Friday, June 2, 2023

Michel Treisman obituary

My father, Michel Treisman, who has died aged 93, was a polymath with a store of knowledge and wise advice for every eventuality. He spent most of his career as a lecturer and researcher at Oxford University, where his work on experimental psychology focused primarily on our perception of time.

He was best known for proposing a model for the brain’s internal clock and devising methods to measure the rate at which it ticks. However, his interests extended to other fields, including evolutionary biology. For instance, he proposed a novel explanation for motion sickness: he suggested that, when you’re riding in a car, the mismatch between the motion you see and the movement you’re actively making produces an effect similar to that caused by ingesting toxins – a situation in which vomiting can save your life.

Together with a physics colleague, Michel also invented an adjustable lens that could be used for applications such as providing cheap, customisable eyeglasses to developing countries.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Michel was the son of Hillel Treisman, a photographer, and Rachel (nee Gavronsky), Jews of Lithuanian origin who had emigrated from Europe.

In 1952 he obtained a medical degree from the University of the Witwatersrand, and practised medicine for a short time, but his desire for more intellectual stimulation led him to do a PhD in psychology at Brasenose College, Oxford, from 1956. While there he met Anne Taylor, a fellow psychology graduate student, and they married in 1960. They had four children before their marriage ended in divorce 16 years later.

Michel began his career as a junior lecturer in experimental psychology at Oxford in 1959, before spending five years as head of the psychology department at the University of Reading. In the early 70s he returned to Oxford as a lecturer and reader in experimental psychology, and fellow of New College.

During his decades at Oxford and throughout his retirement, he personified the interdisciplinary nature of collegiate life, and was often to be found having wide-ranging discussions with colleagues and graduate students over lunch or coffee in the senior common room. Kind and supportive, Michel was a fount of eclectic information, with an incisive mind, thought-provoking ideas and self-deprecating humour.

He retired in 1996, but continued to write up his unpublished research, as well as planning a book proposing an unconventional approach to climate change.

He is survived by his four children, Daniel, Stephen, Deborah and me, and four granddaughters, Alexandra, Lara, Natalya and Imogen.

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