Risto Näätänen 75

It was Bernard of Chartres who introduced the metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants in the 12th century. This metaphor was an inspiration to Sir Isaac Newton for his famous expression, directed mockingly to his challenger Robert Hook, in a letter from 1676: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We all—Risto’s students, colleagues, and friends—are extremely happy standing on the shoulders of Risto who has seen farther, deeper, and more clearly than anybody else.

ISI Highly Cited highlighted the people who have made fundamental contributions to the advancement of science between 2000 and 2008. There are very few individuals who were among the 250 most-cited researchers in two separate disciplines simultaneously, neuroscience and psychiatry/psychology. There is no question that Risto Näätänen is from a rare Nobel category of scientists.

Fortunately, the Google Scholar allows creating and maintaining personal profile of scholars. Being always updated we can learn that Risto’s papers have been cited more than 43,000 times and his h-index 107 is by far beyond his current age.

It is a great privilege to enjoy the personal charm and wisdom emanating from Risto’s mere presence. Risto’s students, colleagues, and friends wish that his sharp and youthful mind will continue to surprise and hearten us with a flow of new ideas!

Happy 75th birthday Risto Näätänen!

Warm congratulations to you Risto, the definitive world-class hero of the Finnish and nowadays also Estonian cognitive neuroscience. Although you unfortunately had to leave our institute  almost a decade ago, your theoretical thinking and ideals of how to conduct science on the international top level continue to be a model for us. We wish you a happy 75th birthday and believe that during the next quarter century of your life your scientific creativity will continue to flourish and produce new exciting discoveries and applications!

On behalf of the  Institute of Behavioural Sciences, University of Helsinki
Jussi Saarinen, Director
Petri Paavilainen, Head of Psychology and Cognitive Science diciplines

"Happy birthday!" says

Sanna Koskinen, PhD
University Lecturer
University of Helsinki
Institute of Behavioural Sciences

Risto has been my supervisor, mentor and colleague. Among many other things he has taught me to write scientific text. Anybody who has worked with him knows what I mean. What I learned from Risto is that scientific text must be unambiguous. One should try to avoid giving any room to reader’s misinterpretations. Moreover, synonyms should not be used even if this increased tautology: When you write about something, give it a name and use this name and only this name throughout the text. Otherwise the reader starts wondering whether the two names refer to two different things. Avoid high-flown descriptive style. Be as simple, exact, and concrete as possible. And so on, and so forth. The resulting text may be linguistically a bit boring but scientifically exact. I think these are also some of the secrets behind the high number of citations to Risto’s articles, especially his influential review articles. In them, Risto describes his evidence and theoretical conclusions as simply as possible. This guarantees that readers understand his message exactly the way he wants them to understand it. Unlike many other theoretical works, Risto’s review articles cannot be cited as supporting your own argumentation unless you genuinely agree with him.

I vividly remember two private lessons at Risto’s writing school.  My first memory is from the time when I was still a doctoral student. We were writing a manuscript on selective auditory attention and event-related brain potentials. This was not the first time I was the first author. Despite this, Risto had many comments and corrections to the about twentieth version of the text, even to its opening paragraph that I was already very proud of. This time he had removed and rewritten almost everything in this paragraph although he had accepted it before. The only things he did not delete were the citations in parentheses to other people’s research. He had meticulously removed and corrected the text in three rounds. This was obvious because on one round he had used a pencil and on the other two rounds a blue and a red pen. I got very upset. How could he do this to my text? How could he do this to me! But I thought it was better just to make the changes and get the manuscript submitted and eventually published.  I made all revisions suggested by Risto without thinking much why he had revised the text.

My second memory is from the time after my return to Helsinki from a post-doctoral year in California. I was once again the first author. This time Risto had made less corrections and comments to the manuscript than before and I started feeling like a truly senior scientist. But when I got to the discussion part of the manuscript there was something written in the margin: “Kimmo, you should think when you write!” I got very upset, marched into Risto’s room, and told him that I would quit. As a good mentor, he calmed me down and admitted that he might have been too direct this time. Then we had a constructive discussion and revised together the problematic part of the text.

And now I wonder why my students do not think when they write. When I revise their manuscripts, do they ever think why I have rewritten some sentences?  Do they compare the old version with the new one and do they really understand that I am not suggesting revisions just to show off but that there were genuine problems with the text? Moreover, why can’t they see that even I may change my opinions and interpretations after the text has become readable and all results obtained have finally become visible? Will they ever learn? I am sure that someday they will and then they will start wondering about their own students’ thinking skills. They will remember my comments and my frustration – and they will smile.

Risto, congratulations on your 75th birthday!


My Dear Risto,

We have walked together a long way, starting back in 1992, when you kindly accepted me to come around to bother in your lab for a short visit in 1993 ...

... which I indeed did (May-July 1993).

It seems that for some  reason it may have worked out, as you were so brave to hope for future collaboration...

... and since then the collaboration continued, and the friendship increased, with memorable moments, such as when we published our first join paper together, in Journal of Cognitive Neurocience 1998: 407 citations since then... Not bad!!

We have lived important professional moments together, for example when we launched our first EU project in 1996, COBRAIN, or "cowBrain" as we liked to make fun out of it (did you hear about it?),

the organization of the First International Workshop of the Mismatch Negativity and its Clinical Applications (MMN98) in Helsinki 1998, or the subsequent  one, the MMN2000 in Barcelona 2000 (for which we were assisted by Elena Yago and Maria José Corral, in the pic with you and me),

or a trip to Utsunomiya (Japan) in 2001 (in the pic with Hirooki Yabe, our host, Istvàn Winkler, Mari Tervaniemi, and other Japanese colleagues).

Since then we kept holding meetings, running studies and writing up papers together, always on the mismatch negativity and your obstinacy to find clinical applications for it. Remarkably, I think you finally found out  the key factor explaining why the MMN abnormality is present in so many disorders: the deficient NMDA-receptor function, as we proposed together -with others, in Brain in 2011 .

I have share many special moments... I remember the two of us having dinner together on the farewell party of the MMN2009 conference in Budapest, when I mentioned to you that I have found traces of deviance detection at much shorter latencies that those of the MMN... by the Middle-Latency Response: of course, you were very skeptical (ha-ha,... you simply did not believe it!). One year later though, we gathered together in a workshop in Japan (what congress was that?), and I remember that at the end of the symposium you told that you now believe it! It was an important moment for me. And now it seems that we are going to meet again in Japan (the IOP congress in September 2014) where I will present the whole story of the shorter latencies.

The most important personal moment for us was, however, when you were granted the honorary doctorate by the University of Barcelona in March 2007.

My Dear Risto, I wish you a very, very Happy Birthday, and that we can continue sharing moments like those for many years to come.


June 14th, 2014; for your 75th birthday!

There are many stories on professor Risto Näätänen and female researchers. Let me tell you one.

When I was working on my PhD thesis in the early 1990's in Risto's lab, not many young scientists had babies. Actually, none of the female PhD students had any children. Some of the male scientists had had a child during their PhD or post doctoral period, but this was very little discussed in the lab at that time.

When it was time for me to defend my thesis, I had just found out that I was pregnant. I didn't want to tell it to anybody at work yet, since it was still so very early. I must say that the knowledge of carrying a fetus brought a completely next level to the experience of defencing my thesis against an opponent (who was very polite and nice, anyway).

After the big day, the time had come to let people in the lab know about my pregnancy. I went to Risto's office to ask for a meeting. He let me in, and I told him I want to show a photo to him. It was the ultrasound image of the fetus showing my pregnancy, which was still not visible from the outside. Risto's reaction was immediate: he stood up, hugged me and congratulated me. He also asked me to congratulate my husband. There was no question about what would happen to my postdoctoral period in Lyon, which we already had agreed upon (we postponed it with a bit more than a year, which was a great decision). At that moment, he was so fast to react in such a positive way that after that, I also lost my hesitance about how to deal with practical things in the lab.

Today, in 2014, things are very different in the lab. It is perfectly normal for both male and female PhD students to have a child or even two during the PhD process. We now also have PhD students who already have children when they apply for a PhD student position. I'm happy about this change. It is partially due to the great maternity and paternity benefits of Finland, and partially of course changes in attitudes.

This incident is just one example about the fact that Risto has been several decades ahead of his time in his thinking, both scientifically but also societally.

Helsinki, June 5th, 2014

Minna Huotilainen
research professor, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health
and PI, Cognitive Brain Research Unit, University of Helsinki

I have known Risto since 1968, first as a teacher when I was a student, then as a colleague but par excellence as a friend. As a friend he is special, as a colleague he taught me how science is not work but a way to live. As a teacher he was not a favourite of students in 60s. Why ? Risto has just arrived from US or from Netherlands with his groundbreaking scientific discovery. He of course wanted to continue his research but what happened. He was charged with checking the BA-essays focusing on psychoanalysis and on Rorschach test by the head of the department. Students had created novel Rorschach scales with most mysterious theoretical framework and magic interpretations. After this "activity" Risto said that that when the life will taxe one's mental strenght, it gives him or her 30 Rorschach essays created by students with full of enthusiasm but without the first sign of judgement. And we thought that our Rorschach scales would change the science !  Later on I have realized that this was the first piece of true scientific advice, actually very important, that we all got from Risto. I am most grateful that I believed him, instead of  the general opinion of the department.

As a colleague, Risto is a good example of the whole positive thing that is involved in and can be linked with science. It is not needed to list his attributes; we all know him.

As a friend, I would have a great variety of stories how Risto has helped, supported and advised me in difficult situations during my career. Those situations cannot be described, often they are confidential.  I just say that everyone would need a friend like Risto.

Many happy years, Risto!


An anecdotal picture of Risto as a persevering sportsman. As is usual during the Finnish graduate of Psychology events, after enjoying lectures and scientific work, we had sauna by the sea side also then. The only thing was that the sea water was still rather cold as it was early spring. During the sauna Risto asked us the doctoral candidates to accompany him to swim in the sea, arguing for all the benefits of first enjoying good sauna and then relaxing after the cold water, which would also enhance the enjoyment of the evening get-together. Apparently the others were not convinced about these benefits as I was the only one who followed Risto down the path to the seaside. At the shore there was a pier, at the end of which steps down to the almost icy water. Risto kindly invited me to step down first and I quickly had a dip in the sea, feeling already relaxed - certainly an oddball experience for me. Risto, however, went slowly down, clearly enjoying every moment of getting into the cold water, and, somewhat to my surprise,  he went on to make a long swimming tour, while I already started to get cold standing on the pier. After finishing his swimming tour, Risto went and took a beer he had kept cold in the sea at the shore and lied on his back on the pier enjoying the absolutely relaxing feeling, partly endorsed by beta-endorphins generated during swimming. For how long, I couldn’t estimate as I started to get too cold. It apparently was quite standard for Risto. I thought, what a great way to combine perseverance and enjoyment, both needed in scientific work.

Risto, congratulations on your 75th birthday!

Paavo Leppänen

Department of Psychology, University of Jyväskylä

My warmest greetings to you, Risto!

Risto, the opportunity to follow your research and your persistent quest for scientific excellence... this has given me an exceptional opportunity to be interested, to learn, and to be guided by your work as a younger fellow.

I warmly extend my gratitude to you for all the wonderful experiences that we have had together in our shared scientific endeavours, but also for our family-based friendship.  Paula joins me in mediating our warmest congratulations.

Heikki & Paula Lyytinen from Jyväskylä

I have known Risto quite some time. The first publications we wrote together, included in my PhD thesis, are from 1984. I have many pleasant memories especially from our early joint period, after I had finalized my M.A. thesis. We set up together the first appropriate EEG laboratory in the Department of Psychology in University of Helsinki (data was analyzed with Soviet computers SM3 and SM4), made together some pioneering mismatch studies (I am still proud of them), wrote papers (with a type writer), I draw figures for publications (with rapidograph and letrasets), and also had fun. Excellent youngsters joined us (Kimmo, Petri, Kalevi, Wålle ……). We were a small and enthusiastic group with skills to do many things.  At that time you did not go to a shop to buy an EEG amplifier system with analysis programs, equipments was mainly of DIY type. When the first microcomputers came, you had to be able to program them with assembler (peek, poke, lda…) to have your experiments done. Oh man, it was hard but we had a lot of fun.

When we started to use our first F8 microprocessor, we had to load the program and stimulus sequence from a punched tape. Once this happened: We had planned an experiment and generated the stimulus sequence and stored it on a tape. We recorded EEG (using three or something electrodes) from 10 subjects; I do not recall what exactly was the stimulus sequence. Then we off-line averaged responses to presented auditory stimuli. Risto was at that time away from Finland for a longer period, so we sent pictures of ERPs to him (no email attachments at that time). Effects were very unexpected and Risto was really excited of the new findings. We were pedant guys, and of course checked that everything is ok. We found a very interesting explanation to the found effects, an extra hole had appeared in the beginning of punched tape, which of course disorganized the whole planned sequence. We never published that data.

In the early days we could not have a look at recorded ERPs on a computer screen, we had to print them. We had a wonderful Calcomp drum printer in the lab, and it was always a great moment when the drum started to roll and ERPs slowly appeared on the paper. In the early days of mismatch, adding a new deviant feature to an auditory stimulus sequence was exciting. Do we get a mismatch response or not? A very exciting deviance was a decrement in the auditory stimulus intensity.  We predicted that if mismatch response really is a mismatch response, we should also get it with lower intensity stimulus, and actually it should be the larger the lower is the intensity.  You cannot imagine the feeling we had when the Calcomp printer slowly made visible a very big mismatch response to a very weak deviant stimulus. I remember that we shouted of excitement! I love understanding world by making experiments.

Risto, now we can use huge computer resources, hundreds of EEG and MEG channels, add information from fMRI and TMS and PET, have several PhD students and postdocs. We can fly to important conferences far away, have easy access to literature. But what we did together in the early days is at least equally important as what our colleagues are doing today. Let’s have two glasses of good red wine together to celebrate your birthday. By the way, also I am in pretty good shape!


There's a STANDARD >>>      


 <<< and a NON-STANDARD route,

and there are BIG PRINTS in the non-standard route made by Risto. First, he is a tall person with big feet which leave big prints (in this particular case, in the snow near the lake where I and him jumped into after sauna), but also- Risto went new ways in science which left many „PRINTS“ in the sense of papers and other forms of impact.

About Risto´s “big print” on science in general and my science in particular. I learned to know Risto in 1991 when I spent a very cold Winter in his Lab in Ritarikatu. There I learned ERP-technology, with the help of my teacher Petri Paavilainen and the help of the other members of his lab at that time such as Mari Tervaniemi, Kimmo Alho, Istvan Winkler, Teija Kujala, Minna Huotilainen, Kalevi Reinikainen, Hannu Tiitinen, Wolfgang Teder-Salejärvi, Juha Lavikainen. I´m very thankful for this training and the resulting cooperation, which, in a way, was the basis of my scientific career. Also the members of my lab are grateful to that as they probably would not have a job in my lab without Risto´s influence on me.

To give back a little of what I did receive from Risto, I named a new ERP component after him; although the component has been noticed by a few people, probably noone has noticed that the name intentionally alludes to Risto. This ERP component is the so-called Re-Orienting Negativity which is elicited when attention is redirected to the task after it had been distracted by a deviant or novel event. The abbreviation of this component is an acronym of this important scientist we praise today. Orignially, it has planned to be RN (for Reorienting Negativity = Risto Näätänen) but as RN is difficult to pronounce, I decided to call it RON for RistO Näätänen.

Erich Schröger, from Lepzig

Risto was my real personal bridge to the world of cognitive neuroscience. It was in the cold snowy January of 1997, when I first met Risto at a little place in Finnish countryside, which happened to be the location of the Helsinki University zoological station. Remote, virtually unpopulated place, lots of snow, short winter days, sombre Baltic coast with an ice sheet over water and of course a sauna – everything you need for a proper scientific outing, Finnish-style. And lots and lots of neuroscience – talks, seminars, brain storm meetings, reports, late night poster sessions, you name it. As a young student, it was then unbelievable for me that a famous scientist like Professor Näätänen could be approached in a casual style. Yet, when a fellow Finnish student told me I should speak with Risto, and I managed to put all my courage together for this, he turned to be the most approachable of all professors I had known until then. So it was then when we first discussed a joint project and small funding application that had big consequences, at least as far as I am concerned: that casual chat in a hallway led first to a lab placement, then a PhD and finally to a life-long collaboration which has in many ways defined my path as a scientist. The tall, quiet and serious professor also turned to be the most friendly, hospitable and kind person I know. A meticulous scientist. An excellent team leader and a real teacher. And a sportsman. And a gourmet. And a sauna addict. You name it.

Risto’s work laid one of the cornerstones of the modern human brain research. So, when a few years back we tried to differentiate the long-term and short-term subcomponents of the mismatch negativity, we naturally called the part of the response linked to long-term memory trace activation the Representational Negativity, RN for short. So, here it is to RN – a scientist, a teacher, a collaborator, and a brainwave! Happy Birthday, Risto - and many happy returns!

Yury Shtyrov

I have known Risto since long. The first time I met him was at a conference in Helsinki some time during the 1970s. Risto and his family then stayed with me and my family in Umeå in 1982. I had invited him to give a seminar for colleagues and graduate students at department of psychology. His talk was of course on mismatch negativity. It was the first time many of my students heard about this phenomenon. During the 1980s and 1990s, I met him several times at conferences. His talks at these conferences were always focused on mismatch negativity.

Some years ago, I had been asked to write a chapter in an anniversary book for a psychology department at a Nordic university. I had then reason to go through Web of Science and Google Scholar to look for number of citations for the departments of psychology in the Nordic countries. I discovered then that Risto was the most cited researcher in psychology in these countries. I was impressed and included this in my chapter. Many colleagues were also impressed, when they read this and many were envious.

One very memorable event together with Risto was at a conference in Tartu that a colleague of mine, Lars Nyberg, had organized in 2009 for the Nordic Center of Excellence in Cognitive Control. Risto had retired from his position in Hesinki a few years earlier and moved to Tartu for a position as professor of cognitive neuroscience of the University of Tartu. At the end of the sessions one day at the conference, Risto was kind to invite me and several colleagues at the conference to his wonderful new apartment on the top of a hill overlooking the city center of Tartu. Risto’s wife was also present. Sitting there talking, someone asked Risto how he felt about moving from Helsinki to Tartu. He got a bit agitated, when he started to talk about the mandatory retirement age of 67 years and about the age discrimination in the Finnish academia. If I remember correctly, Risto even turned off the lights in the room, when he said this, as if to emphasize how he felt about the Finnish system of mandatory retirement. Someone then asked about the situation in Estonia and Tartu in particular. He then turned on the lights and said that he was very happy to be in Tartu and to be employed by University of Tartu. He added and said that he was so happy that he gave the Estonians a present. “What was the present?”, someone asked. “Mismatch negativity”, Risto replied.

Happy birthday Risto!

Professor Lars-Göran Nilsson

Aging Research Center, Karolinska Insitutet, and Umeå Center for Functional Brain Imaging, Umeå University

I met Risto for the first time when planning my master's thesis in late 1980's under the supervision of Kimmo Alho. In the meeting, he very quickly and strongly supported me to include in the experiment not only sinusoidal tones but also digital piano sounds to compare musicians with and without absolute pitch in their pitch discrimination accuracy using MMN paradigm. This need to improve the stimulation quality was based on prior findings in listening studies with participants with absolute pitch. The outcome of the thesis project you can find in journal Music Perception, 1993. More important than that paper is that, later on, this advice made him recommend the use of harmonically rich sounds in all MMN studies since those were found to elicit more robust MMN responses than sinusoidal tones.

The meeting was very influential also in a sense that Risto asked me to act as his secretary for a couple of years - first to type his correspondence and scientific manuscripts (based on his hand-written notes), thereafter to type also his book, to arrange congresses, and to help him coordinate CBRU activities and an EU-funded COBRAIN project. As reminders of those activities, I attach some congress materials and journal covers.

Prof. Mari Tervaniemi, www.cbru.helsinki.fi/music
Universities of Jyväskylä and Helsinki, Finland

This is my short memory of Risto as a speaker in his doctoral students' Karonkka. Many of my student fellows made their dissertations to Risto during 1970's and 80's. As always the achievement after the defence was celebrated by organizing Karonkka. In first Karonkka, his speech was rather short telling about significance of mismatch negativity when studying brain and behavior and what the just defended dissertation was contributed to the field. Next time, the speech was twice as long as he added the role and contribution of the new candidate to the earlier speech contents given maybe a half-an-year earlier. Finally after a couple of defences, the speeches were rather long, and those who knew what to expect prepared well with enough drinks and other supplies. I think, this is the way how Risto thinks and acts: building of a firm bases and looking for the future. Best congratulations from Otaniemi.

Professor Matti Vartiainen
Work Psychology and Leadership
Department of Industrial Engineering and Management

I want to send my birthday greetings to Risto with reminding the happy days and good colleagues at the Department of Experimental Psychology of the University of Helsinki at Ritarikatu 5.

I have known Risto and his family since 1964 when we both were students, and later we became family friends. Risto was very sporty. We had to get a shower room at our department for him because he jogged often.

Once we met in Lappland at our cabin at Lake Inari. When we made a long journey on our boat, he wanted to swim in the lake. When he had swimmed long enough, he wanted to get back into the boat. It proved to be very difficult as the sides of the boat were quite high. Finally he could enter the boat by using the outboard motor as his ladder.

This photo is from year 1986 and shows from left to right me, Risto and Pekka Lehtiö. Although our laboratories were situated next to each other, we did not collaborate because we were doing visual psychophysics and Risto event-related potentials. The members of our projects were friends and we never had any quarrel although we often could have horse play concerning each others work.

This photo shows some senior personnel of our department starting a sea journey with professor Valde Mikkonen's boat in 2001. The first row from left to right shows Risto Näätänen, Veijo Virsu, Pekka Lehtiö and Valde Mikkonen. The second row are Risto Vuorinen and Heikki Hämäläinen.

Veijo Virsu
Professor Emeritus of Neuropsychology

In the fall of 1985, a meeting between Finnish and Hungarian scientists took place in Budapest. Risto was invited by my first mentor, George Karmos. The meeting ended on Friday but Risto stayed for one more day, and as the youngest in my group, I got the task to take him to some sights in Budapest. We met at about noon and headed for Szentendre, a small picturesque town just outside Budapest, which Risto had not yet seen on his previous trips to Budapest. The next few hours proceeded like a nightmare for me. I described him the various sights, took him to the museum of a famous potter, but when I tried to chat about various things, I could not get almost any response from him. He walked beside me mostly silently, at times nodding at what I told, but I don’t think that he said more than 10 sentences before 5 pm, when we walked to the stop to take a ship back to Budapest. I thought that he must have disliked me or I had made some very serious protocol mistake on the way.

Things turned from bad to worse when I discovered that the ship had docked a few hundred meters off the location I remembered and we had less than 5 minutes to catch it. I apologized to him and told that we should head for the local train, since there were no more ships on the day. I was surprised that instead of making him angry, my announcement energized him. “We’ll reach it” – he said, and started to run toward dock. I followed as fast as I could and as he said, we managed to reach the ship just in time.

After I caught my breath, we discussed that we’ll have dinner at a traditional restaurant in Budapest. Talking a bit about science on the ship – during the sightseeing I avoided the topic thinking that it is not polite for someone as green in research as I was to nag a famous professor about science on his free day – resulted in a much livelier response from Risto, and by the time we entered the restaurant, our conversation was quite amicable. Risto was in his element in the restaurant – frankly, much more at ease than I, the host was, who had hardly ever frequented such traditional establishments before. He had a long conversation with the waiter over the various dinner offers (me interpreting) and then chatted with me merrily over a five-course menu. The seeds of my first visit to Helsinki in two years’ time were sown.

I learned three important things that afternoon. 1) Finnish men are not overly talkative. Not speaking to you does not necessarily mean they don’t like you. 2) Risto always reaches any transportation and he does not at all mind running. 3) Good food goes a long way with him.

István Winkler