Luria, A. R. (1902-1977)

views updated

LURIA, A. R. (1902-1977)

The Soviet psychologist Alexandr Romanovich Luria is best known for his work in neuropsychology but also contributed to developmental and crosscultural psychology. The son of a prominent physician, Luria graduated from the University of Kazan in 1921 and joined the staff of the Moscow Institute of Psychology in 1923. He tempered his early interest in psychoanalysis with a growing awareness of the need for objective methods. His attempts to study the unconscious by objective methods resulted in the book The Nature of Human Conflicts (1932). In 1924 Luria met Lev Vigotsky, and their subsequent collaboration—until Vigotsky's premature death in 1934—had a lifelong influence on Luria's work. Together they developed the concept of historicocultural psychology, advancing the thesis that higher cognitive functions result from the internalization of external cultural devices and codes.

Vigotsky and Luria embarked on two lines of research driven by the historicocultural theory: developmental studies of language acquisition and the regulatory role of language in behavior, and cross-cultural studies of modes of inference among the tribes of Central Asia. Both lines of research ran afoul of the official Marxist dogma of Soviet authorities, who pressured Luria was to terminate his developmental and cross-cultural work.

Luria's scientific interests were gradually evolving toward more biological aspects of psychology and neuropsychology. In the early 1930s Luria turned his attention to the "nature-nurture" debate and embarked on a series of studies of cognitive processes in identical and fraternal twins. In the late 1930s, Luria, already a professor of psychology, earned a medical degree, perhaps because of an authentic intellectual evolution or perhaps because psychology had grown too ideologically parlous an endeavor amid the Stalinist strictures of Soviet academia. Luria's interest in neuropsychology intensified duringWorld War II, when he helped to develop remedial procedures for soldiers with head injuries.

Luria was more interested in developing a comprehensive theory of brain-behavioral relations rather than in describing clinical syndromes or developing diagnostic and remedial techniques. His early eclectic interests shaped his brand of neuropsychology. Luria entered the field at the time of the raging debate between "narrow localizationism" and "equipotentialism." He went beyond this simplistic dilemma and formulated his concept of "dynamic functional systems," which captures the relationship between the localizable dimensions of cognition and the complex traits, skills, and behaviors of everyday life. Although Luria believed in the invariant localization of basic cognitive dimensions, he thought that cultural and developmental factors governed the dimensional composition of the "functional systems" corresponding to complex processes.

Given Luria's cultural-developmental interests, it is not surprising that the neuropsychology of language was foremost on his agenda in major works such as Traumatic Aphasia (1970), The Role of Speech in the Regulation of Normal and Abnormal Behavior (1961), and The Higher Cortical Functions in Man (1966). Luria's distinct taxonomy of aphasias reflects his interest in refined linguistic operational analysis. Luria's interest in the frontal lobes was a continuation of his earlier concern with self-regulation and consciousness. His emphasis on the hierarchic nature of cognitive control undoubtedly reflected his interactions with Nicholas Bernstein, a Soviet physiologist and mathematician who foreshadowed some of the basic concepts of cybernetics and who, like Vigotsky, suffered official ostracism for deviation from the Pavlovian doctrine.

In the later part of his career, Luria became deeply interested in memory. The monograph Neuropsychology of Memory (1976) describes his attempts to root amnesic syndromes in subcortical neuroanatomy. He distinguished the "midline" amnesic syndromes (curiously, without further distinguishing between the diencephalic and mesiotemporal variants) and pituitary, mesiofrontal, "massive prefrontal," and cortical memory deficits. He was particularly interested in the relationship between consolidation and executive functions.

Although Luria is widely known in the West for various adaptations of his diagnostic approaches, he never bothered to compile them into a battery. In fact, he abhorred the notion of a battery and always advocated a flexible, hypothesis-testing approach. He also disdained the notion of instrument standardization. Although Luria's bias against quantification is often cast in East-West terms, it is probably a generational phenomenon. After all, Luria the clinician descended from the the great turn-of-the-century European neurologist-phenomenologists. What makes his diagnostic approach singularly attractive is that every procedure targets a cognitive dimension accounted for in his brain-behavioral theory.

During the later part of his career, Luria was professor of psychology at Moscow State University, where he held the chair of neuropsychology, and director of the Neuropsychology Laboratory at the Bourdenko Institute of Neurosurgery in Moscow. He received numerous awards and was elected to various academies and learned societies in the Soviet Union and in the West.

The enduring influence of Luria's seminal work has been the subject of several books: Contemporary Neuropsychology and the Legacy of Luria (1990), Hidden Histories of Science (1996), and The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind (2001), to name a few. The centennial anniversary of his birth in 2002 has occasioned a number of scientific symposia worldwide.



Luria, A. R. (1932). The nature of human conflicts. New York: Live-right.

—— (1961). The role of speech in the regulation of normal and abnormal behavior, ed. J. Tizard, London: Pergamon.

—— (1966; reprint 1980). The higher cortical functions in man, trans. B. Haigh. New York: Basic Books.

—— (1970). Traumatic aphasia, trans. D. Bowden. The Hague: Mouton.

—— (1976). Neuropsychology of memory, trans. B. Haigh. Washington, DC: Winston.

Goldberg, E. (1990). Contemporary neuropsychology and the legacy of Luria. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

—— (2001). The executive brain: Frontal lobes and the civilized mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sacks, O. W. (1996). Scotoma: Forgetting and neglect in science. In R. B. Silvers, ed., Hidden histories of science. New York: New York Review of Books.