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Neuroscience Pioneer

Courtesy Stanford Report


By Adam Gorlick

Psychology professor and MacArthur fellow David Rumelhart was a pioneer in cognitive neuroscience who explored the notion that no neuron is an island. His work advanced our knowledge of connectionism—the idea that nerve cells in the human brain work not alone, but interdependently, to process information.

Rumelhart, PhD '67, died on March 13 in Michigan from a progressive debilitating neurological condition. He was 68.

Leading a team of researchers that included James McClelland—now chair of the psychology department—Rumelhart created computer models in the 1970s and 1980s that simulated human perception, language understanding, memory and a wide range of other cognitive tasks. The two wrote Parallel Distributed Processing: Explorations in the Microstructure of Cognition, which brought connectionism to a wider audience of psychologists, neuroscientists and computer scientists.

After undergraduate work in psychology and mathematics at the University of South Dakota and grad school at Stanford, Rumelhart launched his career at UC-San Diego. He grew dissatisfied with the classic notion that cognition happens through the mind's manipulation of symbols. "He became fascinated by the idea that our minds work at a sub-symbolic level," McClelland says. "The idea was that thoughts emerge from neural activity. They're the consequence of the interaction of neurons. He went behind the scenes to look for the actual basis for our thinking ability."

Rumelhart joined the Stanford faculty in 1987. A shy professor, he showed his competitive streak on tennis courts or the makeshift volleyball court on the Oval he would fill with students. Ill health forced him to stop teaching in 1998.

In 2000, the Glushko-Samuelson Foundation established the Rumelhart Prize, $100,000 awarded annually for a significant contribution to the theoretical foundations of human cognition.

He is survived by his former wife, Marilyn Austin, '65; sons Peter, '90, and Karl, '90; four grandsons; and two brothers.

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