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Stephen Michael Kosslyn (born 1948) is an American psychologist, neuroscientist, former John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in Memory of William James and Dean of Social Science at Harvard University, author and educator who specializes in the fields of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.


Kosslyn was born in Southern California, and grew up in the Pacific Palisades. Kosslyn first learned to think empirically at UCLA. As undergraduate he worked in the labs of Barbara Henker, who studied children with autism, and John P. Seward[1] with whom he had his first publication, a study of learning in rats.[2] Kosslyn also spent considerable time talking to Edward Sadalla, who helped him learn how to structure an argument and identify when a creative idea was worth considering.[2] He received a B.A. in psychology from UCLA in 1970.

It was in graduate school at Stanford University that Kosslyn learned how to formulate ways to answer hard scientific problems. As soon as he arrived at Stanford, he discovered that his advisor was resigning so that he could work for the "ecology movement," leaving Kosslyn adrift. He took courses his first quarter and didn't get engaged in research. It was only at the beginning of his second quarter that he met his future advisor, Gordon H. Bower, who would have a huge influence on all aspects of his life.[3] Bower had been a professional baseball player prior to becoming an academic and maintained a very direct, straightforward, and forceful style – and he was extraordinarily bright and a superb critic. In graduate school Kosslyn was also fortunate to share an office with Susan Haviland, who was soon to marry Edward E. Smith. Ed loved to "talk shop" and Kosslyn learned an immense amount from him. Kosslyn received a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford in 1974.

On leaving graduate school, Kosslyn first went to the Johns Hopkins University as an Assistant Professor, specializing in Developmental Psychology. There he met his future wife, with whom he went on to have three children. At the beginning of his third year at Hopkins, Kosslyn received offers from MIT and Harvard, both at the Associate Professor level. He went to Harvard in large part because of an impassioned letter he received from a first-year graduate student, Steven Pinker, who was seeking an advisor. At Harvard, Kosslyn had the privilege of supervising many superb graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and undergraduates.

After 4 years at Harvard, Kosslyn obtained a Research Career Development Award and went to Brandeis University. One year later he went back to Hopkins as a visitor; while there he was granted tenure at Harvard. Kosslyn returned to Harvard in 1983, and after 10 years as "Head Tutor" (running the undergraduate program), became chair of the department, and then became Dean of Social Science.

Kosslyn remained at Harvard until 2011, at which point he returned to Stanford, as director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. After two years, he had developed a strategic plan for how the Center could thrive within its means and was gratified to see that this plan could be implemented without great difficulty. He then accepted an offer to be the Founding Dean of Minerva University, based in San Francisco. Minerva is designed to take full advantage of the science of learning and to distill what is best about bricks-and-mortar universities and web-based content delivery.

Kosslyn has three hobbies: playing electric bass guitar, struggling with the French language, and advising members of behaviorally focused startups.


Mental Imagery[]

Kosslyn is known primarily for his research and theories on mental imagery. His theory is that, contrary to common assumption, imagery is not a single, unified phenomenon. Rather, it consists of a collection of distinct functions, each of which is responsible for a different aspect of imagery. For example, he decomposes imagery into four sets of processes, responsible for generating the image (i.e., activating information stored in long-term memory and constructing a representation in short-term memory), inspecting the object in the image (e.g., by reinterpreting it), maintaining the image over time, and—if so desired—transforming the image (e.g., by rotating it, adding or deleting parts, or changing the color).

His research, which includes fMRI-imaging and similar techniques, has located some of these functions to different neural networks, some of which are in different cerebral hemispheres of the brain. For example, his laboratory demonstrated that the left half of the brain is better than the right at encoding categories and generating mental images on the basis of categories, whereas the right half of the brain is better than the left at encoding specific examples or continuous distances and at generating images that have such characteristics.

Visual Display Design[]

Kosslyn also works on visual display design, showing how psychological principles can be used to produce displays that can be read at a glance. Most recently, he has extended this work to show how psychological principles of perception, memory, and comprehension can be used to make and deliver effective PowerPoint presentations.

Individual Differences[]

Kosslyn has also studied how people differ in their preferred types of information processing. Some of this work is based on neuroimaging, showing that the degree of activation in distinct parts of the brain predicts how well a person can perform particular tasks. Other work on this topic is based entirely on behavior. In this latter category, he and the late J. Richard Hackman used brain-based behavioral measures of individual differences to compose effective teams.


Kosslyn has received numerous honors for his research. These include the National Academy of Sciences Initiatives in Research Award, the Prix Jean-Louis Signoret, three honorary doctorates (from the University of Caen, France; the University of Paris-Descartes, France; the University of Bern, Switzerland), a Guggenheim fellowship, and a Cattell Award. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, and Academia Rodinensis pro Remediatione (Switzerland).

See also[]

Group Brain Project


Kosslyn has published over 300 scientific papers and written or co-authored 15 books and edited or co-edited 13 books, including:[4][5]

  • 1980. Image and Mind
  • 1983. Ghosts in the Mind's Machine
  • 1992. Wet Mind, with Olivier Koenig
  • 1994. Elements of Graph Design
  • 1994. Image and Brain
  • 2000. Psychology: The Brain, the Person, the World (2000, 2004), with R.S. Rosenberg
  • 2006. The Case for Mental Imagery with W.L. Thompson and G. Ganis
  • 2006. Graph Design for the Eye and Mind
  • 2007. Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations
  • 2010. Better PowerPoint.
  • 2010. Psychology in Context
  • 2010. Abnormal Psychology
  • 2010. Cognitive Psychology: Mind and Brain with E.E. Smith
  • 2012. Top Brain/Bottom Brain with G.W. Miller [6]

Details of books published List of publications


  1. John P. Seward, Psychology: Los Angeles 1905-1985, Professor Emeritus. Accessed May, 10, 2013
  2. 2.0 2.1 Stephen Kosslyn (1980) Image and Mind. p. ix
  3. Mark A. Gluck, John R. Anderson, Stephen M. Kosslyn eds. (2007) A Festschrift for Gordon H. Bower.
  4. Details of books published
  5. List of publications
  6. This book develops a new theory of "cognitive modes" -- different thinking styles that affect how each of us approaches the world and interacts with other people.

External links[]