In memoriam: Risto Kalervo Näätänen (1939-2023)

Risto Kalervo Näätänen, internationally renowned Finnish researcher in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and the most cited psychologist of his lifetime, died in October 2023, having turned 84 on 14 June 2023. He was elected by the General Assembly in 2019 an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. A great figure among the pioneers of psychology and an enthusiastic and unstinting supporter of Finnish-Hungarian scientific relations has left us.

2023. október 27.

“Theories tie the hands of the creator, so I avoid theories.”
(Alvar Aalto, Finnish architect, designer and urban planner)

Risto Kalervo Näätänen (1939-2023) Photo:

The beginning of Risto Näätänen’s academic career coincided with the rise of a new movement, cognitive psychology, which changed the simplified view of behaviourism on psychological phenomena to a more complex one. He began studying psychology at the University of Helsinki in 1958 at a time when it was forbidden in Hungary to study what was considered a bourgeois science. At the age of 26, he was already conducting research in the laboratory led by Donald Benjamin Lindsley at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and between 1965 and 1966 he mastered the electrophysiological methods he used to find experimental answers to questions about cognitive processes, which would lay the foundation for his later international reputation. Lindsley was a pioneer in psychophysiology and was thought worthy of a Nobel Prize in Physiology, along with his colleagues H.W. Magoun and G. Moruzzi, for his discovery of the reticular activating system, the brain structure that regulates alertness. Näätänen defended his doctoral thesis on the brain mechanisms of selective attention under Lindsley at the University of Helsinki in 1967. His work was already influenced at this time by the basic approach of those performing research, that is, a doubt that requires proof and inspires new solutions. In his doctoral theses, he refuted the interpretation and conclusions of data obtained using a then well-known experimental paradigm, and the novelty of the results obtained using a new experimental procedure he had developed was undisputed and had not been published before.

In 1975, at the age of 36, he became Professor of General Psychology at the University of Helsinki, and eight years later he was already Academic Professor at the Academy of Finland, where he conducted research and led the team that grew and expanded around him for several decades, in a growing international network. In 1991, he founded the Cognitive Brain Research Unit at the University of Helsinki, which he led as its director until 2006. After his retirement in 2007, he continued his research at the Universities of Helsinki, Tartu and Aarhus with ceaseless vigour. He was tireless. As before, he took on journal editorial duties, published with many co-authors, reviewed manuscripts, and provided professional advice to young researchers. Näätänen’s life’s work was defined by the discovery and first description (co-authors Anthony W.K. Gaillard and Sirkka Mäntysalo) of a characteristic component of event-related brain responses (the brain’s synchronised response to a given stimulus or set of stimuli), mismatch negativity (MMN), and its subsequent insightful and creative use in basic and applied research. The recent, for many, heretical interpretation of earlier results on the early selective attention effect has been the subject of much debate and, at times, confusion.

MMN’s publication beginnings were modest; the recognition of the scientific community and those performing research and following the development of the underlying theory only grew significantly in the 2000s, so success was a long time coming. The triumph of MMN is due to the perseverance and determination of Näätänen, with his strong vision of the biological significance of MMN and his scientific arguments. For us researchers in what was then called psychophysiology, the Finnish-Hungarian Science Days were a milestone; Näätänen, as Vice-President of the Finnish Academy, led in 1982 and 1985 the Finnish delegations whose members first told us about the brain correlate of deviation detection by scanning the auditory environment and about the technique based on supraconducting that made measurable the small magnetic activity of a few hundred femtotesla (fT) generated by the brain’s electrical activity, MMN and MEG (magneto-encephalography). We started measuring MMN and MEG we had access to only abroad and still mostly measured in Finland, because we do not have it. Näätänen’s lecture on brain correlates of scanning the auditory environment and its measurability and biological significance led us to develop an animal model of MMN at the Institute of Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. It was the first to search for the brain mechanisms, long before the emergence and spread of brain imaging. Since the first Hungarian publication of the paper in 1987, many of our colleagues have joined the “MMN club”, which led us to further understanding of the perception and development of music, speech, and complex sound sequences and to the discovery of their pathology-related differences. It turned out that, in addition to auditory modality, there are similar processes in visual modality.

We, Hungarian researchers, owe a lot to Risto Näätänen, who opened up a previously unknown avenue of research for us and allowed many of us to get personally close to him, be it at conferences and dinners, on excursions, or in world-changing conversations in saunas near Finnish lakes. He was our scientific father, our fatherly friend. He was the most cited psychologist, and in terms of science metrics, he was in the top 3% of researchers in the world. He never boasted about his results, he tried to pass on the knowledge he had acquired and, as an experienced researcher, share his wisdom with his students and followers. He has educated generations of researchers in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, in his country and around the world. His faith in science was stronger than anything else, and he set an example of how the failures and successes of being a researcher can be endured with professional and human fortitude. He was a reserved, quiet and modest man who loved and respected nature. A true Finn. We, Hungarian researchers, who owe our knowledge and approach in large part to him, are grateful for what he gave us. We say goodbye in the belief that we also gave him something of scientific and human value. Dear Risto, rest in peace!

Valéria Csépe
MTA full member
HUN-REN TTK Brain Imaging Centre