Annette Karmiloff-Smith 1938-2016

An appreciation from Professor Michael Thomas.

Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, a highly influential developmental and cognitive scientist who made significant contributions to our understanding of normal and abnormal development, passed away in December 2016. Annette was a seminal thinker in the field of child development. She was the recipient of many awards, including the European Science Foundation Latsis Prize for Cognitive Sciences, Fellowships of the British Academy, the Cognitive Science Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Royal Society of Arts, as well as honorary doctorates from universities across the world. She was awarded a CBE for services to cognitive development in the 2004 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. 

I first saw Annette give a research talk at a workshop on the idea of implicit and explicit representations in the mid 1990s. I was struck by her vibrancy, the passion of her arguments, and by her serious theoretical ideas presented with a sense of fun. She was presenting ideas on how psychological nativism, and particularly Jerry Fodor’s thesis that the mind is composed of innate modules, could be combined with the Piagetian idea that cognition is constructed through an active, experience-driven process of development. In her 1992 book, Beyond Modularity, Annette sought to advance ‘cognitive development as a serious theoretical science contributing to the discussion of how the human mind is organised internally, and not as merely a cute empirical database about when external behaviour can be observed’ (1992, p. xiii).

Annette began her scientific career in Geneva, Switzerland. She was working as a simultaneous interpreter for the United Nations, but was bored because she was always repeating other people’s thoughts and was not allowed, as interpreter, to have any of her own. Deciding to go back to university and exploring a local bookshop for inspiration, one day she caught sight of Jean Piaget, whose photo she recognised from a textbook. She followed him back to the university buildings, deciding then to audit his course. Her eyes were opened. To her, Piaget’s approach to development offered so much more than observation. It included epistemology, logic, philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of science. It was there that she discovered her absolute passion for research. 

Annette went on to complete her PhD at the University of Geneva, supervised by Barbel Inhelder and Jean Piaget. Her first article "If you want to get ahead, get a theory!" was published in 1975. After a number of years working on typical development, with a two-year gap working in the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, in 1982 she moved to London to the Medical Research Council’s Cognitive Development Unit. There, several colleagues were working on autism and Down syndrome, which stimulated her interest in atypical development 

In 1998, she set up her own MRC-funded Neurocognitive Development Unit at the Institute of Child Health in London. By then, she was convinced that the study of development had to embrace a multi-disciplinary approach, combining research at several levels of description, including genes, brains, cognition, behaviour, and the environment (reflected in her co-authorship of the influential book, Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development, published in 1996). Her new unit brought together researchers using behavioural methods, brain imaging, genetics, and computational modelling, and studying infants, children, adolescents and adults. The primary focus was on developmental disorders, including seminal work on the rare genetic disorder Williams syndrome.

Annette developed an approach called neuroconstructivism, to integrate Piagetian theory with new findings on functional brain development. An understanding of developmental mechanism was again to the fore, as in her 1998 paper, "Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders". What seems to be the ‘natural’ organisation of the brain in adults is actually a result of development itself – developmental disorders are not ‘knocking out’ specific abilities but affecting the dynamics of neurodevelopment as the child interacted with the world, with early low-level differences in infancy having potential cascading effects across development. After joining Birkbeck, University of London, as a Professorial Research Fellow in 2006, her work focused on understanding the complex epigenetic interactions involved in brain organisation across early development, with her most recent Wellcome-Trust-funded research using Down syndrome as a model for Alzheimer’s Disease to investigate potential early risk and protective factors for the emergence of dementia.

As someone committed to the communication of science to a broader audience, Annette also wrote several extremely successful books directed at a lay audience, several co-written with her daughter Kyra (Baby It’s You: A unique insight into the first three years of the developing baby, 1994; Everything Your Baby Would Ask, 1998; Understanding Your Baby: A Parent's Guide to Early Child Development, 2015). On a personal level, Annette was immensely supportive to students and junior colleagues, and was an inspiring mentor. She was also a keen advocate of women in science. Her advice to women starting out in a career in science captures Annette’s spirit perfectly: “Don’t forget that you are a woman! You can be a top scientist and a mother, if you want to (I have two daughters and eight grandchildren and love it), and you can be feminine and intelligent! Above all, only do research if you feel passionate about it - you have to work very hard (eight days a week), it is physically and psychologically demanding, and the data aren’t always kind! But it is such fun.” 

Annette will be deeply missed.

- Professor Michael S. C. Thomas is in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck College, University of London. Also see our 'One on One' with Annette from 2008, and her thoughts on the most important psychology experiment never done.

Photo by Jacques Erard.

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