McClelland wins inaugural prize in psychological and cognitive sciences

Jay McClelland, professor of psychology (Photo: Linda Cicero)
Jay McClelland, professor of psychology (Photo: Linda Cicero)

JAMES “JAY” McCLELLAND, professor of psychology, is one of the inaugural recipients of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences. He and the other recipient, Elizabeth Shilin Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, will each receive the $200,000 prize at the 2014 NAS annual meeting in April.

McClelland, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences and director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Computation, is being honored for his role in formulating computational models to demonstrate the spread of activation through brain networks. His work has contributed to solving many puzzles in psychology and enhancing mechanical methods for perceiving patterns in language and visual sciences. His current research aims to create an understanding of the development of human abilities in mathematics at all levels, from numerosity and the initial stages of counting to arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and even multivariate mathematics and calculus.

“James McClelland and Elizabeth Shilin Spelke have both made significant contributions to our understanding of how the brain works,” said NAS President Ralph Cicerone. “We are pleased to present our first awards in psychological and cognitive sciences to them.”

The NAS Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences will be given biennially for significant advances in the psychological and cognitive sciences with important implications for formal and systematic theory in these fields. Recipients are selected by NAS members in these disciplines.

“I have to admit that I hadn’t thought that they’d choose me; I had expected they’d choose other people,” McClelland said. “I have other colleagues whose work I admire, so it was quite a pleasant surprise when I received the letter.”

McClelland said he was particularly happy to win a prize because of its connection to Stanford. This new prize was made possible by a gift from NAS member Richard Atkinson, who was a member of Stanford’s department of psychology in the 1950s and 1960s, and later became the first social scientist to serve as president of the National Science Foundation. One of Atkinson’s goals, McClelland said, was to enhance behavioral and psychological sciences’ reputation as “real sciences” that require research and systematic scientific thinking to understand human behavior and thought, and that this new prize helps achieve that goal.