Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Formal obituary for Jon Driver, published in The Times

written by Prof Geraint Rees and Prof Ray Dolan, current directors at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, in which Jon has been affiliated to.

The copyright belongs to The Times, however, if allowed, I would like to share with the world.

Here is the link to his departmental website:

1/3/12 Professor Jon Driver | The Times

Professor Jon Driver

Leading cognitive neuroscientist who carried out pioneering studies into how humans focus attention and integrate sensory information

Professor Jon Driver was one of the world’s leading cognitive neuroscientists who at
University College London pursued pioneering studies on human attention, of how
humans perceive the world and how we integrate different types of sensory

Jonathon Stevens Driver was born in Halifax, West Yorkshire in 1962. The family
moved to Cottingham, near Hull, and then lived on Hull University’s residential
campus, where his father taught mathematics. He attended Hymers College in Hull
where he played cello in the school orchestra but he preferred to invest his energy in
playing the bass guitar.

These early years furnished few clues about a future career in science. As a teenager he
played in a local band, the London Boys, covering Stax and Motown classics. A local
doctor took him under his wing and taught him how to fish the surrounding quarry
lakes. A turning point in his life came when his mother, a school librarian, sought to
divert him from these teenage pursuits. She brought home two classic textbooks by the
renowned psychologists Richard Gregory and Alexander Luria. Reading these also
coincided with personal encounters with neurological patients, as a volunteer at a local
hospital, and with his grandmother who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. His
imagination was captured and these formative experiences set him on his career path.

He read Experimental Psychology at Queen’s College, Oxford. Graduating with a firstclass
degree in 1984 he progressed to a DPhil, awarded in 1988. Driver thrived in the
intellectual energy of Oxford. His PhD supervisors, Alan Allport and Peter McLeod,
gave him contrasting examples of scholarship and realism, but also left him to pursue
his own interests. This freedom led him to finesse his incomparable skills in designing
and conducting ingenious experiments that addressed fundamental issues of how the
brain works. His chosen topic was attention, though he would wistfully say he had no
clue what attention was. He acknowledged that nobody had bettered William James,
the American psychologist, who remarked a century earlier that attention “implies
withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition
which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state.”

During his time in Oxford he honed his skills in fly-fishing. Oxford afforded a perfect
base for excursions into the chalk streams of southern England. Here his boyhood love
of landscape and water coalesced with his academic interest in attention. His
excellence as a fly-fisher exploited the first principle of the art: cast without engaging
the fishes’ attention. His reputation as a rising academic star was already apparent by
the time he completed his graduate studies. During a period as a visiting assistant
professor in Oregon in the early nineties he experienced first-hand the dynamism and
more informal style of US science, something he incorporated into his future modus
operandi. Here he met his future wife, Nilli Lavie, also a psychologist.

Returning to Cambridge as a lecturer, his academic trajectory was firmly established.
In the late 1990s he moved to Birkbeck College and then to University College London.
Driver was by this time acutely aware that experimental psychology was a discipline
going through a crisis brought on by the rising dominance of new brain imaging
technologies and the emergence of the new discipline of cognitive neuroscience. He
embraced the possibilities afforded by these developments, realising that neuroscience
afforded a powerful means of arbitrating between different psychological hypotheses.

He was appointed a Professor in Psychology in 1996 and became Director of the UCL
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2004. In 2009 he stepped down from this
position following an award of a Royal Society Anniversary Research Professorship and
joined the faculty of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL.

Over the course of his career he pursued pioneering studies of how humans perceive the
world, how we integrate different types of sensory information and how we use
attention to focus on particular things. A characteristic feature of his work was the
innovative combination of new methods for studying the mind and brain in an
integrative manner. His contribution was acknowledged by election as Fellow of both
the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

But it was not for his scientific discoveries alone that he will be remembered. His
incisive intellect, critical questioning and occasionally mumbling style of delivery
would often intimidate new students, though they rapidly realised he cared deeply
about their careers. He gave freely of his time not only to his immediate group but to
the wider neuroscience community. The combination of humility and intellect left a
powerful impression on all those who met him, as did his engaging smile and his
twinkling eyes. In a recent interview he said of his field that “the best research in
psychology is still to come”; few would doubt that was also true of his own work.

He is survived by his wife and two sons.

Professor Jon Driver, neuroscientist, was born on July 4, 1962. He
committed suicide on November 28, 2011, aged 49

© Times Newspapers Limited 2011 | Version (34012)