Feature

President Barack Obama awarded Mortimer Mishkin, PhD, the National Medal of Science at a Nov. 17 White House ceremony in recognition of his tremendous contributions to understanding brain function.

Mishkin, a neuropsychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, is best known for helping psychology move away from the once-popular idea that brain function is highly regionalized. Through his work on visual processing in the brain, he helped introduce the concept that researchers should be thinking in terms of circuits and pathways through the brain.

Mishkin entered Navy officer training school at Middlebury College in 1944 to become an aviator, but the Navy was looking for officers to help with logistics and manage supply chains during the occupation following the war. So he transferred to Dartmouth College where, in his training to become a supply corps officer, he dabbled in psychology classes, a subject that had intrigued him since he was a teen reading books by Sigmund Freud. After serving in Japan for two years, he returned to the United States and attended psychology graduate school at McGill University. "That’s where I became sort of hooked on the study of behavior as it was mediated by the brain," he says.

At McGill, Mishkin wrote his master’s thesis on stereoscopic perception — how the brain uses the eyes to perceive depth and motion — and how reading trains the left and right sides of the retina differently. He finished his doctorate at Yale University, where he studied neuroscience under the direction of psychologist and neurosurgeon Karl H. Pribram, PhD. "That’s how I learned everything I know about monkey research," Mishkin says.

After finishing his degree, Mishkin and Pribram set up a monkey laboratory at the Institute for Living in Hartford, Conn., where Mishkin worked for four years. Then in 1955, Mishkin was invited to join the newly created National Institute of Mental Health. He’s been there ever since.

In his time at NIMH, Mishkin and his colleagues have performed research that has led to a number of major findings, such as discovering that the inferior temporal cortex plays a functional role in visual object perception. He’s also broadened his research into the somatosensory and auditory systems.

Mishkin says he’s humbled to be recognized for all these achievements and is indebted to the colleagues and teachers who’ve helped him along the way. "I may have gotten the award, but I was really, really fortunate because throughout my career, I’ve had the remarkably good fortune of working with people who, at every stage, made all these things possible," he says.