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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Filling in the Gaps: Naomi Weisstein’s Active Brains and Activist Life.

For the last thirty-two years of her life, Naomi Weisstein (1939-2015), the mercurial spirit who was simultaneously a cognitive scientist, rock star, psychological critic, and women’s liberation pioneer, whose mind leapt so easily between disparate disciplines, and whose body seemed to contain boundless reserves of energy and will, lay bed-bound, a victim of a disease that, when she contracted it, had neither diagnosis nor prognosis, but that in one stroke severed her from the majority of the work by which she had defined herself for two decades.

Her parents were New York socialists who placed themselves somewhere on the Menshevik to Bolshevik spectrum of leftist thought, and Weisstein absorbed their political commitments, setting herself on a scientific trajectory from an early age, invigorated by Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, the 1926 book about the first generations of germ researchers that also inspired both Mary Maynard Daly (the first black woman chemist in the United States) and Gertrude Elion (the Nobel laureate who redefined how medicinal research is done) into scientific careers. She was the star pupil in all of her classes throughout elementary school and junior high, and attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, which had only begun admitting girls in the 1940s, and which has the distinction of being the world’s leading secondary school in the production of Nobel laureates.

In these years, she leaned into her studies, and looked forward to a college environment that would allow her to focus on her work and not on performing to the expectations of campus fraternity culture, ultimately selecting Wellesley, which only just last year began accepting male applicants. She throve in the all-woman atmosphere, and earned admission to Harvard for her graduate studies, where she encountered the overt sexism of her male classmates, and characteristically met it head on, gathering friends to provocatively dance outside the windows of a university library that refused to let her study in it because her presence would be too distracting, and organizing a blacklist of campus males whose behavior had placed them beyond the pall of dating consideration for Naomi and her circle.

In 1964, Weisstein received her PhD (though she had to do much of the research for her dissertation at Yale because she was banned from using necessary equipment by the department’s male professors for fear that she would break it), and the following year married the historian Jesse Lemisch, who was to be a supportive companion of her superstar years, and a steadfast caretaker through her years of struggle. Moving to Chicago, where Lemisch was a professor of history, Weisstein initially was led to believe that she would receive an instructorship at the University of Chicago, but ultimately, due to nepotism laws, had to settle for a non-faculty position as a lecturer.

Weisstein, though popular with the students at the University of Chicago, was something of a target to the psychology department, which tried to fire her, and when the college prevented them from doing so, kept her on at a low salary, such that when Loyola University offered to take her on, she was more than willing to make the switch, thereby beginning a period of almost unfathomable creativity across multiple fields. In 1968, she published “Psychology Constructs the Female,” which still ranks as a central text of second wave Feminism and of feminist psychology. The article doesn’t so much say new things - her expressed skepticism about psychological standardized testing, as we have seen, was already present in the work of Jessie Taft and Nancy Bayley half a century previously, and her culminating statement of the importance of socio-economic expectations over biological factors in the development of gendered behavior patterns had been laid out by Helen Woolley, Margaret Mead, and Karen Horney in the early twentieth century, and in fact stretches back through the ideas of John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft- but in how well tuned this constellation of ideas was to the spirit of the time. The idea that the unconscious expectations of male psychologists as filtered through their clinical observations and test designs, when combined with the overt pressures for women to conform to certain social roles, have created a picture of women’s behavior and psychological capacities that aspires to monolithic universality while in actuality only being an expression of one historically-determined possibility, was an empowering one to the emerging Women’s Liberation Movement as it charted the course of feminism’s great second wave.

Chicago was one of the epicenters of Women’s Liberation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and here Weisstein took a pioneering and often punishing role as an organizer of feminist institutions, including the establishment in 1969 of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, and the creation of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band, which Weisstein led from 1970 to its dissolution in 1973. She was a popular lecturer on feminist topics, so popular in fact that she was asked to stop lecturing in compliance with the egalitarian spirit of the movement that all should have equal access to opportunities (an egalitarian spirit Weisstein had also to directly grapple with when deciding whether to keep spirited members of the Band who couldn’t sing or play an instrument, and thereby sacrifice the quality of the music and therefore the dissemination of its message, or drum them out to produce better records and live performances).

Photo by Virginia Blaisdell

These were also the years of Weisstein’s great studies in visual processing, which is what I want most to talk about, because it’s the thing most biographical accounts of Weisstein gloss over with a couple of sentences vaguely saying that the work was “important” without saying what it actually was. One of her first great results was contained in the paper “Neural Symbolic Activity: A Psychophysical Measure” (1970), which described what happens when subjects look at a field of vertical black and white stripes which has the figure of a cube placed in the foreground, obscuring part of the field. Previously, studies of visual perception had focused on the initial stimulus and how it is received. Weisstein’s study moved that process a step ahead, looking at what higher-order activities the brain might be engaging in while it is recognizing the pattern in front of it. She found that subjects reported a change in contrast of the figure that they were looking at that was precisely consistent with what would happen if their brains had, behind the scenes as it were, recreated the parts of the stripe pattern that were obscured behind the image of the cube. It was an interesting result which suggested that the brain doesn’t just passively accept the objects it sees, but actively engages with them.

She continued this line of thinking in her landmark “Visual Detection of Line Segments: An Object-Superiority Effect” (1974) which found that individuals were much better at identifying which of four slanted lines they had been shown for a fraction of a second when that line completed an object that was recognizably a three-dimensional shape, and that our ability for line identification plummets precipitously as the object it is a part of loses its three dimensional appearing structure. In short, we have something in us that seizes upon objects as a whole, and devours them that way, which we can harness to identify specific parts in a way that is more effective than simply being presented by those parts on their own. Visual data isn’t a single packet of information passed on down the line, but is a matter of different layers of processing all moving along at once, making this paper an important part of the visual theory of “parallel processing” which holds that the brain has separate tracks for analyzing the shape, color, motion, and depth of the visual data it is receiving, which combine to form our understanding of the object we are observing.

One of the last scientific papers Weisstein published was “A New Perceptual Context-Superiority Effect: Line Segments Are More Visible Against a Figure than Against a Ground” (1982) which continued her visual processing research, employing the famous face-vase optical illusion (“Do you see a vase or two faces?”). Subjects were asked to stare at a fixed point, and to alternately consider either the faces as the main figure or the vase as the main figure, and were then shown a flash of a diagonal line segment and asked to identify which segment they saw. Performance, as it turned out, was dramatically better when the segment was part of the illusion that the subjects were considering as the main figure, than when it was part of the “background,” again suggesting that there is some extra level of processing to our visual experience which assigns extra processing to unitary figures than it does to whatever has been consigned to background status.

Photo by Virginia Blaisdell

When this article was published, Weisstein had already been struggling for two years with a precipitous downturn in her health. In March of 1980, she experienced an episode of sudden and total weakness while trying to climb a set of stairs, and within a year she was compelled to use a wheelchair as her primary means of locomotion, and by 1983 she was almost completely bed-ridden, even the slightest action or stimulus utterly exhausting her. The disease that had so suddenly and completely changed the direction of her life was myalgic encephalomyelitis, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which had only first been described in the 1930s, and wouldn’t receive its full diagnostic description until 1987, after outbreaks in Nevada and New York directed the attention of the medical community towards what had hitherto been considered a condition too mysterious and rare to devote too many resources towards (in the 1970s a rash of cases in London were deemed the result of “mass hysteria” so little was the condition believed to be grounded in biological reality).

For the remaining 32 years of her life, Weisstein was carefully attended to by her husband, who would read to her the day’s news every morning, and oversaw the limited contact with old friends and colleagues that her condition would allow her, while taking down notes for articles and memoirs that she dictated when she had the strength to do so. As if fate had not dealt her a cruel enough hand already, Weisstein was also diagnosed with ovarian cancer some two and a half decades into her bout with CFS, which ultimately claimed her life in 2015.

Her husband survived her by three years.

FURTHER READING: In 2020, Martin Duberman edited a collection of Naomi Weisstein’s essays that is readily available, and contains a nice selection of her articles from the early days of Women’s Liberation, and some of her reflections on her career, and the direction of modern feminism, but not so much on her scientific findings. If you are a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, you can access the articles I mentioned above for free, but if not they’re something on the order of $30 a piece to look at a digital copy, because nothing advances AAAS’s goal of progressing general scientific literacy like restrictive pay walls on half-century old papers. Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines (2004) is a bit harder to find but contains a good fifteen pages or so of autobiographical content written by Weisstein. The Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band’s album, Papa Don’t Lay that Shit On Me, was released in cd format in 2005, and is available for download on whatever your favorite streaming service might be.

And if you want to read about more great women in the history of psychology and neuroscience, keep your eyes peeled for my History of Women in Psychology and Neuroscience, which is coming in the Spring of 2024 from Pen and Sword books!


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