Jon Driver studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford before taking up a University Lectureship at Cambridge. Within eight years of obtaining his DPhil doctoral degree he was a Professor at Birkbeck, and from 1998 a Professor at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN), one of the world’s leading centres of research into the brain basis of cognition. He was Director of the ICN from 2004-2009, before being one of a small handful of researchers from all across the sciences to be selected for a prestigious Royal Society Anniversary Research Professorship in 2009. He died this week, tragically young at the age of 49, leaving a young family.
I never worked with Jon directly, and wouldn’t say that I knew him particularly well. More comprehensive and better informed assessments of his life and career will no doubt be found elsewhere. However, the times I did spend with Jon were sufficient to leave a lasting impression on me, which is what I wanted to reflect on in these brief thoughts.
Here’s just one example of this that sticks with me as a non-expert in the field (apologies if real experts think there are better examples). For a long time, it was thought that attention worked like a spotlight, roving around the visual field and selecting regions of space that might be worth processing further. Evidence from patients suffering from the disorder of visuospatial neglect was considered strong evidence for this view. Such patients, who often have an injury to the right side of their brain, characteristically fail to attend to the left side of space. For example, they may not notice an object placed to their left or, in an example beloved of generations of undergraduates, may only eat the right half of a plate of food. Thus, the consensus was that attention selects regions of space and attentional impairments are likely to be spatial in nature.
Jon’s insight (and, as a non-expert, apologies if he may not have been alone in this) was that it’s surely not that advantageous to attend to regions of space; what’s really useful is to focus on the objects located in those regions. His brilliant way of demonstrating that was to take visual shapes that had a clear principal axis (in other words, an obvious “right way up”) such as those shown on the left of the figure below. Because the shapes differed on their left side, patients with neglect were unable to judge whether they were the same or different. This was the standard finding, consistent with the idea of an impairment attending to the left side of space. Jon’s brilliant innovation was to then present similar shapes tilted by 45 degrees (as on the right of the figure). Now the shapes still differed on their left side, but critically the difference was located on the right side of the patient. Strikingly, the patients still failed to detect differences between the shapes, demonstrating that attention must select objects and not just regions of space.
|Examples of stimuli from Driver & Halligan (1991)|
As inspirational as his work was, the main influence Jon had on me was more personal. I got to know him when I was the postdoc representative on the ICN group leaders’ committee during the early part of his Directorship, sometime around 2004. He was, to me at least, a slightly intimidating figure, even amongst the other scientific giants who made up the group leaders at that time. He tended to speak in quite short, decisive tones during committee meetings, sometimes cutting people off if he disagreed with them, and often failing to hide his displeasure at discussions that went on beyond what he considered justified. He had something of a reputation as single-minded, determined, driving his people hard, and not suffering fools gladly.
Thus, I was relatively surprised when he and I spent quite a bit of time together early in his Directorship on an in-depth consultation of the junior research staff at the ICN. Jon was very keen to find out what these individuals, who in many departments can feel rather undervalued and ignored, thought and felt about the way the place was run. He worked hard and spent considerable time finding ways to encourage the researchers to disclose the issues that bothered them, and then took steps to address each of the concerns raised. When I asked him why he was spending so much time on this, he made a point that was very interesting to me. He said that he believed everyone had the potential for greatness in them, if they were only challenged hard enough and then made to feel they had all the support and resources necessary to achieve. Given that, as Director, he would only ever benefit very indirectly from work that might be done by a postdoc in a research group other than his own, I was very struck by his determination on this issue. I also know that when, some time after our consultation initiative, junior researchers went to Jon with academic issues or personal difficulties, he typically gave them considerable time and support in helping them resolve their concerns.
So Jon made an impression on me in two ways: in his innovative and ingenious science, and in his determination to see the greatness in others and to give them every opportunity to achieve that greatness.
He was an inspirational figure and the field is significantly poorer for his passing.