An Overview of Neal Miller’s contributions

The most basic professional facts and themes of his life – which are elaborated upon elsewhere in this website – are as follows: He is ranked among the ten most eminent psychologists of the 20th Century and was personally awarded the coveted National Medal of Science by President Johnson in 1964.  He was highly influential as a learning theorist, neuroscientist, science statesman, educator, a proponent of the important contributions of animal research, and  and above all, a consummate experimentalist who functioned as a role model for his field.  He authored 8 books and over 276 articles and trained over 150 students and post-docs in research.


In the first phase of his scientific career beginning around 1935, Miller had great success in showing parsimoniously that the same principles evident in instrumental learning and motivation were operative in problem solving and in Freudian and social phenomena, and that the applications of these principles had real-life clinical benefits.  Then starting around 1950 he took his research physiologically into the brain and the gut to examine two burning theoretical issues of the time: whether all drives (such as hunger) were learnable to the cues of a situation, as he had shown fear to be, and whether all rewards for strengthening a behavior depended upon there immediately following a reduction in the drive motivating that behavior.  The innovative techniques and the exciting findings that then copiously emerged from his laboratory bore upon the nature of appetite regulation, memory, brain circuits and neurotransmitter systems mediating feeding and reward, and upon the application of pharmacological techniques to investigate behavior and vice versa.  The recognition which all of this afforded Miller positioned him in 1969 to play a founding role in bridging together behavioral and physiological researchers interested in the brain into forming the Society for Neuroscience.  But beginning a few years beforehand he took advantage of an opportunity to pursue again his faith in parsimony, in this case that the same principles of reward operative in instrumental learning in the somatic nervous system would also under the right conditions result in instrumental learning in the autonomic nervous systems – the payoff, if true, being enormous for understanding the origins and treatment of psychosomatic illnesses.  But by around 1973 his laboratory’s efforts, initially auguring great promise, failed to show indisputably in the rat that autonomic increases or decreases of heart-rate in the somatically paralyzed rat could be instrumentally rewarded although evidence remained that autonomic regulation of blood pressure both in the normal and hemiplegic human may be brought under instrumental control.  As a side benefit, the sensitive biofeedback technology that had been developed to make consciously detectible otherwise subliminal physiological process was brought successfully to bear on the treatment of a number of medical ailments.  This early advocacy of the uses of the technology and the underlying learning principles involved resulted in Miller becoming widely credited as one of the founders of the field of biofeedback.  His focus on the role that behavioral factors at play in health issues broadened in the last stage of his research career to include: 1) these factors’ involvement in stress and the underlying physiological processes, 2) the role of behavioral interventions to overcome learned non-use that prevents much of the potential for recovery from stroke, and 3) the use of these interventions in the prevention or minimalization of motion-sickness in astronauts.  These involvements and, again, more broadly his advocacy of the analysis of behavioral factors as contributors to illness and health led to his being identified as a founding father of the fields of health psychology and behavioral medicine.

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