals, who in many departments can feel rather undervalued and ignored, thought and felt about the way the place was run.  He worked hard and spent considerable time finding ways to encourage the researchers to disclose the issues that bothered them, and then took steps to address each of the concerns raised.  When I asked him why he was spending so much time on this, he made a point that was very interesting to me.  He said that he believed everyone had the potential for greatness in them, if they were only challenged hard enough and then made to feel they had all the support and resources necessary to achieve.  Given that, as Director, he would only ever benefit very indirectly from work that might be done by a postdoc in a research group other than his own, I was very struck by his determination on this issue.  I also know that when, some time after our consultation initiative, junior researchers went to Jon with academic issues or personal difficulties, he typically gave them considerable time and support in helping them resolve their concerns.

So Jon made an impression on me in two ways: in his innovative and ingenious science, and in his determination to see the greatness in others and to give them every opportunity to achieve that greatness.

He was an inspirational figure and the field is significantly poorer for his passing.

3 comments:

  1. Geraint Rees and Eleanor Maguire have created a website for everyone who knew Jon Driver to share memories of him and through this to help celebrate his life. The website is:

    http://jondriver1962-2011.blogspot.com/

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  2. Thanks for offering this opportunity for those of us who did not know Jon personally to make a comment. I met John and Nilli in Cambridge about 20 years ago, when Jon was a Lecturer in the Department and Nilli was a Research Fellow. They were a formidable and inspirational couple, both making ground-breaking, seminal contributions to the field of attention at the time. I began some very basic attentional work in humans at the end of my PhD in an attempt to generalise some of my findings in an animal model of visual search. Both Nilli and Jon were keen to give me advice, even though neither would benefit from their intellectual contribution. Jon kindly listened to some ideas later (at a meeting in Birkbeck) when I started to consider visual search ability in children with autism. It was clear at that meeting that he was way ahead of me, but nonetheless let me believe that the insights he brought to the ideas were jointly made. My last encounter with him was at a talk I gave at the ICN a couple of years ago. I am very encouraged by your reflection, Jon, that his critical toughness was motivated by his belief that latent talent could be encouraged by hard challenge. He gave me short shrift over a point I made in my talk, and later, licking my wounds, I reflected that he had indeed identified a weakness in my argument that I subsequently went on to correct. The academic world has suffered a terrible loss. My heart goes out to Nilli, his children, family and personal friends.

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