2015 Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award Winner: Dr. Daphne Maurer
Daphne Maurer received her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and has been at McMaster University since 1973. She is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Canada and the Association for Psychological Science, and she has been awarded the title "Distinguished University Professor" by McMaster. Throughout her career she has studied how perception develops and matures, concentrating on the visual system and beginning at birth. Her work has reshaped our understanding of the infant's sensory world and its development, and has improved clinical care.
Daphne began with the basics: how newborn and older babies move their eyes across a scene and what elements of a scene they see. She measured vision from minutes after birth, establishing not only that newborns can see but that they have some rudimentary colour vision and a preference that pulls them toward faces. From there she went onto measure developmental changes in sensitivity to contrast, orientation, form, motion, emotional expressions, facial identity, and information in the periphery. She is currently examining how children integrate visual, auditory and tactile information into unified percepts, both in typical children and those identified as synaesthetes.
In the 1980s Daphne started a parallel line of research at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. Each year ophthalmologists there operate on a small number of babies who are born with dense cataracts in one or both eyes. For 20 years Daphne tested these babies soon after the cataracts were removed, and she has since followed them into adulthood. This has been the first and only long-term study of the effects of early visual deprivation on human beings. Its uniqueness and clinical significance were recognized by the United States' National Institutes of Health, which made the unusual decision to fund the project for 14 years although the research was done in Canada.
The results of this research have been profound. Daphne learned that abnormal vision early in life harms not just low-level functioning like acuity and binocular vision but also cortical processing that affects the perception of motion and the perception of complex forms like faces. In consequence of this, surgery for congenital cataracts is no longer delayed for months or years until convenient, it is done as soon after birth as possible.
This research also showed that normal development of the visual cortex does not stop at age five, as used to be thought, but extends well into adolescence. A clinical implication is that cortical disfunction may be treatable later in life than used to be thought possible. To test this, Daphne proposed to the James S. McDonnell Foundation a research programme comparing cortical plasticity in adult humans and animals, with the goals of finding a treatment for the most common cortical visual problem of adults: amblyopia (lazy-eye). This resulted in the establishment for five years of an international team of scientists, led by Daphne and funded by a US$2.5M grant. They succeeded in documenting an effective adult treatment.
In all of her work Daphne has shown how developmental changes in perception are linked to developmental changes in the brain. For this reason her experimental methods and stimuli have been adopted by researchers around the world who are investigating the effects on perception of autism spectrum disorder, Williams Syndrome, congenital deafness, brain lesions, premature birth, prenatal exposure to lead, and normal aging. Moreover, although much of her research has been inspired by animal models, it has inspired animal research in turn.
Outside the lab Daphne radically altered most notions of the baby's perceptual world with The World of the Newborn. This book deduces from experimental evidence the perceptual, cognitive, and emotional world of the newborn, and derives implications for optimal child rearing. It won the American Psychological Association's book award and has been translated into five languages.
Administratively Daphne has contributed to Canadian science by serving not just on scientific advisory panels but also on committees defining and implementing ethical policies for research involving human subjects, at the national level as well as at McMaster.