Autobiography of the President Elect


Jeremy Wolfe, Harvard Medical School



Emily Klein, the editor of the Division 3 newsletter, has given me the task of providing some autobiographical insight into how it happens that I am the president-elect of Division 3.  Upon reflection, I conclude that the answer lies in my father’s choice of tennis partners.


When I was about five years old, lying in the bathtub, I noticed that, if I stared fixedly at the tiles on the ceiling, the lines between the tiles would fade in and out of visibility.  I didn’t publish this finding because Troxler had beaten me to this discovery by about 150 years (Troxler, Himly, & Schmidt, 1804).  While I date my interest in visual perception to this experience of Troxler Fading, I did not pursue visual perception or Experimental Psychology in primary school and by high school I seemed destined for an English or History major in college.  Then my father decided I needed a summer job.  My father spent his career as solid-state physicist at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ; then, one of the world’s great industrial, basic and applied research labs.  Two floors above his lab lay what we would now consider to be the cognitive science department.  It was quite a group, including Bela Julesz, Saul Sternberg, George Sperling and the noted color vision research, John Krauskopf who was also the noted tennis partner of my father.


My father thought it would be good if I tried doing something resembling work before I got out of high school.  Since John had hired his own daughter as a summer student the previous summer, my father persuaded him to hire me starting in the spring of 1973.  The main part of the job was to be a subject in some pretty hardcore color vision experiments.  These involved peering at extremely dim lights produced by a very carefully aligned Maxwellian view optical system.  Now, the way to align your head with such an optical system is to use a bite bar.  For those who have missed this pleasure, let me explain that a bite bar is created by making a rigid dental impression (as you might have done, if you wore braces) and affixing that to a metal plate that you then screw into the rest of the apparatus.  If you slide your teeth back into that impression, your head is not going to move much.  You do tend to drool a lot.  It is a great introduction to the experimental method.


I had a nominal 20 hour a week job but you can’t really spend 4 hours a day on a bite bar.  I took to wandering around the halls asking people what they were doing.  Fortunately for me, the halls were filled with professorial sorts who did not have undergraduates around and I think I provided an outlet that would have normally been filled by teaching Psych. 101.  Sperling, Sternberg, & Julesz plus ‘youngsters’ like Dave Meyers and Bruno Breitmeyer made quite a faculty for my Intro class.


Then my parents took off for a scientific meeting in Russia.  My sisters and I were left to take care of the house, which was fine until the air conditioning broke.  We had no idea how one arranged to get the air conditioning fixed. Bell Labs, on the other hand, had fine air conditioning so my 20 hour a week job turned into about a 60 hour a week job.  I don’t suppose I did 60 hours of work but it was a comfortable place to hang around.  By the end of the summer, I was hooked and decided to major in Psychology when I went to college at Princeton.  In my real Psych. 101 course and even more so in later vision and cognition courses, I was a little chagrined to discover that the tolerant fellows I had been bothering with my questions at Bell Labs were rather famous.  In fact, when I learned about Troxler fading, I discovered that the modern account of the phenomenon was penned by Krauskopf (1957).


I worked at Bell Labs during various winter and summer breaks over the next few years and I can trace many of the themes of the subsequent 30 plus years of my research life to topics that attracted me at that time.  I learned about visual aftereffects, notably the McCollough Effect, from Charlie Harris and Naomi Weisstein. Randolph Blake gave a talk while I was there that started my life-long interest in binocular rivalry.  Julesz was working on “textons” and what we would eventually call “preattentive processing”. 


It can be argued that there were a few more proximal influences on my subsequent career (graduate school, for example).  Still, if my father had been playing tennis with the bankers or the lawyers, someone else might be writing this column today.


Troxler, D., Himly, & Schmidt. (1804 ). Ueber das Verschwinden gegebener Gegenstande innerhalb unseres Gesichtkreises. Ophthalmologische Bibliothek (pp. p1- 53).


Krauskopf, J. (1957). Effect of retinal image motion on contrast thresholds for maintained vision. [Article]. Journal of the Optical Society of America, 47(8), 740-744.