Conference Description and Rationale

Following upon Prof. Nelson's recent retirement (July, 2007) after 40 years of service at the University of South Florida, it is fitting and appropriate that psychology as a discipline recognize the seminal contributions of Distinguished Research Professor Douglas Nelson through a celebration of his lifetime body of work. At the same time, because his contributions have been so significant, this celebration will take note of the advances in research on memory that have been stimulated by his work, and will provide a forum for the leading memory researchers in psychology to chart how his research will continue to be influential into the 21st century. To these ends, the conference will be structured so as to both review Nelson's work and to create public discussion groups of leading memory researchers. PowerPoint presentations and transcripts of the discussions will be placed on a website dedicated to the conference, with the intention that these discussions will be freely available to the public so as to provide a platform for the next generation of memory research. We have already generated publicity internationally, through our invitations to conference participants who come from many locations around the world. We further intend to make this conference known to the memory research community nationally, regionally, and locally within the State of Florida.

With his service to the field as an active member of the American Psychological Association (e.g., past-President of Division 3, continuous member of many editorial boards, etc.), and with his extensive scientific contributions, Nelson's work has had a remarkable impact on the field of experimental psychology. What is particularly striking about his scientific contributions is that they tie together major theoretical themes that have appeared separately in other memory research, but have not been integrated in a rigorous manner outside his research portfolio. For example, human memory traditionally has (in theory) been partitioned into components that are responsible for supporting the wide variety of tasks that human perform (e.g., episodic versus semantic systems, procedural versus declarative systems, implicit versus explicit systems, etc.) and researchers typically investigate one component of memory in isolation from others. Some human memory researchers have investigated memory for past events via manipulations carried out within laboratory paradigms, while others in the field have investigated how knowledge about the world is acquired and represented. Only rarely have their interaction been systematically investigated.  

In contrast, Nelson's research has consistently explored how preexisting knowledge of the world, acquired well before the participant in the memory study was exposed to the laboratory paradigm, influences performance on episodic memory tasks. For example, Nelson has developed over the course of many years an influential model of how individual words are represented and how the interconnections among these words reflect our knowledge about the world. A recurring theme in Dr. Nelson's work has been how "set size," the number of other words that have a high probability of being linked to the given word, affects memory for a single occurrence of that word. The representations of some words are connected to a large number of other word representations, whereas some other words are only connected to a few. These variations in set size presumably come from fundamental ways in which words are acquired and experienced as part of ordinary usage in a language, but are clearly attached to the word in question well before any word manipulation can take place within a laboratory. Indeed, set size has a profound effect on the performance of a variety of memory tasks, and hence knowledge about the world has a profound influence on our ability to remember the past. Nelson's research also examines how these different systems interact at both the levels of which we are conscious and the levels of which we are not. Once again, Nelson's research provides the foundation for a much wider exploration of how knowledge about the world affects memory for individual events, to be undertaken by the leading researchers who have followed up on this work.

To our knowledge, no previous conferences have made the interaction of memory systems an organizing principle of the various speakers. Hence, the proposed conference program is aimed at a wide ranging cross section of psychologists and, more broadly, at individuals in wide variety of related areas of academic research. Memory is central to our understanding of who we are, our motivations, and our behavior in the past and in the future. Indeed, many theoretical constructs that are used in memory research have been borrowed from earlier research in clinical and social psychological research areas, and vice versa. Cognitive psychology is also one of the foundational components of the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science, along with artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and philosophy.

Our plan is to hold this conference over a two-day period. The first day will begin with opening remarks in the afternoon on Friday by four distinguished speakers who represent the broad range of memory research and who will place the work of Nelson within the general understanding of how memory operates. The second day (Saturday) will be devoted to a series of panel discussions by memory researchers whose work has been strongly influenced by Nelson; these discussions will have as their goal generating ideas about how memory research can be advanced using the concepts suggested by Nelson. It is intended that this panel format will enhance interactions between participants and the general audience.

The proposed conference program consists of contributions by not only the leading cognitive psychologists in the field, but also some of the brightest young minds in the field. Hence, this environment will provide graduate students and postdoctoral fellows a unique opportunity to see how human memory has been traditionally conceptualized and investigated, and at the same time to see how the traditional conceptualizations are currently being challenged and how memory will be investigated in the future. The organizers intend graduate students to attend the conference without charge, and to provide a reception and dinner where students may meet the presenters and ask them questions. At the dinner, we will seat graduate students at the tables at which the presenters are seated. Although attendance at the overall conference will be free of charge to all attendees, we plan for attendees (except invited speakers) to offset the cost of dinner. The reception and dinner will be held within the conference venue.