Biography of Michael Tanenhaus

Michael Tanenhaus

The recipient of the eighteenth David E. Rumelhart Prize is Michael Tanenhaus, who over the course of 40 years gradually transformed our understanding of human language and its relation to perception, action and communication. Tanenhaus is the Beverly Petterson Bishop and Charles W. Bishop Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. Tanenhaus also has a limited appointment as Chair Professor in the School of Psychology at Nanjing Normal University. He was a founding member and served as Director of the Center for Language Sciences and the PI for center’s NIH-supported interdisciplinary training program for twenty years. He received an undergraduate degree in Speech and Hearing Science from University of Iowa and PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Columbia.

Through ingenious theory development, experimentation, and computational modeling, Tanenhaus has shown that language comprehension is goal-directed and highly interactive. As we hear a sentence unfold, our interpretation at each level–phonological, lexical, syntactic and semantic–is affected by our higher level knowledge (such as our goals and understanding of the situation) and by fine-grained information from perception that has been passed up the processing chain. His work on language both informs and is informed by other aspects of cognition, including visual and auditory perception, attention, representation, and social-pragmatic interaction. Throughout his career he has engaged in a two-way dialog with formal and computational linguistics – through work on lexicalized grammars, phonemic encoding, prosody and, most recently, pragmatics.

Tanenhaus’ work is characterized by closely linked experimental and theoretical advances. He is best known as the creator of the visual world paradigm: a means of studying spoken language comprehension by measuring how it shapes visual attention. The development of this paradigm was rooted in Tanenhaus’ theoretical vision of cognition: only in a highly interactive system would we expect eye-movements to incrementally reflect language. This method has, in turn, provided some of the clearest evidence for his theoretical claims. Due to its simplicity, the visual world paradigm has been rapidly adopted for studying children and special, allowing researchers to ask how language processing changes across development or breaks down in developmental disorders.

The breadth of Tanenhaus’ thinking, combined with his uncanny experimental skills, have inspired a new generation of researchers to take a fresh look at what it means to communicate. His impact has been amplified by his former students who have taken his insights and applied them to new questions at psychology, linguistics and cognitive science departments around the world.

Selected Publications

Grodner, D. J., Klein, N. M., Carbary, K. M., & Tanenhaus, M. K. (2010). “Some,” and possibly all, scalar inferences are not delayed: Evidence for immediate pragmatic enrichment. Cognition, 116(1), 42-55.

Tanenhaus, M.K. & Brown-Schmidt, S. (2008). Language processing in the natural world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363, 1105-1122.

Clayards, M.A., Tanenhaus, M.K., Aslin, R.N. & Jacobs, R.A. (2008). Perception of speech reflects optimal use of probabilistic speech cues. Cognition, 108, 804-809.

McMurray, B., Tanenhaus, M.K. & Aslin, R.N. (2002). Gradient effects of within-category phonetic variation on lexical access. Cognition, 86, B33-42.

Sedivy, J.E., Tanenhaus, M.K., Chambers, C.G. & Carlson, G.N. (1999). Achieving incremental interpretation through contextual representation: Evidence from the processing of adjectives. Cognition, 71, 109-147.

McRae, K., Spivey-Knowlton, M.J. & Tanenhaus, M.K. (1998). Modeling thematic fit (and other constraints) within an integration competition framework. Journal of Memory and Language 38, 283-312.

Allopenna, P. D, Magnuson, J.S. & Tanenhaus, M.K. (1998). Tracking the time course of spoken word recognition: evidence for continuous mapping models. Journal of Memory and Language, 38, 419-439.

Tanenhaus, M.K., Spivey-Knowlton, M.J., Eberhard, K.M., & Sedivy, J.C. (1995). Integration of visual and linguistic information during spoken language comprehension. Science, 268, 1632-1634.

Trueswell, J.C., Tanenhaus, M.K., & Garnsey, S.M. (1994). Semantic influences on parsing. Use of thematic role information in syntactic ambiguity resolution. Journal of Memory and Language 33(3), 285.

Tanenhaus, M.K., Leiman, J.M. & Seidenberg, M.S. (1979). Evidence for multiple stages in the processing of ambiguous words in syntactic contexts. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 427-441.