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Gordon Bower, Inventive Memory Researcher, Is Dead at 87

Gordon Bower in an undated photo. He was, a colleague said, “the experimental psychologist par excellence.”Credit...Sharon Ann Bower
Jul 19 2020

Posted In:

Faculty, In the News
  • July 19, 2020

In a long career at Stanford, he was known for elegant experiments that explored how we learn and how we remember.

Gordon H. Bower, a research psychologist who spent more than half a century studying how the brain learns and remembers, as well as a host of related subjects, and who was among the leaders in his field, died on June 17 at his home in Stanford, Calif. He was 87.

Stanford University, where he taught for almost 50 years, announced his death. The cause was complications of pulmonary fibrosis.

When Dr. Bower joined the Stanford faculty in 1959, he became part of a psychology department that was already highly regarded. His work over the next half-century made it even more so,

“I consider him the experimental psychologist par excellence,” Herbert Clark, another noted member of that department, said in the university’s announcement. “He had that golden touch in thinking up, carrying out and writing up experiments that were clever and theoretically relevant.”

To show that chaining concepts together improved the ability to remember them, Dr. Bower and a colleague, Michael Clark, had one group of students take lists of 10 nouns and construct stories around them, while a control group just tried to memorize the 10 words. The story constructors were later able to recall seven times as many of the words as the mere memorizers were.

In another experiment, students were asked to recall either a happy or a sad event, then were hypnotized to capture that emotion and asked to memorize lists of happy and sad words. The students who had started the memorization in a happy mood later remembered more of the happy words, and the sad students remembered more of the sad ones.

The mood we’re in, Dr. Bower concluded, affects how we remember a past event. So, he told The Chicago Tribune in 1986, a person in a bad mood who is trying to decide whether to get married will recall a disproportionate number of bad things about the prospective spouse. The message: Try to be in a neutral mood when making important life decisions.

Mark A. Gluck, who studied for his Ph.D. under Dr. Bower in the 1980s and is now a professor at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University-Newark, said Dr. Bower’s research also encompassed how we reorganize memory during learning, how we understand and remember simple narratives, how mnemonic devices work, the role of mental imagery in memory and more.

“Gordon, throughout his career,” Dr. Gluck said by email, “would identify a critical unsolved problem, make seminal contributions that established a new area of research, attract many other people to this new fertile domain, and then move on to do it all over again in some completely different area of learning and memory research.”

Dr. Bower wrote numerous books and scholarly papers, but he was also quick to point out practical applications for his findings. Over the years he was quoted in news articles about vanity license plates, how to remember the name of someone you’ve just met, how New Yorkers’ facial expressions and body language changed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and more.

In a 1973 article in Psychology Today, after discussing how memory can be improved through mnemonics and other techniques, he urged people to put such knowledge to use.

“Our schools,” he wrote, “should teach memory skills just as they teach the skills of reading and writing.”

Gordon Howard Bower was born on Dec. 30, 1932, in Scio, Ohio, to Clyde and Mabelle (Bosart) Bower. Scio was a small village in east-central Ohio near an even smaller village called Bowerston.

“My father and grandfather came from Bowerston, where approximately three-quarters of the people are named Bower,” he said in a 2011 episode of the Association for Psychological Science interview series “Inside the Psychologist’s Studio,” “and the other one-quarter of the people are named Gordon. So I am Gordon Bower, a true son of that region.”

His parents owned a small store, Bower’s Merchandise Mart, and his mother was a substitute elementary-school teacher. Dr. Bower was a fine athlete, particularly in baseball, so much so that the Cleveland Indians subsidized his studies at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in exchange for first rights on a professional baseball contract.

Instead he continued his studies after earning a bachelor’s degree in 1954, securing a fellowship at the University of Minnesota and then enrolling at Yale University, where he earned a master’s degree in 1957 and a Ph.D. in psychology in 1959.

At Yale he studied under Neal Miller, a noted experimental psychologist, though not all of the projects he assisted on proved fruitful. One involved injecting cats’ brains with tiny amounts of salt water; his job was to then try to get the cats to navigate a T-maze, an exercise that proved to involve a certain amount of futility.

“So, with great relief, I was allowed to abandon the project,” he wrote in an autobiographical sketch, published as part of a series called “A History of Psychology in Autobiography.” “This taught me early on that it was OK to abandon unproductive lines of research!”

After earning his Ph.D. he joined the Stanford psychology department in the fall of 1959, and he remained there his entire career, taking emeritus status in 2005.

He taught numerous students who went on to impressive careers. One was Stephen Kosslyn, who became an expert in mental imagery and has held posts at Harvard, Stanford and elsewhere, and who recalled his first encounter with Dr. Bower’s Friday seminars, where graduate students would summarize their research.

“When it was my turn, he was very direct, honest and highly critical,” Dr. Kosslyn said by email. “I was devastated, and went to see him afterwards. He interrupted what he was doing to explain to me that ‘a lick and a promise’ isn’t good enough; you need to be ready to unpack what you do and be prepared to defend it.

“He set a high bar, and it probably never occurred to him to let us duck beneath it.”

Dr. Bower, who received the President’s National Medal of Science in 2005, married Sharon Anthony in 1957. She survives him, as do their children, Lori, Tony and Julia, and five grandchildren.

In the 1973 Psychology Today article, Dr. Bower noted, with characteristic humor, that learning how to improve our memories is not just a parlor trick.

“By strategic use of mnemonics, we might free ourselves for those tasks we consider more important than memorization,” he concluded. “We ought to take advantage of what we know about memory, forgetting and mnemonics, and we ought to do it soon. You are already beginning to forget the material you just read.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.