William "Bill" R. Uttal

Lives Lived

William “Bill” Uttal, Ph.D.

Fall 2017
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William "Bill" R. Uttal, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology, died Feb. 9, 2017. Uttal came to U-M in 1963 and conducted elegant experiments comparing behavioral and neural responses to stimulation in various sensory modalities. He began at the Mental Health Research Institute and then moved to the Institute for Social Research. 

Uttal retired from U-M in 1985 and took a job with the Navy in Hawaii. However, he 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 memorial. Uttal eventually retired from the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University in 1999. 

Uttal wrote a new book every 18–24 months after his second retirement. A recurring topic was the relation of brain, mind, and behavior. One of his most famous publications was The New Phrenology: The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain (2001, MIT Press). In his final 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 that it was insoluble. 

This obituary, originally written by Peter Killeen, Ph.D., and Lynet Uttal, Ph.D., has been edited for style and length.