Life in Search of Answers:

Remembering Lev Vekker    

by Alexander Libin, Ph.D

            The name of Lev Vekker has been widely known in the Russian psychological community for several decades now. With his professional activity spanning more than half a century, Lev Vekker a scientist, researcher, and professor - did not cease to amaze his colleagues with the tenacity and wholeness of his scientific vision and diversity of his research. What is the mainstay of this bright and unusual career? The following is an attempt to find the coordinates of an answer to this question.

             Lev Vekker was born in Odessa, that large and very cosmopolitan metropolis in the Ukraine, on October the 4th, 1918. He passed away on October 1st, 2001 in the Virginian part of the metropolitan area of the United States capital. His long life took him through the first years in Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik takeover to the siege of Leningrad by fascists, a difficult post-war era, the complex stagnation period, the time of restructuring in Russia and, finally, his American odyssey. Geographically, his life went from Russia to Lithuania, back to Russia, his sojourn in Germany, and then the United States. With this brief essay remembering Lev Vekker, my close colleague and older friend, I would like to continue the dialogue about the most important problems in modern psychology and about those who devote their lives to solving mysteries of the human mind.

         Of my first thirteen years I cannot recall anything significant, said Lev. A change in his routine came in 1932: the teenager found himself in a different cultural and intellectual environment when he visited Leningrad for the first time. Conversations with his uncle, Boris Vekker, who was one of the founders of the Leningrad Writers Associations library, and with other members of the family broadened his horizons and initiated his scientific way of thinking. His strongest recollection of that period was when he watched the street from his window and was suddenly puzzled by what he later called the tormenting problem of the mind: How do I make the external world my own and how does it happen that what I see, hear, or feel as a part of the outside appears inside me? Out of such reasoning originated the main vector of Lev Vekkers future research: analysis of the f formation mechanisms of the mind. However, at that time, in 1933, he was very far from defining that problem in a consistent way: It was first important to choose a school and determine a field of knowledge that would provide the necessary tool for his future investigations.

I realized that I was not even going to try to solve this problem by myself. Where do I go to get an education? What concerns itself with a human being? Medicine, of course. So, instead of graduating from high school, I went to a medical college and spent several months there. It happened then that a physics professor, who taught our class and saw that I was being consumed by doubts as to whether or not I chose for myself the right profession, told me that I was not, in all probability, going to receive there what I wanted, and she suggested I return to high school. I did. After graduation, I became a student at the Leningrad State Universitys Physics Department and studied there for three years. I concluded then, however, that as much as I was interested in how the outside world operated, the question of how that world lived inside a human being was the most interesting to me. How do we acquire knowledge of the outside world and how do we perceive it? Which science studies a human being? Biology? History? Philosophy?

            History, or so it seemed to me. I became interested in the history of human development, not of an individual human being, but the human kind in general. At that time I admired professors teaching at the History Department of the Leningrad University, such as Tarle, Struve and Grekov. But in a few months I recognized that history does not explain how human sensations arise. And I went to the Department of Philosophy, where I was accepted as a second-year student. There were quite a few outstanding young philosophers working at the Department. And there, at a student seminar, I delivered my first talk. It was about defining the problem of the nature of human sensations and, consequently, the nature of the mental.

           However, the self-searching difficulties receded into the background before the global difficulties the war had begun and with it came the cruel blockade of Leningrad. Lev Vekker, who had not been drafted into the army because of his extremely poor vision, with his wife, Mina Rusakovskaya and their newborn son were faced with unspeakable horrors in a city under siege. Lev started teaching physics at a high school. In the meantime, he did not stop thinking about a problem that now appeared clearer to him: the nature of the formation mechanisms of mental phenomena. Before the end of the war, in 1944, Professor Boris Ananiev moved to Leningrad from Tbilisi. At the end of one of his public lectures, recalled Lev. I told him about my thoughts and he responded by saying that the Universitys President suggested that he open and head the psychology chair. And Ananiev invited me to meet with him. So my close collaboration with Boris Ananiev had begun, which later turned into friendship. I had become a psychologist.

Together with other three students, Lev Vekker was a part of the group that later became the nucleus of the Leningrad University s Psychology Department. In his first talk mentioned above, Lev Vekker gave the outline of his unique objective: to create an integral conceptual system that would explain the phenomenon of the mind, from elementary tactual-muscular sensations to the nature of an individuals character and consciousness. The young researcher gained strong support from Prof. Boris Ananiev, his mentor and subsequent Ph.D. dissertation counselor. Ananievs ideas were a powerful motivation in developing conceptualizations in human psychology for several new generations of psychologists. Vekkers first experiments (starting from 1948) dealt with tactual-kinesthetic sensations, the first level of mental hierarchy. Surprised with the fact that, in being the initial stage and structural basis for distant sensations, these elementary feelings in the cases of limited sensory capabilities could, without the participation of vision or hearing, provide conditions for a full development of human intelligence and individuality (Helen Kellers, Laura Bridgemans and later Olga Skorokhodovas biographies were a testament to this). Lev Vekker proposed a bold hypothesis: tactual-kinesthetic modality predominates in the development of the mind. This hypothesis, gradually coming to life in scientific experiments and theoretical concepts, played an important role in the entire structure of his scientific outlook. Analysis of the phases of constructing a tactual representation was the subject of his Ph.D. thesis Relationships in the dynamics of a tactual image, which was brilliantly defended in 1951.

            After finishing his graduate studies, Lev Vekker found a job in Vilnius, Lithuania. He combined his research with working as a professor in the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute. From 1956 to 1959 he headed the Psychology Chair there. However, he constantly tried to find a way to resume working at the Leningrad University, and therefore willingly accepted Ananievs offer to take a Senior Research Associates position at the Psychology Departments Engineering Psychology Lab. It took much effort on Ananievs part to get the offer past the University administration.

Summarizing a decade of Vekkers work on the role of the sense of touch were his three chapters (The mechanisms of touch, Passive touch and Active touch) in a collective monograph The sense of touch in the processes of cognition and work, with Ananiev as the editor. It was published by the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in 1959. In these chapters, Vekker put forward for the first time a nontraditional classification of the physical properties of things by using the earlier formulated concept of the initial material forming the base levels of mental hierarchy. As a material forming the tissue of the mental, he distinguished the elementary psycho-physiological state of interaction between the non-transitive properties of a stimulus and a skin receptor. The main objective at that stage of the study was to show how an elementary mental function, by means of a certain physiological mechanism, was formed from the initial, non-mental, material. All the subsequent studies of the mental hierarchy were conducted as the researcher moved from bottom up across its levels.

            Analysis of control function of tactual-kinesthetic sensations in the formation of sensory hand movements described in The sense of touch was converted to a study of general relationships of mental regulation as well as of the formation mechanisms of integral perceptual images.

This was the subject of his book, Perception and its Simulation, a monograph published by the Leningrad State University and constituting the core of his Doctors of Science dissertation. It was replete with experimental data and theoretical concepts describing the structure and principal properties of perceptual images. One of the most significant achievements of Dr. Vekker in that book was creating a scale of levels according to which information processes were systematized by encompassing neural and mental signals with the same principle of isomorphism. Consequently, specific differences between neural and perceptual processes were determined by the places these units of mental structure occupied in the isomorphism scale. It was also uncovered there that the structural specificity of a given perceptual level of mental information manifested itself in that integral images predetermined a program of action not in the form of a rigid sequence of movements, but in the form of the entire family of trajectories included in perceptual space. The most important conclusion drawn by the author was the premise of freedom in choosing alternatives at the highest levels of the mind. It is noteworthy that B. Ananiev, at the time that monograph was published, viewed it as one of the most outstanding treatises on psycho-physiological bionics, a new domain concerning itself with basic and applied research on brain activity simulation.

In the following fifteen years, Lev Vekker continued his consistent research on the nature of the mind by concentrating his attention level-by-level on all of the mental hierarchy: from sensations to emotions to attention, memory, and anticipation, up to the base levels of consciousness. In such a way an integral theory of mental processes was created and presented in Mental Processes, a three-volume monograph published by the Leningrad State University from 1974 to 1981. Amidst his working on the book, his teaching activity remained unabated. A major event in Vekkers life was the invitation, which arrived from Germany (East Germany at the time), to head the memorial Wilhelm Wundts Chair (Vekker had devoted a number of pages in his papers and books to the analysis of Wundts psychological theory). His lectures in the Leipzig University enjoyed the same success as those in Vilnius in the 50s, and in Leningrad in the 60 s and 70s. What can be considered remarkable is that in each of those places Vekker delivered his lectures in the language that was native to his audience: in Lithuanian in Vilnius, in German in Leipzig and of course in Russian in Leningrad. And this tradition continued when in the 90s he did the same for his American students in the US.

Coupled with his incessant professional activity and everlasting creative energy was Vekkers ability to seek and find optimal solutions in very difficult circumstances that life offered him in abundance: meager existence in the besieged Leningrad, searching for work at the time of the fight against cosmopolitism in the Soviet Russia, the consequences of rejection of his familys application to leave the country for the United States in the early 80s. And, finally, life with their arrival in the US, as for most of the immigrants, was not easy. Vekker was in his 70s when he had to adjust to a new cultural environment to be able to successfully work there. At this difficult stage of his career he demonstrated his usual but no less valuable optimism, professional excellence, and almost supernatural stamina to his relatives, friends and colleagues. The fourteen years of the American chapter of his life were very eventful from working as a high-paid consultant with BDM, a major corporation, to a professor at the George Mason Universitys Psychology Department to a Research Associate with the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

To a list of the most distinguished traits of Lev Vekkers personality I would add his ability to create for himself a life intensity that is necessary for everyone, not only for an outstanding scholar. When living in the United States, he visited his homeland many times giving talks at the Psychology Departments of the St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) and Moscow Universities, participating in scientific conferences at the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow) and International Academy of Informatics (St. Petersburg). He was awarded the title of Academician at a meeting of the latter institution, and a little earlier was elected full member of the International Academy of Education created in the new Baltic States.

            When we met during one of his Russian trips, the idea took shape of publishing in Russian a new version of his works and also of writing a book together. Our project, based on a combination of approaches top down and bottom up in studying the nature of the mind, included three books. The project was supported by several science foundations and as a result its first stage that started in 1995 was successfully completed. Two of Lev Vekkers books were published: Reality and the Mind: A Theory of Mental Processes, Moscow, Smysl, 1998 and The World of Mental Reality, Moscow, Russkiy mir, 1998.

In the US, Lev Vekker worked on two projects: together with John Allen they wrote a manuscript Mental Representation of Physical Reality and together with the author of this biographical note they worked on a book devoted to the system of principles for an integral theory of mental representation.

While living in the US, Lev Vekker was in constant contact with Russia and with the Russian students enrolled in German and American universities. His motivation was not so much to keep in touch with his colleagues speaking his native language, as it was his understanding of the necessity of international and intercultural approach to research on the nature of mental processes. In his lectures and seminars at the Psychology Departments of the Berlin and Leipzig Universities, in his talks at the Ananiev Memorial Conferences at the St. Petersburg University and at the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Lev Vekker has proved very convincingly that what underlies the development of psychology both in science and life is interdisciplinary and intercultural discussion among inspired and devoted people. If we tried to express his life with a simple formula, it would be: everything for the sake of psychology. Not only was psychology his profession and his passion, it was also his way of life and the meaning of his life. More often than not it appeared as though life for him was only a supplement to his science. Lev Vekker did not simply publish his papers; he created them. Each new stage in his professional growth was a logical step in the development of an integral theory of mental processes seen through the unique prism of his creative Weltanschauung. In addition to his many papers, each of which was a notable event, his seven monographs were published leaving behind a large amount of what we call a scientific legacy. But as fully immersed as he was in the world of experimental facts, Lev Vekker will remain, in the memory of all people who were around him either paying homage to him or criticizing him, a person of bright individuality, with his share of ups and downs, fallacies and revelations, errors and discoveries. And yet there is a quality that is uniquely his: the acute ability to feel the essence of whomever he was talking to and the situation he was in at the moment, to react to every nuance in their relationship while remaining completely engrossed in contemplating the next move in his never ending research. It was impossible not to feel this; at the very first meeting you were infected with the sense of significance of that encounter, realizing at the same time its place in the sequence of many other upcoming meetings with him. Even Lev Vekkers passing continues to generate an avalanche of science-related associations in those who knew him well.

People truly inspired by science are well aware of the fact that one never calms down upon comprehending the truth. Therefore, the last co-authored Lev Vekkers work, a dialogue about the nature of the mind and the principles of an integral theory of mental representation, will be finished and published. This means that Lev Vekker continues to take part in Russian and international psychologys everyday activities*.

 

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* Translation by Boris Vekker