Richard Held, professor emeritus of brain and cognitive sciences, dies at 94

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Richard Held, professor emeritus of brain and cognitive sciences, dies at 94

Longtime professor and former department head spent a lifetime investigating the mechanisms of visual perception

Richard M. Held, a professor emeritus and former head of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences who spent a lifetime investigating the mechanisms of visual perception, died at home of congestive heart failure on Nov. 21, 2016. He was 94.

As a faculty member and researcher at three institutions of higher education — Brandeis University, MIT, and the New England College of Optometry — Held pursued a lifelong interest in research on how the visual system develops and adapts, following the advice of Gestalt psychology founder and personal mentor Wolfgang Köhler to “make discoveries.”

Held was born in Manhattan, New York City, on Oct. 10, 1922, the only child of Lawrence W. Held, a shipping export broker, and Tess (Klein) Held, an artist who worked for a time in fashion design. He spent his childhood taking things apart — clocks, locks, and batteries — and then making things, including electric motors and crystal radios, and reading about Tom Swift, the boy inventor.

He served in the Navy in World War II, where he was a tactical radar officer on the USS Kadashan Bay and USS Saratoga in the Pacific, earning the rank of second lieutenant. Held was stationed at Eniwetok Atoll, ready for a planned ground invasion, when the war ended after the dropping of the atomic bomb. After the war, he became a lab assistant to Wolfgang Köhler, co-authoring with him a 1949 Science paper demonstrating that moving a bright object in front of a stationary observer produced a corresponding electrical field in the brain.

Held earned a master’s degree from Swarthmore College, a doctorate from Harvard University, and joined the faculty of Brandeis University in 1953, where he remained until 1962. There, he conducted with then-graduate student and future MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences faculty colleague Alan Hein what became his most famous experiment, demonstrating that, in the words of Held’s late French colleague Marc Jeannerod, “perception is constructed by action.” Their work showed the strong role of self-produced movement in visual development: In order to properly judge depth, and distinguish between objects, animals (including humans) need active interaction with the environment.

In 1962, Held moved to MIT to join then department head Hans-Lukas Teuber in the Department of Experimental Psychology. As the chair of what is now MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) from 1977 to 1986, Held mentored several generations of graduate students, and oversaw the department's growth into one of the premiere neuroscience and cognitive science institutions. He was named professor emeritus in 1993.

In 2003, he joined the MIT laboratory of Pawan Sinha, a professor of vision and computational neuroscience, and became a collaborator in Project Prakash, a non-profit founded by Sinha that restores the sight of congenitally blind children in India and researches their subsequent development of vision. In a paper published in 2011 in Nature Neuroscience titled “The newly sighted fail to match seen with felt,” Held and Sinha reported that newly-sighted subjects who sensed objects with their hands could not identify them by sight — at least at first. However, after a week with sight, their abilities rapidly improved. The findings, which answered a question first posed in 1688, forced a reconsideration of the conventional view that if children lack sight in early childhood, they will never be able to make visual sense of the world. The rapidity of improvement suggested that the visual system is, in some sense, pre-wired, but relies importantly on the feedback between sight and touch that is gained by experience.

"Dick made a remarkable set of contributions to vision science, all with a deep appreciation for the history of which he was part," says Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. "I had learned about Dick’s work as an undergraduate in Montreal in 1972, and it was a privilege to have been his colleague. He will be missed, but remembered."

Scientific research was a source of pleasure to Held until the end of his life, and he maintained close contact with his colleagues, attending meetings of Sinha’s laboratory until six months before his death. His final paper of more than 200, in which he was a senior author with Sinha as lead author, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences when he was 92 years old — a testament to his unending devotion to research. He died with an open copy of Science News next to his computer keyboard.

Held was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded three honorary doctorates, including one from the Free University of Brussels presented by King Baudouin, and received multiple professional awards including the Galileo Award of the American Foundation for Vision Awareness, the Kenneth Craik Award from Cambridge University, the Howard Crosby Warren Medal from the Society of Experimental Psychologists, and the Glenn A. Fry Award from the American Academy of Optometry.

Held led an active life, commuting by bicycle to MIT in the 1960s and 1970s at a time when that was rare, and was an avid tennis player into his 60s at the Cambridge Tennis Club. With his wife, he was an enthusiastic member of the Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association, which met monthly to read the works of the Bard aloud. Over the past decade-and-a-half, he was an active member of a memoir-writing group led by Clark C. Abt, the founder of a policy research firm, where his autobiographical sketches revealed a wry sense of humor in finely-crafted prose.

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Doris Bernays Held, a retired psychotherapist; three children, Lucas Held of New Haven, Connecticut, Julia Held of Westhampton, Massachusetts, and Andrew Held of Northampton, Massachusetts; and two grandchildren. In June, he and Doris moved to Northampton to be close to their daughter Julia and her family.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Project Prakash.

Text adapted from original. Read the obituary in full.