Albert S. Bregman (1936 - 2023)
Advice from Al on how to choose a career path
A: I was deciding between psychology and philosophy which both interested me, so I flipped a coin. It came up heads, meaning "philosophy."
K: So, you went to grad school in philosophy? How did you end up in the psych department then?
A: Oh no, I couldn't let a coin decide my life, so I went to study psychology.
Al Bregman worked in the area of Experimental Psychology for nearly 50 years, primarily studying auditory perception, but with occasional forays into visual perception as well. He directed his entire career toward understanding the way human listeners succeed in perceptually organizing their complex acoustic experience into distinct sound sources and into the events and event streams. Al made the most significant theoretical contributions of the many scientists working in the sub-discipline of auditory psychology. His conception of perceptual organization drew its main inspiration from the Gestalt psychologists, but he brought many concepts from computer science and artificial intelligence to bear on his theorizing, leading to the development of such concepts as 1) primitive auditory scene analysis being a heuristic process to which other acoustic cues and sensory mechanisms contribute, 2) schema-based auditory organization being a selective process drawing on information based on pre-activated knowledge, and how these bottom-up and top-down processes interact through 3) providing a framework for understanding the perception of auditory continuity in the face of interrupting signals that can potentially mask parts of the original continuous sound.
His experimental work has provided an impressive edifice that was summarized in his monumental book, Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound published by MIT Press in 1990. This book is the modern-day equivalent of Hermann von Helmholtz's On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music published more than a century earlier. Al also generated empirical findings too numerous to cite. Suffice it to list a few findings that he and his students published. For example, auditory stream formation (the organization of sequences of sound events into coherent mental representations) is based on a principle of continuity in the sensory representation of the sounds. Auditory streams are the "objects" upon which attention is focused. The perception of melody and rhythm (which depend on sequences of sounds) are confined to sounds organized into auditory streams and are difficult to perceive across streams. Or the finding that a continuous but changing sound interrupted by a louder sound (that covers the spectrum of the original continuous sound) can be perceived as continuing through the louder sound as long as the listener can link (through interpolation) the bits of sound perceived before and after the louder interrupter.
Al's work, particularly following the publication of his book, stimulated an abundance of research in experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, signal processing, and even auditory neurophysiology, in Québec and Canada in particular, but also in North America, and more broadly in Europe, Japan and China. This richness of influence is in large part due to the impressive theoretical framework Al laid out, which gave many younger researchers a clear starting place to engage many of the issues brought to light. In this sense, Al's contribution to the field of auditory psychology is unique both in terms of its experimental breadth and theoretical depth. This uniqueness is to be measured at an international level, and quite clearly places at the forefront Al's contribution to psychology as a 20th and 21st century science in Canada, alongside other great Canadian psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists such as Donald Hebb, Endel Tulving, Ronald Melzack, Brenda Milner, and John Macnamara.
In addition, Al was a truly gifted mentor. His clarity of thought, deep interest in his field and in other fields as diverse as computer science, neurophysiology and philosophy, and in particular his great generosity of ideas and suggestions, were a boon to a significant number of undergraduate and graduate students and post-docs. Al taught them to think as a scientist and to take immense pleasure in the problem-solving enterprise that constitutes an experimental science. Al always manifested a deep devotion to science and to young scientists throughout his career as a teacher and mentor.
Another aspect of Al's personality that made him an uncommon scientist was his extreme generosity. He was always willing to respond to a letter from someone seeking an answer to some question of auditory perception or perceptual psychology in general and was never condescending to those who knew less than he or who came from other disciplines with different vocabulary and concepts. In line with this spirit of stimulating the collective advancement of auditory science, he created, in 1992, an email list called simply "Auditory" which has become the key discussion network for people interested in auditory perception and cognition the world over (now found at: http://www.auditory.org).
In sum, both professionally and personally, Al was an exceptional man and an exceptional scientist.
- Stephen McAdams, Professor, Schulich School of Music, McGill University
(former Honours Psychology student of Al Bregman, 1975-77)
I was lucky to know the keenly intelligent, kind, humble and funny Al Bregman, first when I was a McGill Honours student in the late 70s, then as a neighbour and friend on Draper Avenue in NDG, and finally as an honorary member of our family. As a student, I admit that I found Al intimidating and inscrutable at first. But the more time I spent with him, the more I was charmed by his gentle humour and sideways approach to nature’s big questions. He managed to combine depth of thought with a childlike sense of wonder and inquisitiveness about the world—a quality that stayed with him even as he became a giant in his field. He treated everyone with respect, including my three children, who at any age got the sense that Al was genuinely interested in them and was happy to engage them in a serious discussion, no matter how abstruse the topic or how wet they were behind the ears. His inimitable delight in meeting new people, batting around novel ideas, and yes, attending a new party or celebration never got old. He will be missed.
- Susan Pinker, Psychologist, Author, Columnist
Lucky for me, an early interest in music and sound led me to work with Al, first as an RA (in ‘77), then as Masters and PhD student (from ‘79-‘84). Al had a magical balance of qualities: Brilliant yet unassuming, hard-working yet playful, serious yet sensitive, ambitious yet selfless. A generous and supportive mentor, Al helped me enter grad school at McGill in experimental psych and then, when my personal goals changed, backed up my request to switch to clinical psych, even though it was not at all in his interest to do so (were he a self-interested supervisor). One of the smartest people I’ve ever known, I point to Al as the person who taught me about conducting research, formulating ideas, and above all, writing. Here’s a sweet irony: My last grad student (as I’m now retiring from my own clinical-research career in Eating Disorders) gave me a gift when she graduated—a plaque offering “Steiger’s top tips for good paper writing”. I realize today that the tips on the plaque aren’t mine. They’re the ones Al taught me. I think he’d be happy to know how many people--trainees, colleagues, and even people with eating disorders--benefitted from his numerous good influences on this very grateful mentee.
- Howard Steiger, Professor, Psychiatry Department, McGill University
During the mid-1980s I co-authored a published paper with Al titled "Auditory stream segregation and the control of dissonance in polyphonic music," and together with the late Bo Alphonce of the Faculty of Music he co-supervised my M.A. thesis dealing with auditory scene analysis and music theory. I was so incredibly fortunate to have been able to work under Al’s supervision at McGill, and he remains by far my most important and formative mentor and model. Whenever a tricky or provocative question arose during our many meetings and discussions, I will never forget how Al would suddenly gaze distantly out the window of his 8th floor office on Penfield Avenue, as if he were juggling the full range of possible answers or angles of inquiry in his mind. When he would return to our conversation seconds later, he had usually formulated a range of research approaches and paradigms that might help us get to the bottom of the matter. Al’s razor sharp intellect, his tireless energy for research, his passion for engagement with the international research community of which he was a leading figure, his inimitable sense of humour, and his profound kindness and decency will continue to be an inspiration to all of us who knew and admired him so much. His presence and example will never leave us.
- James Wright, Professor of Music, Carleton University, Ottawa
Although I never collaborated with him, when I first arrived at McGill as a postdoc (1981!) he very kindly allowed me to use his lab equipment for my studies. At the time, one could not simply generate a sine-wave tone — let alone melodies, which I wanted to do — without some very specialized computers, which he was happy to let me use, even though he was not particuarly interested in neuroscience (he used to say to me "Robert, we already know cognition happens in the brain!"). His contributions to auditory cognition and psychophysics were important, and his landmark book on Auditory Scene Analysis (MIT Press, 1994) essentially created that subfield of study. McGill should feel proud of his accomplishments and the many fine students that he trained.
- Robert Zatorre, Professor and Canada Research Chair, Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University
I enjoyed many years of friendship with Al and with his extended family. Our friendship was strengthened by my respect for Al’s research ability and productivity and my respect for his widely appreciated competence as a mentor and teacher. He and I had another very important bond - our mutual inclination not to take everything too seriously. The stimulating and entertaining Sibley-Bregman household was a big part of my own family life for many years. Al advanced human knowledge by adding to it, by teaching psychology undergraduates and by mentoring graduate students. He contributed richly to the lives of his own family, to the lives of his many friends and to the lives of his many students. He lived a good life.
- Don C. Donderi, retired, Psychology Department, McGill University
I first met Al in 1968, when I was interviewed for a job in the McGill Psychology Department. He took me out to lunch, just the two of us. He had been there for a few years and he wanted to give me the real scoop about the Department – who was who and how things really worked. He was quite happy with his position and encouraged me to take the job – which had not yet been offered.
Eventually, the job was offered and I accepted. Al and I became colleagues and friends. I developed a deep respect for his powerful intellect and came to see that he was an often underappreciated mainstay of the Department. He was by nature a careful and methodical thinker in all areas of his life. In research this led to numerous well-received publications in the area of auditory perception. To support this work, Al was the first researcher in the Department to have a computer in his lab: a room-sized PDP7 with much less capacity than the average modern cell phone. Its first accomplishment (that I remember) was to play Christmas carols on its loudspeakers.
Al’s premier contribution to research is usually said to be his book on Auditory Scene Analysis, which demonstrated an innovative way to study the psychology of auditory perception. His approach to the subject was revolutionary in the sense that it resurrected an abandoned methodology – phenomenology – and applied it in a way that satisfied modern scientific requirements.
Al also freely supported younger researchers, allowing them to use his lab and equipment, and offering advice and counsel. He trained a number of admiring students who have gone on to careers of their own.
He also contributed by his commitment to fairness in the conduct of the Department’s affairs. He often supported students he thought had been treated unfairly. On one such occasion he organized an anonymous reread of the student’s failed comprehensive exam together with those of others who passed, in an experimental design that demonstrated bias in the original grade assigned to the student. This was typical of his carefully thought out, evidence-based opinions on all subjects.
In later years, one of Al’s projects was the Macnamara Lectures, a series that commemorated our late colleague, John Macnamara. Superficially, it would be difficult to find two people from more divergent backgrounds with different approaches to life. But they both valued intellectual discourse, objectivity, fairness and discussion. Al organized the lectures, selected the speakers and introduced each one. The series continues as the Macnamara – Bregman Lectures, a well-deserved tribute to two individuals who made major contributions to the academic and intellectual environment of the Psychology Department.
- Norman White, Professor Emeritus, Psychology Department, McGill University
Selected references (from Department web page)
Bregman, A.S. (2008) Auditory scene analysis. In Squire, L.R. (Editor-in-Chief.) Encyclopedia of Neuroscience. Oxford, UK: Academic Press.
Bregman, A.S. (2005). Auditory Scene Analysis and the Role of Phenomenology in Experimental Psychology. Canadian Psychology, 46 (1), 32-40.
Bregman, A.S., & Ahad, P. (1996) Demonstrations of Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound. Audio compact disk. (Distributed by MIT Press).
Bregman, A.S. (1990). Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1990 (hardcover)/1994 (paperback).