Elliot S. Valenstein, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Michigan, passed away January 12, 2023 at the age of ninety-nine.
Professor Valenstein received his B.S. degree from City College of New York in 1949 and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Kansas in 1953 and 1954, respectively. From 1955-61, he was chief of neuropsychology at the Walter Reed Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., and from 1961-70 he was a senior scientist at the Fels Research Institute and professor of psychology at Antioch College. He came to the University of Michigan as professor of psychology in 1970, and he also served as chair of the Biopsychology Program from 1980-91.
Professor Valenstein was an ingenious and influential biopsychologist who studied the biological bases of emotion, motivation and reward. His early career also studied sexual hormone influences on brain development and adult behavior. Among Elliot’s important contributions, his elegant studies revolutionized scientific understanding of how motivations are mediated by the brain. It was known that brain electrode stimulation of particular brain regions caused some animals to eat, others to drink and yet others to engage in sex, and similar results occurred in human psychiatric patients with brain electrodes. At the time it was thought these stimulations activated dedicated hunger circuits, or thirst circuits, etc., but Professor Valenstein went on to show that this popular belief was wrong. His experiments demonstrated instead that these brain stimulations activated non-specific motivational systems, but different individuals had different ‘prepotent’ motivational biases triggered by their electrodes.
He further showed that an individual’s prepotent bias could be shifted, so that the same electrode that initially triggered eating came to trigger only drinking after certain experiences refocused the electrode’s prepotent motivation. Professor Valenstein’s demonstrations required entirely new concepts to replace old concepts of rigid neural systems dedicated to fixed motivations. His brain stimulation studies also anticipated later work on the psychological roles of dopamine and other specific neurotransmitter systems in motivation.
In addition to his many scientific papers, Professor Valenstein published 10 books, some of which had a major impact on thinking about biological approaches in the treatment of mental illness. For example, his 1973 book, Brain Control, inspired many students to pursue careers in physiological psychology. Great and Desperate Cures (1986) examined the checkered history of psychosurgery, focusing on prefrontal lobotomy, and Blaming the Brain (1998) critiqued the ‘serotonin deficit’ logic often used in pharmaceutical marketing of antidepressant drugs. Several other excellent books illuminated historical developments in the field or major figures in world events.
Before retiring from active faculty status on August 31, 1994, Professor Valenstein taught at the University of Michigan for twenty-four years, impacting numerous doctoral students and postgraduate fellows, many of whom have gone on to have their own distinguished careers.
Professor Valenstein was preceded in death by his wife, Thelma. He is survived by his two sons, Paul and Carl; his two daughters-in-law, Marcia and Susan; his four grandchildren, Clara, Helen, Max, and Laura; and his four great-grandchildren to cherish his memory.
Professor Valenstein’s obituary can be found at this link.
You can view Professor Valenstein's Retirement Memoir here.
Contribution in memory of Professor Valenstein can be made to the University of Michigan Elliot S. Valenstein Biopsychology Colloquium Fund.