Obituary: William R. ‘Bill’ Uttal


William R. “Bill” Uttal, professor emeritus of psychology, was a scholar in the most ideal sense of the word. 

He published his last book just months before his death on Feb. 9. He also was a wonderful husband and father, who maintained a marriage for 63 years. In the last year of his life, he was content and comfortable to simply be surrounded by his wife and three daughters, and in contact with his sister and friends. He took great pleasure in following the most notorious presidential election in world history. 

William R. ‘Bill’ Uttal

Uttal became a professor at the University of Michigan in 1963. At U-M, he conducted elegant experiments comparing behavioral and neural responses to stimulation in various sensory modalities. He started at the Mental Health Research Institute (MHRI) and then moved to the Institute for Social Research (ISR). He retired at age 58 from the University of Michigan in 1985 because he wanted to focus on writing books instead of teaching and going to faculty meetings.

He earned a Bachelor of Science in physics, started his career in the Air Force where he programmed analog computers and headed the fledgling computer laboratory, and then went on to The Ohio State University, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1957 in experimental psychology and biophysics. His first job was at IBM where he built some of the earliest computers and developed programs of computer-aided instruction.

He moved to U-M because he believed there was no more honorable profession than being a professor, something he believed until the day he died. However, he also loved Hawaii, a place that was his second home, so he retired from U-M in 1985 and took a job with the Navy in Hawaii. However, Uttal quickly returned to academia when he remembered how much he valued “the romance of discovery and the sobriety of verification” as Gary Bradshaw remarked in his Massachusetts Institute of Technology memorium. Uttal eventually retired from the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University in 1999, earning a second emeritus professor status.

Uttal wrote a new book every 18-24 months after his second retirement. A recurring topic was the relation of brain, mind and behavior; a pervasive tone was that of an astute critic.  He was disturbed by the low replicability of cognitive research, and in particular cognitive neuroscience.  He knew how fMRIs worked, and PETs and SQUIDS; and he knew how to analyze data; and things just were not adding up.

His most famous reflection on this was “The New Phrenology: The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain” (2001, 2008). He concluded that “you can’t get there (localization of function) from here (fMRI and other imaging work); and in fact you can’t get there from anywhere.”  In successive books he argued for distributed neural processing — most parts of the brain are active during any task, no part of the brain is uniquely associated with any task, replicability of identified regions is very poor — except for early sensory and late motor activations. His arguments were always based on thorough review and analyses of empirical data, and his critiques were solid.

In his last book, published in 2016, he wrote “Of all of the scientific mysteries confronting our inquisitive species, none is more profound or challenging than understanding how the tangible brain can give rise to intangible thought.” The bittersweet paradox of Uttal’s life was that while he spent his career searching for ways to solve that mystery, being unwilling to relax his scientific standards, he could discover, time and again, only reasons why it was insoluble.

Every book he wrote was dedicated to his beloved Mitchan, the person who made his home a castle, shared raising three daughters together, reminded him to write clearly and found leisure in travelling the world together. He recognized that without her none of what he accomplished would have been produced. Oh, yes, and he remained a lifelong Michigan football fan.

A memorial service was held March 25 in Phoenix.

— Submitted by Lynet Uttal

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