The Levels of Dr. Fergus I. M. Craik

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Dr. Fergus I. M. Craik is one of the most cited and influential figures in the study of memory. In talking to him and thinking about his work, one might be compelled to ask a silly hypothetical: what would have become of him had he been born in North America instead of Scotland?

Of course, so many parts of his life would be different that the question is utterly ridiculous. Maybe he would have still become a renowned psychologist, maybe not.  Maybe he  would have studied memory, aging, attention, and perception, or maybe he would have gone into advertising (actually,  he nearly did go into advertising anyway…but we’ll get there later). Maybe, maybe, maybe about a million different variables that could have impacted his life, but didn’t. Despite the ridiculousness of this line of thought, one might note the particular difference of emphasis in his undergraduate and doctoral studies as experienced from professors with whom he worked in Great Britain relative to what would have been emphasized in the United States at that time (or the USSR, for that matter).

That regional difference produced an important historical context:   the dominant approach in the United States during the 1950’s-70’s was behaviorism — and Skinnerianism at that —  relative to a more cognitive approach popular in Edinburgh, Liverpool, and London (the major regions of Dr. Craik’s early training and professional involvement with Psychology). At that time in the UK  there was an emphasis on issues that included and even encouraged speculation on the qualities of thought, cognitive processes, and the mind. And maybe that emphasis made all the difference in the development of a tremendous career. So, let’s get to that career  and the words of Dr. Craik.

To start, here Dr.  Craik introduces himself:

So who was young Fergus? He enjoyed physics and biology while a George Watson College student in Edinburgh, Scotland, but with a few notable side interests in model building and short-wave (ham) radios.  This latter interest would have required his collection of electronics parts and figuring out the engineering of the radio to enable an effective receiver. The goal would be to receive a signal from the farthest broadcast possible, then one would write a letter in follow-up to that person, and get a reply letter confirming one’s success, and, presumably, so that one might show off that evidence confirming one’s success!   He also had a talent  at rifle shooting and helped to lead his cohort of Watsonians in regional competitions of this sport.

He describes some of those early activities in the following excerpt from our conversation:

I know– what I am doing? Here is Dr. Fergus Craik, one of the architects of the major approaches to memory research. What difference does it make if he successfully received a short-wave signal from Australia as a teenager or was able to excel at hitting targets with a rifle? How does this elucidate his intellectual leaps as a scientist or motivate his approach to paradigms and theories? Can’t you just jump to the juicy parts?

Maybe nothing, maybe everything.

Maybe the teen who has the patience and perseverance to collect the electronic parts from hobby stores to build a device, and to spend nights in virtual solitude for a few glimpses of discovery of long distance radio signals has a certain disposition. Maybe the young man who rose to prominence at riflery has a certain patience,  plus an ability to steady his body and control his breath so precisely for success and that this is not an artifact but a central trait of this person. Maybe these are the qualities that manifest into a scientist that would put together, piece by piece, a major 10-experiment tour-de-force in support of his key ideas (i.e., Craik & Tulving, 1975 in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General). Maybe the person who reaches out for glimpses of ham radio broadcasts near and far is exactly the person attuned to the growing context and need for a more qualitative and evaluative approach to cognitive understanding (e.g., Craik & Lockhart, 1972). Maybe the person that Dr. Craik was, and the activities with which he engaged created the right context for the person he became and the success he achieved. Maybe. I think it’s interesting and maybe you will too.

But let’s get to the juicy stuff. Young Fergus did his doctoral work at the University of Liverpool and in association the Medical Research Council (MRC) associated with it. It is 1960 and he’s in a position to figure out what to do with himself and his newly minted degree in Psychology from the University of Edinburgh.

Here Dr. Craik describes the process in which he decides to take an MRC position and the associated doctoral work at the University of Liverpool:

What if,  right? What if he had simply gone into advertising as originally intended? If he had gotten involved with a different MRC project or if doing that MRC work didn’t function in part and parcel with furthering his education at University of Liverpool? Or my favorite “what if”  possibility when one considers early-1960’s  Liverpool: what if Fergus had spent 1961 frequenting the Cavern Club, managed to ingratiate himself with the Beatles (who were a featured act during that year at this modest Liverpool club)? What if Fergus became the 6th (or 7th) Beatle (depending on your feelings about Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe as possible fifth Beatles)? Should Dr. Craik be considered the “Beatle” of memory research? A sort of memory research “Fab Four” with Endel Tulving, Dan Schacter, and Morris Moscovitch (all part of a powerhouse development of memory research that occurred in 1970’s Toronto, Canada).

But I digress, while  simultaneously jumping ahead in the story. Two hallmarks of poor storytelling, and so let’s get back to Dr. Craik.  He completes a fascinating doctorate (complete with brief educational visit to Donald Broadbent’s lab and others), and then proceeds to a position as a professor at Birkbeck University of London. And it was good. At Birkbeck Dr. Craik was supported and began to solidify his ideas in Psychology. Nonetheless, one year into the position Dr. Craik takes a visiting position at the University of Toronto to work with Endel Tulving and company. And it was better. Dr. Craik is abuzz with influence from the exciting research happening out in Toronto with the “Ebbinghaus Empire” enthusiasts (the modest moniker Tulving applied to his memory seminar series at University of Toronto) and returns to Birkbeck College.

Not long after that visit to Toronto, Dr. Craik receives a phone call from Canada. He describes that here and the events to follow:

That part of the story describes where he is, but the why? Dr. Craik is slowly and assuredly integrating these influences from different places. From a background with Alistair Heron and Dennis Bromley at MRC and the University of Liverpool, respectively, to side visits and an interest in the new and growing from scholarly contributions from Anne Triesman, to Donald Broadbent to J.J. Gibson to Ulrich Neisser, to visiting and working with Tulving and colleagues in Toronto, Dr. Craik had the sensitivity to use and bridge these approaches. To coalesce the emerging ideas into an emphasis on qualitative processes of memory and to make that approach balanced relative to the already popular quantitative emphasis on time of exposure, frequency of exposure, and other stimulus presentation variables that told us what but not how items might be encoded into memory, this was new. Working with Robert Lockhart, Endel Tulving and others in Toronto, Dr.  Craik synthesized the Levels of Processing approach to memory encoding.

As Craik put it to me, there were many who were already sympathetic to these ideas about the quality of memory encoding, and others who helped the key ideas come together position papers in their own articles of the time (e.g., Cermak, 1972). What is critical was not just the synthesis of a levels idea, in which attention to the meaningfulness of information and its integration with other existing ideas in memory was postulated, but the systematic support that followed. As noted above, shortly after the 1972 Craik and Lockhart article defined the levels of processing approach, the 1975 Craik and Tulving article operationalized and thoroughly explored the manifestation of those ideas.

That systematic approach was applied to topics in aging and cognition. That systematic approach was re-applied to those levels  over and over again. That systematicism was  applied to bilingualism in older adults. And to so many other paradigms. If Levels of Processing was Dr. Craik’s “Abbey Road” then his research on aging and age-related changes  to cognition was  his  “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (translation: it may have been slightly less popular, but critically influential).

There is much more to tell, but as ever, some of this will need to be saved for the book. Because I want to be a …paperback writer.

Here are some of the wonderful publications from the career of Dr. Craik:

Craik, F. I., & Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memoryJournal of Experimental Psychology: General104(3), 268-294.

Craik, F. I., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory researchJournal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior11(6), 671-684.

Craik, F. I., & Byrd, M. (1982). Aging and cognitive deficits. In Aging and cognitive processes (pp. 191-211). Springer, Boston, MA.

Craik, F. I. (2002). Levels of processing: Past, present… and future?Memory10(5-6), 305-318.

Craik, F. I. (1994). Memory changes in normal agingCurrent Directions in Psychological Science3(5), 155-158.

Craik, F. I., & Bialystok, E. (2006). Cognition through the lifespan: mechanisms of changeTrends in Cognitive Sciences10(3), 131-138.

Craik, F. I., Bialystok, E., & Freedman, M. (2010). Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserveNeurology75(19), 1726-1729.

Craik, F. I., Govoni, R., Naveh-Benjamin, M., & Anderson, N. D. (1996). The effects of divided attention on encoding and retrieval processes in human memoryJournal of Experimental Psychology: General125(2), 159-180.

Craik, F. I., & McDowd, J. M. (1987). Age differences in recall and recognitionJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition13(3), 474-479.

Craik, F. I., Byrd, M., & Swanson, J. M. (1987). Patterns of memory loss in three elderly samplesPsychology and Aging2(1), 79-86.

Craik, F. I., & Watkins, M. J. (1973). The role of rehearsal in short-term memoryJournal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior12(6), 599-607.


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