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Michael J. Owren ’77

A picture of Michael Owren

Michael J. Owren ’77, January 15, 2014, in Atlanta, Georgia. A teacher and scientist who analyzed the biological foundations of animal and human communication, Michael was born in Oslo, Norway, and raised in Alaska; New Hampshire; and Bergen, Norway. He attended Reed, along with his sister, Turid L. Owren ’74, and earned a BA from Reed in psychology, working with adviser Prof. Allen Neuringer [psych 1970–2008] to complete the thesis “Dejection, Disgust, and Despair: A Layman’s Guide to Two Theories of Blocking and Overshadowing.” Michael went on to earn a doctorate from Indiana University in experimental psychology in 1986 and taught psychology and neuroscience for over 25 years, first while doing postdoctoral work at the University of California, Davis, and later at the University of Colorado at Denver, the University of Otago (New Zealand), Reed (1995–97), Cornell University, and Georgia State University. At the time of his death, he was an adjunct professor at Emory University. Michael loved teaching and served as a mentor to many undergraduate and graduate students. His research analyzed vocal phenomena in both animals and humans. He pioneered digital spectral analysis techniques, first developed in speech science for use in studies of animal communication. His work challenged a predominant view by showing that animal vocalizations “work” by influencing attentional, arousal, emotional, and motivational states in the listener, rather than by imparting representational messages. Michael’s empirical studies are widely recognized for their rigor and attention to detail. Longtime colleague Drew Rendall, chair of the University of Lethbridge psychology department, characterized Michael’s work as exceptional in its clarity of thought, expression, and vision. “His research techniques were widely embraced and became a standard part of the analytic toolkit of animal bioacousticians. Michael deployed his technical and methodological rigor investigating phenomena of very broad importance to theories of the origins and evolution of signaling systems in animals and humans, and he thus made enduring theoretical contributions to the discipline.” In addition to its academic recognition, Michael’s work generated interest in the popular media, including a Chicago Tribune article in 2003, which described his feline communication research as the “how of the meow.” Throughout his life, Michael enjoyed running and singing, and performed professionally with an a cappella group, Cool Shooz, in Denver. Friends and family enjoyed his dry wit and extensive knowledge on a great many topics—from beer to basketball to politics and world geography. Survivors include Turid, brothers Henry and Thomas, and 13 nieces and nephews. A memorial service for Michael was held in the Psychology building at Reed in March. Michael’s family, who provided this memorial, suggests remembrances to Reed College.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2014

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