Jerome S. Bruner, who was born blind and, after having his sight restored, spent the rest of his life trying to understand how the human mind perceives the world, leading to influential advances in education and the development of the field of cognitive psychology, died June 5 at his home in New York City. He was 100.
He had an aortic aneurysm several months ago, said his son, Whitley Bruner, but the exact cause of death was not known.
In the 1950s, when Bruner was at Harvard University, he was a key figure in advancing the study of psychology beyond the behaviorist theories of B.F. Skinner, which held that people tended to act logically and in accordance with well-defined rewards and punishments.
During a 70-year academic career, Bruner was a restless researcher who constantly moved from one field to another. This basis of his work was the study of cognition, or what he called “the great question of how you know anything.” But he freely touched on fields as diverse as music, physics, literature, sociology and the law, drawing connections between cognitive perceptions and judicial decision-making.
“He invaded and created new areas of psychology and the social sciences at the speed other people wrote papers,” Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said Tuesday in an interview. “He was part of a generation of intellectual giants who roamed across the disciplinary terrain. Bruner and his colleagues gave us a language to see how we make sense of the world.”
One of Bruner’s early discoveries led to the “New Look” school of psychology, in which he showed that people’s perceptions of objects and events are often influenced by unseen social and cultural conditions. In one of his most famous experiments, poor children perceived the size of coins to be significantly larger than richer children did; the larger the monetary value of the coin, the bigger it was imagined to be.
That study helped lead Bruner to conclude that human motivations are far more complex than previously assumed and are subject to emotions, imagination and cultural training. Two of his early books, “A Study of Thinking” (1956) and “The Process of Education” (1960), outlined his ideas and codified them in a system that could be used in teaching.
His notions came at a time when U.S. officials, alarmed by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, feared that American students were falling behind in science. Bruner thought scientific principles — or any ideas, for that matter — could be grasped by students of any age, provided they were presented in a way they could understand.
“Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child,” he wrote in “The Process of Education,” “providing attention is paid to the psychological development of the child.”
With George A. Miller, Bruner established the Center for Cognitive Studies in 1960, and it soon became a leading incubator of ideas about psychology, education, language and other fields. Noam Chomsky, the linguistic theorist and social critic, was one of many scholars who began their careers at the center.
During the 1960s, Bruner was a science adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and his ideas about early education contributed to the development of Head Start. He went on to develop a “spiral curriculum,” in which complex subjects, including anthropology and science, are reintroduced to students year after year at ever-increasing levels of sophistication.
He drew on that idea to design a social science curriculum that was widely used in schools in the 1960s and 1970s before it encountered political opposition for its cross-cultural references and emphasis on the theory of evolution.
Many of Bruner’s notions, such as the element of emotion in decision-making, reflect simple common sense, Gardner said. But it took years for academic psychologists to accept some of his ideas.
For the past 30 years, while teaching at New York University’s law school, Bruner explored the idea of storytelling as a fundamental way of understanding the nature of the world around us. He believed that the choices we make in telling stories “become so habitual that they finally become recipes for structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory,” he said in 1987.
“This is a mode of cognition,” Gardner said, “at least as important as STEM” — the science, technology, engineering and mathematics model of instruction that has gained currency in recent years.
“He made narrative a form of thinking,” Gardner added.
Jerome Seymour Bruner was born Oct. 1, 1915, in New York City to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He was blind from cataracts at birth, but he underwent surgery at age 2 that gave him limited vision. He wore thick glasses throughout his life.
He was about 12 when his father, a watchmaker, died. But before his death, his father sold his business to Bulova, leaving the family well off.
Bruner became interested in psychology at Duke University, from which he graduated in 1937. He received master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology from Harvard in 1939 and 1941, respectively.
During World War II, he held jobs in military intelligence, using his training to examine propaganda. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1945, then left in 1972 to teach at the University of Oxford in England. (He sailed his boat across the Atlantic.)
He returned to the United States in 1980, teaching first at the New School in New York, then joining NYU. He continued to lead occasional seminars on cognitive theories behind the law until he was 98.
His books included “On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand” (1962) about the importance of spontaneity and intuition in thinking; “In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography” (1983); and, with law professor Anthony G. Amsterdam, “Minding the Law” (2000), which examines legal thinking through storytelling and language.
His marriages to Katherine Frost and Blanche Ames Marshall ended in divorce. His third wife, Carol Feldman, died in 2006. Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Whitley Bruner of Vienna, Virginia, and Jane Mullane of Tewksbury, England; and three grandchildren.
Bruner thought that a teacher’s primary task was what he called “the mining of human intellectual potential.” Too often, he said, that mission was undercut by well-meaning but poorly designed schools, churches and other institutions that did not understand the needs of children.
“If you construct a classroom in which children must keep their seats,” he said in 1987, “you are assuring that there will be a hyperactivity syndrome.”