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Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008

James Townsend

Distinguished Professor

Rudy Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
College of Arts and Sciences
University Graduate School
Indiana University Bloomington
Appointed to IU faculty, 1989
A.B., Fresno State University, 1961
Ph.D., Stanford University, 1966

"Jim is well known throughout the world as one of the preeminent active mathematical psychologists. He has made many seminal contributions, not only to mathematical psychology, but also to the more general fields of cognition and perception."

--F. Gregory Ashby, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara

James Townsend

James Townsend

Print-Quality Photo

In March 2007 James Townsend was recognized with the highest award in his field: the Norman Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Society of Experimental Psychologists. The award honored his many contributions to psychology -- work that his colleagues describe as fundamental and seminal, with ramifications reaching beyond his field. They further praise the man himself as a preeminent psychologist, a world leader in specific areas of psychological research, and an outstanding mentor.

James Townsend "combines the rigorousness of mathematical theorizing with an ability to identify and attack the most fundamental problems of cognitive psychology," says Hans Colonius, professor of psychology at Carl Von Ossietzky Universitšt Oldenburg in Germany. "This makes him one of the few mathematical psychologists whose work is influential far beyond his own discipline, reaching into many areas of experimental psychology and the neurosciences."

"His contributions range over methodology, perception and psychophysics, cognitive psychology, and decision making, and even reach clinical applications," says Richard Shiffrin, IU Distinguished Professor and Luther Dana Waterman Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Professor of Cognitive Science. "All of this research is backed up by the most rigorous mathematical techniques, proofs and theorems, allowing conclusions to be reached that are truly general."

Shiffrin goes on to say: "The research, however, is not purely theoretical. The results in all these areas have been applied empirically with great success, in perception of simple stimuli at threshold, perception of complex visual stimuli above threshold (such as faces), in visual search, in short-term memory search, in cognitive tasks such as memory and decision making, and extending into the clinical domain (where the tests can be used to identify the underlying causes of mental problems and disease)."

F. Gregory Ashby, a former student of Townsend's who is now professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says of his mentor: "He has done more than anyone else to characterize and explain channel interactions;" and "he has told the field almost everything it knows about the concept of capacity." Ashby notes that Townsend has also made fundamental contributions in the area of pattern recognition: "From his early work on letter identification to his more recent work on face perception, Jim has been a leader in this important field."

In addition to the Anderson Award, Townsend has received numerous other honors: he was elected a fellow of the American Psychological Association in 2004 and a fellow of the American Psychological Society in 1998. He was named a senior scientist fellow by the Hanse Institute for Advanced Study for research at the Oldenburg Institute for Psychophysical Research in 2000-2001.

His publications include a standard reference in his field, The Stochastic Modeling of Elementary Psychological Processes, written with Ashby, and two books that he co-edited. In addition, he has jointly edited the Earlbaum book series titled "Scientific Psychology," authored approximately 30 book chapters, and published 57 lengthy technical articles. He has served as the editor of the Journal of Mathematical Psychology, as well as the associate and consulting editor of other journals. He has also been president of the Society for Mathematical Psychology twice, and he served for 10 years on the society's Executive Board.

Townsend has provided outstanding mentorship to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom have gone on to distinguished academic careers of their own in experimental psychology. His research funding has included grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Mental Health.

"Professor Townsend is deservedly recognized as the world's leader in the study of human cognitive architecture, a cardinal topic in the domain of cognitive science," says Richard Neufield at the University of Western Ontario. "His quantitative infrastructure has permeated experimental psychopathology, with applications to date to the study of autism, anxiety, and schizophrenia."

Calling Townsend "a distinguished psychologist," Gordon Logan of Vanderbilt University says, "Few people have accomplished as much and few have created such a body of work that has influenced their contemporaries and will influence generations to come."