University of Rochester

Cognitive Scientist Michael Tanenhaus Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

April 25, 2011

Michael Tanenhaus, the Beverly Patterson Bishop and Charles W. Bishop Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Linguistics, has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The honorary society, founded in 1780, has a broad membership that includes scientists, politicians, businesspeople, and artists.

Tanenhaus primarily studies how humans glean information from spoken language. Although it seems like a simple task on the surface, understanding a stream of spoken words is a complex undertaking. In essence, the listener is given a series of syllables, separated in time, and it is not trivial to pick out which sounds combine to form words or to determine meanings moment by moment.

One of Tanenhaus's groundbreaking findings is that the human brain is continually guessing what word a speaker is trying to say before the speaker has even finished the word. To do this the brain uses multiple sources of information, including the visual context and the speaker's likely intentions. These predictions allow humans to keep up with the daunting task of processing long strings of spoken words as they are being said.

Tanenhaus and his students pioneered a method of study known as the Visual World Paradigm, which has been widely used in language processing studies since its advent in 1995. In using the method, scientists track the eye movements of study participants and use their gaze as a way to infer what they are thinking as a stream of speech progresses. In addition to being used with adults, the method has proven particularly valuable in studying how young children understand language before they are articulate enough to speak coherently themselves.

Tanenhaus joined the University's faculty in 1983. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Cognitive Science Society and the Association for Psychological Science. He won the University Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching in 2002.