2021 Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award Winner: Dr. Derek Besner

Derek Besner was born in 1948 in Montréal. He spent his early years in Rio de Janeiro, attended boarding school in Connecticut, and did two years at the University of Miami where he spent most his time at the dog track, the poker table, learning to play Jai Alai, playing pool and bowling with his own personalized ball. He also managed to fit in a few classes here and there.

He finished his undergraduate degree at Loyola College (now part of Concordia University) in Montréal, and an MSc at Memorial University in Newfoundland. From there, he moved to England and completed a PhD at Reading University.  Derek was hired on faculty at Reading before finishing his doctorate, then returned to Canada for a 5-year postdoc under the auspices of NSERC. He was eventually hired and promoted early to Full Professor at the University of Waterloo, where he remained until retiring after 37 years. Shortly thereafter he was awarded the title of Distinguished Professor Emeritus.

Derek has always been passionate about research, spending considerable time and energy with his many graduate students. His doctoral students have gone on to careers in academia, industry, and government (including NASA in the USA), and also in one  case to a career as a school psychologist and in another as a psychotherapist.  Derek also served on the NSERC Grants review committee in the 90’s, was on the Editorial Board of Psychological Review and the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, and reviewed many hundreds of papers for other journals.

Derek always seemed to be in full battle mode, running against the received views on many issues. His brashness did not endear him to everyone, but there was another side to him that close colleagues and particularly his graduate students saw and valued. He was also prolific, with over 12,000 citations and an “h” of 60 according to Google Scholar. He is the pre-eminent authority on visual word recognition processes in Canada, and is well recognized for this work internationally. He received the University of Waterloo Research in Arts award in 2017, and still collaborates with former students, colleagues in England and Australia, and with his doppelganger (the other DB) in the US.

His research interests have been both broad and deep within the general domain of basic processes in reading by intact readers and those with an acquired or developmental reading disorder, and were prompted by his own (luckily mild) developmental dyslexia. His research interests also spanned various orthographies (Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, Persian, and Turkish). He published five papers in Psychological Review, and has always been a proud Canadian, evidenced by his having published more papers than any living author in CJEP (formerly CJP).

Derek’s research has spanned a dozen other phenomena; all of his work yielded ground-breaking results forcing revisions to the major accounts. A few of these strands provide a flavour of his approach to science, which has been strongly Popperian.

In one strand, he published several papers in the 80’s that overturned the received account of the relation between articulatory suppression and phonology in reading and memory. A subsequent paper reviewed results that ensued over the next 30 years; this paper provides the most comprehensive account to date.

The advent of the parallel distributed approaches to cognition started to dominate the field in the late 80’s. Derek attacked this approach immediately with papers in Psychological Review and elsewhere. In these papers, he used the models to generate new simulation data to buttress his points. He was also an equal opportunity critic in attacking the leading localist model, again generating new simulations from the implemented model, despite the senior author of the paper on that model being Max Coltheart, Derek’s former supervisor, long-time collaborator, and friend. These attacks had no impact on their relationship, which speaks to the centrality of the search for truth in both of them.

Additionally, Derek published several papers on spatial attention; one of these showed that a spatial attention manipulation eliminated the semantic Stroop effect, undermining the widely accepted “automatic” processing account.  

Finally, he spent over 30 years thinking, off and on, about a central phenomenon that seemed incompatible with the received idea of “re-entrant” processing (interactive-activation). His experimental and computational work showed that the leading computational accounts are, to date, unable to simulate these data. Another Psychological Review paper outlined a new hypothesis along with new supporting evidence.

These are highlights of Derek’s oeuvre but do not exhaust them. Derek would be the first to acknowledge that this work did not take place in a vacuum, but emerged through collaborations with many talented graduate students as well as faculty at University of Waterloo and various universities in England, Australia, and the USA.