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Alexander Romanovich Luria (Russian: Алекса́ндр Рома́нович Лу́рия

July 16, 1902 – August 14, 1977) was a famous Soviet neuropsychologist and developmental psychologist. He was one of the founders of cultural-historical psychology and psychological activity theory.


Luria was born in Kazan, a regional center east of Moscow, to Jewish parents. He studied at Kazan State University (graduated in 1921), Kharkov Medical Institute and 1st Moscow Medical Institute (graduated in 1937). He was appointed Professor (1944), Doctor of Pedagogical (1937) and Medical Sciences (1943). Throughout his career Luria worked in a wide range of scientific fields at such institutions as the Academy of Communist Education (1920-30s), Experimental Defectological Institute (1920-30s, 1950-60s, both in Moscow), Ukrainian Psychoneurological Academy (Kharkov, early 1930s), All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine, Burdenko Institute of Neurosurgery (late 1930s), and other institutions. In the late 1930s, Luria went to medical school. Following the war, Luria continued his work in Moscow's Institute of Psychology. For a period of time, he was removed from the Institute of Psychology, mainly as a result of a flare-up of anti-Semitism and shifted to research on mentally retarded children at the Defectological Institute in the 1950s. Additionally, from 1945 on Luria worked at the Moscow State University and was instrumental in the foundation of the Faculty of Psychology at the Moscow State University, where he later headed the Departments of Patho- and Neuropsychology.

The following is cited from A.R. Luria Biography by Michael Cole
Alexander Luria was born in Kazan, an old Russian University town east of Moscow. He entered Kazan University at the age of 16 and obtained his degree in 1921 at the age of 19. While still a student, he established the Kazan Psychoanalytic Association, and planned on a career in psychology. His earliest research sought to establish objective methods for assessing Freudian ideas about abnormalities of thought and the effects of fatigue on mental processes.

In 1923 his use of reaction time measures to study thought processes in the context of work settings won him a position at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow where he developed a psychodiagnostic procedure he referred to as the "combined motor method" for diagnosing individual subjects' thought processes. In this method (described in detail in Luria, 1932), subjects are asked to carry out three tasks simultaneously. One hand is to be held steady while the other is used to press a key or squeeze a rubber bulb in response to verbal stimuli presented by the experimenter, to which the subject is asked to respond verbally with the first word to come to mind. Preliminary trials are presented until a steady baseline of coordination is established. At this point, "critical" stimuli which the experimenter believes to be related to specific thoughts in the subject are presented. Evidence for the ability to "read the subject's mind" is the selective disruption of the previously established coordinated system by the critical test stimuli. This method was applied to a variety of naturally occurring and experimentally induced cases, providing a model system for psychodiagnosis that won widespread attention in the west when it was published. The book describing these studies was published in Russian only in 2002, owing to its association with psychoanalytic theorizing which was disapproved of by Soviet authorities.

In 1924 Luria met Lev Semionovich Vygotsky, whose influence was decisive in shaping his future career. Together with Vygotsky and Alexei Nikolaivitch Leontiev, Luria sought to establish an approach to psychology that would enable them to "discover the way natural processes such as physical maturation and sensory mechanisms become intertwined with culturally determined processes to produce the psychological functions of adults" (Luria, 1979, p. 43). Vygotsky and his colleagues referred to this new approach variably as "cultural," "historical," and "instrumental" psychology. These three labels all index the centrality of cultural mediation in the constitution of specifically human psychological processes, and the role of the social environment in structuring the processes by which children appropriate the cultural tools of their society in the process of ontogeny. An especially heavy emphasis was placed on the role of language, the "tool of tools" in this process: the acquisition of language was seen as the pivotal moment when phylogeny and cultural history are merged to form specifically human forms of thought, feeling, and action.

From the late 1920's until his death, Luria sought to elaborate this synthetic, cultural-historical psychology in different content areas of psychology. In the early 1930's he led two expeditions to Central Asia where he investigated changes in perception, problem solving, and memory associated with historical changes in economic activity and schooling. During this same period he carried out studies of identical and fraternal twins raised in a large residential school to reveal the dynamic relations between phylogenetic and cultural-historical factors in the development of language and thought.

In the late 1930's, largely to remove himself from public view owing to the period of purges initiated by Stalin, Luria entered medical school where he specialized in the study of aphasia, retaining his focus on the relation between language and thought in a politically neutral arena. The onset of World War 2 made his specialized knowledge of crucial importance to the Soviet war effort, and the tragic widespread availability of people with various forms of traumatic brain injury provided him with voluminous materials for developing his theories of brain function and methods for the remediation of focal brain lesions. It was during this period that he developed the systematic approach to brain and cognition which has come to be known as the discipline of neuropsychology. Central to his approach was the belief that "to understand the brain foundations for psychological activity, one must be prepared to study both the brain and the system of activity" (1979, p. 173). This insistence on linking brain structure and function to the proximal, culturally organized, environment provides the thread of continuity between the early and later parts of Luria's career.

Following the war Luria sought to continue his work in neuropsychology. His plans were interrupted for several years when he was removed from the Institute of Neurosurgery during a period of particularly virulent anti-semitic repression. During this time he pursued his scientific interests through a series of studies of the development of language and thought in mentally retarded children.

In the late 1950's Luria was permitted to return to the study of neuropsychology, which he pursued until his death of heart failure in 1977. In the years just prior to his death, he returned to earliest dreams of constructing a unified psychology. He published two case studies, one of a man with an exceptional and idiocyncratic memory (Luria, 1968), the other of a man who suffered a traumatic brain injury (Luria, 1972). These two case studies illustrate his blend of classical, experimental approaches with clinical and remediational approach, a synthesis that stands as a model for late 20th Century cognitive science.

Scientific work

While a student in Kazan, he established the Kazan Psychoanalytic Association and exchanged letters with Sigmund Freud.

In 1923, his work with reaction times related to thought processes earned him a position at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow. There, he developed the "combined motor method," which helped diagnose individuals' thought processes, creating the first ever lie-detector device. This research was published in the US in 1932 (published in Russian for the first time only in 2002).

In 1924, Luria met Lev Vygotsky, who would influence him greatly. Along with Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev, these three psychologists launched a project of developing a psychology of a radically new kind. This approach fused "cultural," "historical," and "instrumental" psychology and is most commonly referred to presently as cultural-historical psychology. It emphasizes the mediatory role of culture, particularly language, in the development of higher mental functions in ontogeny and phylogeny.

Luria's work continued in the 1930s with his psychological expeditions to Central Asia. Under the supervision of Vygotsky, Luria investigated various psychological changes (including perception, problem solving, and memory) that take place as a result of cultural development of undereducated minorities. In this regard he has been credited with a major contribution to the study of orality.[1] Later, he studied identical and fraternal twins in large residential schools to determine the interplay of various factors of cultural and genetic human development. In his early neuropsychological work in the end of 1930s as well as throughout his postwar academic life he focused on the study of aphasia, focusing on the relation between language, thought, and cortical functions, particularly on the development of compensatory functions for aphasia.

During World War II Luria led a research team at an army hospital looking for ways to compensate psychological dysfunctions in patients with brain lesions. His work resulted in creating the field of Neuropsychology. His two main case studies, both published a few years before his death, described S.V. Shereshevskii, a Russian journalist with a seemingly unlimited memory (1968), in part due to his fivefold synesthesia. This case was presented in a book The Mind of a Mnemonist. Luria's other most well-known book is The Man with a Shattered World, a penetrating account of Zasetsky, a man who suffered a traumatic brain injury (1972). These case studies illustrate Luria's main methods of combining classical and remediational approaches.

Luria-Nebraska Neuropsychological Test

The Luria-Nebraska Neuropsychological Test is a standardized test based on the theories of Luria regarding neuropsychological functioning. There are 11 scales: motor functions, rhythm, tactile functions, visual functions, receptive speech, expressive speech, writing, reading, arithmetic, memory, and intellectual processes. It is used with people who are 15 years or older; however,it may be used with adolescents down to 12 years old. Part of A.R. Luria's legacy was the premium that he placed on the observation of a patient completing a task; intraindividual differences. This flies in the face of standardized testing, yet its importance cannot be ignored. The Luria-Nebraska Neuropsychological Battery (now in its third iteration) attempts to create an alloy of standardized testing and idiosyncratic observation by allowing comparision to the normative sample, and at the same time giving the test administrator flexibility in the administration.

See also



  • Luria, A. R. (1963). Restoration of Function After Brain Injury, Pergamon Press.
  • Luria, A. R. (1970). Traumatic Aphasia: Its Syndromes, Psychology, and Treatment, Mouton de Gruyter. Book summary by Washington University National Primate Research Center
  • Luria, A. R. (1973). The Working Brain, Basic Books.
  • Luria, A. R. (1976). The Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations, Harvard University Press.
  • Luria, A. R.; Bruner, Jerome (1987). The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About A Vast Memory, Harvard University Press.
  • Luria, A. R.; Solotaroff, Lynn (1987). The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound, Harvard University Press.
  • Luria, A.R. (2005). Autobiography of Alexander Luria: A Dialogue with the Making of Mind, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Luria, A. R. (1973). The Working Brain: An Introduction to Neuropsychology.
  • Luria, A.R. (1976). Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
  • Luria, A.R. (1979). The Making of Mind: A Personal Account of Soviet Psychology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
  • Luria, A.R. (1980). Higher Cortical Functions in Man. New York: Basic Books.
  • Luria, A.R. (1982). Language and Cognition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Luria, A.R. (1987). The Mind of a Mnemonist. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • Luria, A.R. & Tsvetkova, L.S. (1990) The Neuropsychological Analysis of Problem Solving. Orlando: Paul M. Deutsch Press.

Further reading

  • Christensen, A-L. (1975) Luria's Neuropsychological Investigation. New York: Spectrum Publications.
  • Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (second edition). Routledge, London and New York, 2002, pp. 49-54.
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