David E. Meyer, Ph. D.

Professional Biography*

David E. Meyer was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on February 3, 1943, and grew up in a working-class neighborhood where he roamed the backstreets, playing in many pickup games of baseball, football, and basketball. Avid reading also became an early part of Meyer's life. With a public library card obtained during third grade, he began borrowing and reading books on many topics, including astronomy, geology, and meteorology. His reading fostered an ever-increasing interest in science and mathematics, inspiring him later to take several high school classes in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. 

After high school graduation in 1961, Meyer thought that he should prepare for an engineering career. However, during a brief stint at the Case Institute of Technology, it dawned on him that he really wanted to take a "road less traveled", so he transferred to Wittenberg University - a small liberal-arts institution -- and changed his academic major to psychology. Although he expected personality psychology to be most interesting for him, what soon excited Meyer even more was an experimental psychology class in which students encountered a truly amazing fact: people's behavior can be quantified rigorously, revealing fundamental mathematical laws of human nature. This revelation, together with further study of mathematics, paved the way for the next phase of his education.

In 1964, Meyer entered the University of Michigan's Mathematical Psychology Program, where state-of-the-art training was offered by faculty such as Clyde Coombs, Robyn Dawes, David Krantz, and Keith Smith. Consistent with some of their interests, Meyer's initial research focused on risky decision making, yielding his first publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Nevertheless, within two years, his attention wandered toward another burgeoning topic, cognitive psychology, and he began studying it with Robert Bjork, Edwin Martin, Richard Pew, and other faculty at Michigan's Human Performance Center. When exposed to Ulrich Neisser's (1967) book, Cognitive Psychology, Meyer was fascinated by prospects of characterizing people as dynamic information-processing systems whose mental operations might be described in computational terms. This eventuated in his doctoral dissertation on the representation and retrieval of semantic information in long-term memory, which he investigated by using sentence-verification tasks and reaction time (RT) measures to test alternative semantic-memory models relevant for language comprehension (Meyer, 1970).

Impressed by Meyer's investigations, Saul Sternberg recruited him to join the Human Information Processing Research Department at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Meyer arrived there in June, 1969, and was soon thrilled to watch Neil Armstrong's first walk on the moon, a feat enabled in part by the Labs' technological advances. These were invigorating days! Working beside many stimulating colleagues like Sternberg, Charles Harris, James Johnston, Bela Julesz, John Krauskopf, Thomas Landauer, Ernst Rothkopf, Kirk Smith, and George Sperling made them especially so. At the labs, several other wonderful staff members - among whom were Jack Coriell, Karl Gutschera, Ronald Knoll, and Margaret Ruddy - also helped Meyer be happy and productive.

Thus, his research moved quickly to further territories of semantic memory, where he established an experimental paradigm involving the lexical-decision task, a procedure that requires participants to judge whether various strings of letters are real words. Here the results revealed that lexical-decision RTs are significantly shorter for words (e.g., "butter") immediately preceded by other associated words (e.g., "bread"). The discovery of such priming opened new windows through which the structure and processing of semantic information can be examined in detail. Concurrently, Roger Schvaneveldt at SUNY Stony Brook also discovered semantic priming in lexical decisions. When he shared notes with Meyer at the 1970 Psychonomic Society meeting, they agreed to co-author an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (Meyer & Schvaneveldt, 1971), which strongly influenced subsequent studies of visual word recognition and related cognitive processes. Their collaboration flourished over several years, producing more articles on semantic priming, orthographic and phonemic coding, dual-route retrieval models, and other aspects of word recognition (e.g., Meyer, Schvaneveldt, & Ruddy, 1974, 1975). Meanwhile, sparked by several Bell colleagues' research on speech perception and production, Meyer's interests also evolved.

Accompanying this evolution, an invitation from the University of Michigan to rejoin its Psychology Department attracted Meyer back to Ann Arbor in 1977, where he has been a professor ever since. Part of the attraction for this move was the opportunity to have new interactions at Michigan's Human Performance Center with senior faculty like David Krantz, Keith Smith, and Daniel Weintraub, as well as younger faculty like Keith Holyoak, John Jonides, Gary Olson, Robert Pachella, Judith Reitman, and Frank Yates. Equally crucial was the opportunity to have productive new relationships with Michigan's superb graduate students.

For example, in 1979, Meyer began collaborating with one of his first students, Peter C. Gordon. They investigated possible shared mechanisms for perceiving and producing phonetic features in speech. As a result, it appeared that voice onset time may be one such feature for which there is a shared mechanism (e.g., see Meyer & Gordon, 1984, 1985).

Expanding this investigation, Meyer and other graduate students - including Richard Abrams, Kyunghee Koh, Paul Price, and Charles Wright -- studied perceptual-motor interactions and speed-accuracy tradeoffs in manual and ocular movements like those required by the sports that Meyer had played. Along the way, rewarding collaborations were also formed with some of Meyer's faculty colleagues, Sylvan Kornblum, Keith Smith, and Neff Walker. An important focus of their work was the ubiquitous speed-accuracy tradeoff known as Fitts' law. According to it, the mean duration ( T) of rapid aimed movements is a logarithmic function of the distance ( D) and width ( W) of a target region that the movements have to reach ( T = A + B * log 2(2 D/ W), where A and B are positive constants). Meyer's team hypothesized that Fitts' law stems from people's efforts to cope optimally with random variability in the human motor system. This hypothesis, supported by experimentation and mathematical analyses, generated a powerful new class of stochastic optimized-submovement models that account for the logarithmic tradeoff function as well as other quantitative properties of rapid aimed movements (Meyer, Smith, & Wright, 1982; Meyer, Abrams, Kornblum, Wright, & Smith, 1988; Meyer et al., 1990).

During the 1980s, another complementary line of research by Meyer, faculty colleagues, and graduate students - including Scott Dickman, David Irwin, John Kounios, Allen Osman, and Steven Yantis -- involved mental chronometry and questions about mental operations that mediate perception, memory, judgment, and action. For example, to what extent do these operations proceed as successive stages of information processing, and how is the output from one operation communicated to another? In seeking answers, Meyer's research developed new techniques for decomposing RT probability distributions, analyzing cognitive speed-accuracy tradeoffs, and characterizing the transmission of information between processing stages (e.g., Meyer, Yantis, Osman, & Smith, 1985; Meyer, Irwin, Osman, & Kounios, 1988; Meyer, Osman, Irwin, & Yantis, 1988). These techniques have been applied subsequently by other investigators, and they have provided a number of insights about "cognitive architecture" in the human information-processing system. Furthermore, accompanying special benefits for Meyer have come from interactions with colleagues elsewhere, including Theodore Bashore, Michael Coles, Emanuel Donchin, and William Gehring, who have extended mental chronometry through measuring event-related brain potentials and thereby helped inspire Meyer's interest in Cognitive Neuroscience.

At the same time, Meyer has continued his research on semantic priming and long-term memory. In experiments with two more students, Natalie Davidson and Ilan Yaniv, he explored how these components of cognition mediate tip-of-the-tongue phenomena, mental incubation, and problem solving. Their results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition (Yaniv & Meyer, 1987; Yaniv, Meyer, & Davidson, 1995), showed that stored unfulfilled goals and spontaneous opportunistic assimilation of retrieval cues may be crucial for surmounting stymied solution attempts.

Since 1990, Meyer's diverse lines of research have converged synergistically in a joint project with David Kieras, a cognitive psychologist and computer scientist at Michigan. Supported by the Office of Naval Research, Kieras and Meyer have created a computational unified theory of human cognition and action. Their theoretical framework, Executive-Process Interactive Control (EPIC), is based on a revolutionary cognitive architecture implemented in computer software that enables precise simulation models to be formulated for executive cognitive processes, working memory, and multitasking. EPIC has provided accurate quantitative accounts of people's skilled performance in both laboratory tasks and realistic contexts such as aircraft operation and human-computer interaction (e.g., Meyer & Kieras, 1997a, 1997b, 1999).

Meyer and his recent students - David Fencsik, Jennifer Glass, Leon Gmeindl, Cerita Jones, Adam Krawitz, Erick Lauber, Shane Mueller, Joshua Rubinstein, Eric Schumacher, Travis Seymour, and Eileen Zurbriggen - have been carefully testing EPIC's basic assumptions through experimentation and modeling in their Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory (http://www.umich.edu/~bcalab ). Also, by use of neuroimaging in collaboration with clinical neuropsychologists and neurologists at Michigan, including Jeffrey Evans and Larry Junck, Meyer is seeking to make his work more relevant for understanding the human brain (e.g., Meyer et al., 1998). Indeed, it is mainly based on such collaborations that Meyer's research has progressed over the years, so he gratefully acknowledges the major contributions that have been made by all of his collaborators.

For more information about Dr. Meyer's publications, see his Selected Bibliography.


* Published by the American Psychologist to acknowledge Dr. Meyer's receipt of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award for 2002 from the American Psychological Association