Dr. Meredyth Daneman and the Span of Memory (plus a note from the road)

PicDaneman_ HEAD

Dr. Meredyth Daneman took a paradigm and struck gold in a publication that might be well considered her first attempt at academic publishing.

Moreover, she didn’t plan on being in the United States, much less Pittsburgh for a Psychology doctorate. She didn’t plan on working with Dr. Patricia Carpenter in graduate school. She didn’t necessarily plan a lot of the things that ended up as the cornerstones of her impressive career.

What she did, and brilliantly at that, was to see where she was, to understand and integrate the ideas, resources, and supports available, to embrace those moments. She may not have always planned on where she was headed, but each time  she found a way through to a newly adopted, creatively mounted outcome.

Here, Dr. Daneman introduces herself:

Dr. Daneman’s early life was shaped by her childhood, growing up in South Africa. Apartheid-gripped South Africa. When she recalled her early experiences and influences, there was a clear shadow of those policies on her life and activities. This influence manifest itself in several ways, and the following excerpt from our conversation addresses that. She describes a travel abroad experience as a young woman to the United States.

How the young Meredyth was perceived and welcomed as a Caucasian student from South Africa and how she was treated because of her family’s political leanings and this activity is chronicled in this story:

It’s such a broad range of things that she feels and addressed in this excerpt. In the United States she was seeking an opportunity for a different experience and one that would be racially integrated and progressive, especially relative to the climate of South Africa at that time. She experienced how the South African policies altered the perception of her among the Cincinnati students. When she returned home from that experience, she experienced how a paranoid political climate paired with her time abroad, made her family a target of some concern.

This difficult political environment made for good motivation to leave South Africa and develop a life in a new country. Through some happenstance and opportunity for her husband’s training, they came to Toronto. She describes how she got involved in Psychology at that time for graduate school.

It’s kind of a beautiful bit of opportunity, serendipity, and chaos! Those of you with children will recall the loss of sleep and high levels of strain associated with the early days of parenting. Here, young Meredyth was excited by the ideas of a graduate program in Psychology, and was motivated to make this happen. She made this so while acting as the primary caregiver to her two young children (as her husband was in Toronto working on his medical training). Add that this young family was in a new country without any major family ties. No dropping the kids off at a grandparent, or pulling in an auntie to help out. It’s a lot to contemplate and it is intrepid.

In her telling, this is just what Dr. Daneman did and sounds natural and smooth. In the doing, I can only imagine that there was considerable challenge. Nonetheless, she completes her masters and heads to Carnegie Mellon University for her doctorate. While originally assigned to a different mentor, she quickly found common interest and excitement in working with Dr. Patricia Carpenter.

Dr. Carpenter had been working on issues in cognition, namely reading and word processing. She offered a course in which students were to complete a research project and write that up for credit. At this time, Dr. Carpenter had not been working with individual differences — and really wasn’t particularly keen to do so. Meredyth made a fantastic intellectual leap: she saw the connection of the current research in her studies to that which she had studied during her masters. Concepts such as m-space, working memory, and digit-span could be applied to adults and used to evaluate reading. These could be predictive at an individual level. I can’t stress  this enough — Meredyth put all this together and ran her initial research on the topic as a student for a courseWith the encourage of her mentor, she wrote all this up and sent it off for review.

Here she describes that initial reaction to the the individual differences in working memory paper and its journey to publication:

I’m quite chuffed about this story!

Lots to consider from her description. First, the response of the editor: he loved the paper and nearly didn’t send it out for review, only to have it rejected! Then, it gets rejected, but Daneman and Carpenter rework  ideas and add some research, and submit a new version of the paper, and it gets accepted! As she notes, that Daneman and Carpenter (1980) integrating working  memory, individual differences, and how that predicts reading really put her on the map! It has been cited more than 7000 times and is a classic in Cognitive Psychology. It defined a new and powerful task (reading span) which, predictably, is a topic that now boasts thousands of research studies. And it defined the space for using individual differences to explore a critical aspect of cognitive processing.

It was a phenomenal first article for, then, graduate student Daneman, who went on to define her career in reading and individual differences. She added to her specializations extended discourse processing, reading fixation with gaze-tracking, cognitive aging, and several other fascinating sub-topics.

There’s lots more to tell, but for the moment a bit more on that first article and, specifically the stimuli. So where did she get the stimuli for the reading-span task? She describes them here:

Like much in her career, there is an element of integrating from the existing resources in a brilliant and effective manner. In this case, using a bit of Grahame Greene an eye with a focus on some specific constraints.  Again,  lots more to tell, but I’ll save that for the book!

Here are some excellent articles from the career of Dr. Daneman:

Daneman, M. (1991). Individual differences in reading skills. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 2, pp. 512-538). Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and readingJournal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior19(4), 450-466.

Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1983). Individual differences in integrating information between and within sentences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition9(4), 561-584.

Daneman, M. (1991). Working memory as a predictor of verbal fluencyJournal of Psycholinguistic Research20(6), 445-464.

Daneman, M. (1988). How reading braille is both like and unlike reading printMemory & Cognition16(6), 497-504.

Daneman, M., & Blennerhassett, A. (1984). How to assess the listening comprehension skills of prereadersJournal of Educational Psychology76(6), 1372-81.

Daneman, M., & Green, I. (1986). Individual differences in comprehending and producing words in contextJournal of Memory and Language25(1), 1-28.

Daneman, M., & Hannon, B. (2001). Using working memory theory to investigate the construct validity of multiple-choice reading comprehension tests such as the SATJournal of Experimental Psychology: General130(2), 208.

Daneman, M., & Merikle, P. M. (1996). Working memory and language comprehension: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review3(4), 422-433.

Daneman, M., Reingold, E. M., & Davidson, M. (1995). Time course of phonological activation during reading: Evidence from eye fixationsJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition21(4), 884.

Daneman, M., & Stainton, M. (1991). Phonological recoding in silent readingJournal of experimental psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition17(4), 618-632.

Gordon, M. S., Daneman, M., & Schneider, B. A. (2009). Comprehension of speeded discourse by younger and older listeners. Experimental Aging Research35(3), 277-296.

Hannon, B., & Daneman, M. (2009). Age-related changes in reading comprehension: an individual-differences perspectiveExperimental Aging Research35(4), 432-456.

(Note: Image of Dr. Daneman in her office at University of Toronto, Mississauga (UTM) in the CCT building. )

(Fun fact, when the CCT building at UTM was built, yours truly was the very first person to move into it — before the air conditioning was turned on and while most of the furniture had yet to be distributed. It wasn’t because I was special or as a manner of privilege, quite the opposite! I was a post-doc at the time whose office was the back floor of a lab space, with no chair and a box for a computer desk. AC or heat, I was ready for a real chair).

**Quick side note from the road: One of the planned strategies to continue to live a normal life despite being in a constant state of travel has been the renting of houses and apartments at each place we stay (instead of living in an RV or staying in hotel rooms).  Doing so allows us to cook our own meals, have separate bedrooms for our teenager and ourselves, and to feel like we are living a normal life. In Toronto my partner found this incredible house in the downtown area — a beautiful property rented from a couple that clearly loves and maintains the residence and only rent it out while they are on one of many trips out of town shooting movies.

The weirdness is that I realized I am now living in a Talking Heads song. I DID find myself living in a beautiful house! With a beautiful wife! I found myself “behind the wheel of a large automobile” (after years of driving small cars, we bought an enormous station wagon for this trip). And I’ve often said to myself along this trip, “Well, how did I get here?” Often followed by “My God, what have I done!”


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