Neal Elgar Miller
It is with sadness and a sense of significant loss to science in general, and to psychology and neuroscience in particular, that we note the death of Neal Elgar Miller on March 23, 2002.
Neal Miller was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1909. His father was a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington State College. Neal received a B.S. degree from the University of Washington (1931), an M.S. from Stanford University (1932), and a Ph.D. degree in Psychology from Yale University (1935). He was a Social Science Research Council Fellow at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute for one year (1935-36) before returning to Yale as a faculty member in 1936. He spent 30 years at Yale University (1936-1966), where he became the James Rowland Angell Professor of Psychology in 1952, and 15 more years at Rockefeller University (1966-1981) before becoming Professor Emeritus at Rockefeller in 1981 and Research Affiliate at Yale in 1985.
Miller was a celebrated scientific investigator for decades; he certainly is among the most accomplished behavioral neuroscientists of the 20th century. He began his scientific career with an investigation of Freudian theory and clinical phenomena using experimental analysis of behavior techniques. He asked how the Freudian phenomena could be understood in terms of the basic laws of learning and behavior as they were known in the 1940s, work that led to new perspectives on personality and social learning and two, still influential books with John Dollard, Social Learning and Imitation (1941), and Personality and Psychotherapy (1950). When his empirical investigations showed him that fear can be acquired—that is, that it can function as a learnable drive—Miller proceeded to ask about other, homeostatic drives such as hunger and thirst: can these also be learned? And whereas his colleagues were reluctant to use invasive techniques, Miller's search for understanding motivations and drives took him inside the organism: to electrical and chemical brain stimulation and recording, and to the adoption of neurophysiological techniques in the analysis of learning and behavior. His willingness to use the tools of the physiologist, along with powerful behavioral methodologies constructed within the domain of psychological theorizing, formed the basis of what today is known as behavioral neuroscience. The Miller laboratory also demonstrated that reinforcement cannot be understood only as drive reduction; he showed, for example, that rats will work for brain stimulation that makes it behave as if it is hungry. This work not only demonstrated the chemical coding of behavior; it fundamentally changed our view of how behavior is motivated. Eventually, Miller's practice of reaching across the disciplines of psychology, physiology, pharmacology, immunology, and public health, led to the development of the field of behavioral medicine and health psychology, in which he played pioneering and pivotal roles.
Neal Miller was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1958 and as Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1961. Throughout his career, his scientific achievements have been recognized in numerous prestigious awards, most notably the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor given in the U.S., which he received from President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He received the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1959, the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal Award in 1975, and the APA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. He was a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors at three separate institutes of the NIH, Chair of the NAS/NRC committee on brain sciences that led to the formation of the Society for Neuroscience, and President of the APA (1960-61) and of the Society for Neuroscience (1971-72). Throughout his career, Miller was a passionate advocate for the importance of animals in psychological research. In the Fall of 1993, the Board of Scientific Affairs of the APA voted to honor Professor Miller by establishing the Annual Neal Miller Distinguished Lecture at the APA Convention, a lecture that would be dedicated to neuroscience and animal research. Professor Miller delivered the first address at the 1994 APA Convention.
Professor Miller was a teacher who guided more than 200 students in the study of psychology. He, who taught well, was himself a lifetime learner. And he argued that what was important in the preparation of a lifetime of continued learning to be able to be the cutting edge scientist and pioneer, like he was was an understanding of the scientific method and how to judge the quality of research. He suggested that students learn this by being asked to read articles that contain the kinds of errors commonly found in science, such as selection errors, regression to the mean, halo and placebo effects, the effects of motivation and expectations on perceptions that lead to scoring errors, and the need for "blind" procedures and the importance of using a variety of dependent measures. He suggested that students should learn, via case studies, how "blind alleys" can be entered, discovered, and abandoned; how unexpected or accidental findings can lead to radical new advances; how commonly accepted explanations can sometimes be turned upside down; how in a new and little understood area, unsuspected confounding factors can cause different experiments to produce apparently contradictory results; how controversies are ultimately resolved."
But Neal Miller did more than lecture about the scientific method. Between 1966 and 1974, there were twenty published studies from the Miller laboratory demonstrating visceral learning using an acute curarized rat preparation: rapid and robust instrumental conditioning of heart rate, colon and gastric motility, gastric blood flow, arterial blood pressure, urine output, uterine contractions, and localized peripheral vasomotor contractions. The work that he described was the outcome of a long held debate among learning theorists about whether there are two fundamentally different mechanisms of learning, one for instrumental conditioning, involving largely the skeletal system, and one for Pavlovian conditioning, involving largely the autonomic system. What Neal Miller and his laboratory cohorts were showing suggested that many behaviors controlled by the autonomic nervous system were modifiable by instrumental conditioning, thereby offering evidence against the dual process model.
Although there were reports from other laboratories of the same effect that is, of the instrumental conditioning of visceral responses in the early 1970s, the Miller laboratory repeatedly acknowledged in a series of papers that "an effort to replicate the visceral learning experiments was underway and that significant difficulties were being encountered." The systematic attempt to replicate the effects was virtually as impressive as the original reports: 2,040 rats were run through experiments usually involving from 2-5 subjects, each designed to identify the variables that had been critical in learning. At the end of this exhaustive investigation, Miller concluded that "visceral learning remains an open question."
Surely, there are few comparable examples of a scientist as courageously committed to the methods of his discipline. Faced with the most threatening of all events for a scientist, that a long sequence of experiments with considerable theoretical and practical import did not bear replication, Neal Miller used the most powerful tool available to examine the threat and when the weight of the evidence was contrary to the initial findings, he never shrank from describing to his community each step of discovery and failure and rediscovery that he took along the way. In the end, he showed that science will find a way to the truth if we let the method speak for us, and if we have sufficient faith in the endeavor to know that all steps are steps forward, even those that appear not to be. This may be one of Neal Miller's most enduring legacies to the psychological science which so occupied his life and to which he contributed so much.