Seth Teller (1964-2014)

Seth Teller

Seth Teller was a colleague of mine in CSAIL and the EECS department, and was one of my favorite people in all of MIT.  He was a brilliant roboticist, who (among many other things) spearheaded MIT’s participation in the DARPA Grand Challenge for self-driving cars, and who just recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Fukushima, Japan, to see how robots could help in investigating the damaged reactor cores there.  I saw Seth twice a week at lab and department lunches, and he often struck up conversations with me about quantum computing, cosmology, and other things.  His curiosity was immense, wide-ranging, and almost childlike (in the best way).  One small indication of his character is that, in the DARPA challenge, Seth opted not to preload MIT’s car with detailed data about the course, because he thought doing so made the challenge scientifically less interesting—even though DARPA’s rules allowed such preloading, the other teams did it, and it almost certainly would have improved MIT’s standing in the competition.

Seth was a phenomenal speaker, whose passion and clarity always won me over even though my research interests were far from his.  I made it a point to show up for lab lunch whenever I knew he’d be speaking.  Seth was also, from what I’ve heard, a superb mentor and teacher, who won an award earlier this year for his undergraduate advising.

Seth died ten days ago, on July 1st.  (See here for MIT News’s detailed obituary, and here for an article in Cambridge Day.)  While no cause of death was given at the time, according to an update yesterday in the MIT Tech, the death has been ruled a suicide.  Seth is survived by his wife, Rachel, and by two daughters.

With his cheerful, can-do disposition, Seth is one of the last people on earth I’d imagine doing this: whatever he was going through, he did an unbelievable job of hiding it.  I’m certain he wouldn’t abandon his family unless he was suffering unimaginable pain.  If there’s a tiny atom of good to come out of this, I hope that at least one other person contemplating suicide will reflect on how much Seth had to live for, and that doing so will inspire that person to get the medical help they need.

Incidentally, outside of his research and teaching, Seth was also an activist for protecting the physical environment and open spaces of East Cambridge.  At the “Wild and Crazy Ideas Session” of one CSAIL retreat, Seth floated a truly wild idea: to replace Memorial Drive, or at least the part of it that separates the MIT campus from the Charles River, by an underground tunnel, so that the land above the tunnel could be turned into a beautiful riverfront park.  In his characteristic fashion, Seth had already done a pretty detailed engineering analysis, estimating the cost at “merely” a few hundred million dollars: a lot, but a worthy investment in MIT’s future.  In any case, I can’t imagine a better way to memorialize Seth than to name some green space in East Cambridge after him, and I hope that happens.

Seth will be sorely missed.  My thoughts go out to his family at this difficult time.

50 Responses to “Seth Teller (1964-2014)”

  1. Lisa Fiano Says:

    Thank for this wonderful tribute to Seth. Seth was my classmate at Bolton High School. It will be no surprise to anyone that Seth was voted “most likely to succeed” in our senior year. Yet, he was a typical, goofy, teenage boy for all of his gifts. The world has lost a special human being.

  2. Sid K Says:

    This is incredibly sad.

    From your description of Seth, his seems to have been an impulsive suicide. Here is an excellent NYT article on this category of suicides. They constitute a significant fraction of all suicides. They’re usually committed by easily available methods like jumping off a bridge or guns. These people don’t usually show suicidal behavior beforehand; or even afterward, if they survive. Indeed, if they survive, they find it quite unbelievable that they had attempted suicide. They often don’t have depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug or alcohol abuse problems or previous suicide attempts.

    Their suicides are usually responses to temporary crises combined with easy access to a suicide method.

    Anyway, take-away I think is, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or contemplating suicide:

    1) Remind yourself that this too shall pass.
    2) Seek help. The professionals know a lot. You may think that your predicament is intractable, but the professionals deal with this stuff all the time. They can help you.

    And a little bit more mundanely:

    3) Stay away from the edges of bridges, tall buildings or guns.
    4) Stay around other people—friends, family.

  3. Carl Lumma Says:

    “Suicide is a tragic response to what, in many (though not all) cases, is a straightforward chemical imbalance in the brain that can be fixed with the right drugs.”

    Citation needed.

    Did the suicide rate decline when these drugs were discovered? Doesn’t look like it.

  4. Zhiming Wang Says:

    @Carl #3

    You seemed to have forgotten the fact that people are facing increasing pressure these days, so without medical intervention the suicide rate is expected to rise (from a naive point of view).

  5. JimV Says:

    “Blunt trauma to the head and torso” (according to the update) seems a strange way for such an intelligent person to commit suicide. No suicide note was mentioned in any of the reports. So far the suicide hypothesis is difficult to believe.

    As a teenager I contemplated suicide more than once and with a bit of testing came up with a method that seemed effective and not very painful – which I won’t describe here. Anyway, such methods exist.

    Of course, the brain is a physical organ and can malfunction as other organs do, and when it does we lose to ability to diagnose the problem and seek appropriate treatments, such as anti-depression drugs. So it is possible that is what happened. I would need more facts, such as a brain autopsy which found lesions or tumors, to find this convincing however – not that it is any of my business, but sad as this case is, it would be even sadder if an accident or some kind of foul play were ruled as a suicide.

  6. Darrell Burgan Says:

    Very sad. Positive thoughts to the family.

  7. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Sid K.: Excellent advice.

    Carl L.: I have no doubt that there are lots of problem with these drugs.

    Here is something I know: For some things, modern medicine works most of the time. For other things, it hardly ever works. And there are some situations in the middle. For psychiatric problems, the same is true. Most of of time, the professionals can help.

    I agree with Sid’s advice.

  8. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Zhiming: That is an excellent point. Just keeping up a basic level of existence in modern society gets harder each year. When I was a kid, at most people had an electric, a gas, and a phone bill every month, and lots of people did not have all these. Now days, how many things do you have to pay for each month?

  9. quax Says:

    Thank you for sharing this.

  10. Sid K Says:

    Carl #3:

    Thanks for the data! It makes a strong case that drugs are insufficient.

    Zhiming #4:

    It’s not at all clear that people are facing more “pressure” today. Partly the problem is, how do you define and measure this so-called “pressure”.

    Also, the data Carl points to is quite robust over the years. It would be a huge coincidence that the “pressure” causing more suicides exactly cancels out the suicides prevented by drugs for about 50 years.


    When I read your line about the “chemical imbalance”, I felt very uncomfortable. Even if it is true that it is easily corrected by drugs, telling someone who is actually experiencing the painful emotions that they’re suffering from “just a chemical imbalance” can be quite hurtful. For them, it feels like it is a consequence of some life situation, or some fundamental and inescapable aspect of their being. It doesn’t “feel” like a chemical imbalance.

    To emphasize this point, suppose your friend tells you that they’re deeply in love with someone, and you reply, “well, it’s just a chemical imbalance in your brain”, it doesn’t sound very nice.

    Still, your point is well-taken that people having suicidal thoughts should seek professional help.

  11. Carl Lumma Says:

    @Zhiming #4

    Of course that’s possible, but pressure has arguably been changing more or less steadily in recent decades whereas drugs are introduced rather suddenly. The suicide rates are flat.

    It’s also possible to argue that typical life stress has been decreasing in recent decades. Most measures of leisure time have been trending up for quite a while. We’re generally getting richer while working less, e.g.

    It’s possible to argue that suicide is a disease state and has little relation to the moderate cultural changes we’ve seen in the West in recent decades.

    But all this is arguing at the edges. If a real treatment for suicide existed, everyone would know its name. The idea that suicide victims are too embarrassed to seek treatment is absurd. If even a partial cure existed for the kind of pain they must feel, they would be lining up to receive it.

    The fact that no treatment of the kind Aaron describes exists is one problem with his statement. The other is that no “straightforward” model of mental disease exists.

  12. Mugizi Says:

    This recalls the suicide of the prominent machine learning researcher Sam Roweis(1972-2010) 4 years ago. Like Teller he was certainly above average in being cheerful, extroverted and successful, certainly the kind of person of whom you would say “he had everything to live for.”

    I think what I take from this is:

    (1) Don’t envy other people who seem to have their life more together than yours, because you never know what personal issues are going on with them.

    (2) If you do contemplate suicide, think very carefully about the impact on your family and friends (and even colleagues). The pain, confusion and sense of loss they will feel almost certainly doesn’t justify your relief from what is tormenting you (which is probably not as bad as you think).

  13. Scott Says:

    Carl Lumma and Sid K.: OK, I took out the sentence about chemical imbalance. While the link Carl provided affirms that “Suicide almost always results from the pain and desperation of a mental illness,” and while I’ve heard many times that suddenly decreasing the dosage of a psychiatric drug is a significant risk factor for suicide, even if true, these things still wouldn’t imply that starting such a drug is an effective treatment against suicidal thoughts. I don’t have the data to know whether it is or it isn’t. All I can say is that people experiencing such thoughts should certainly seek medical help.

    On the other hand, Sid K., the contrast between “how it feels like from the inside” and what it looks like from the outside is sort of the entire point. When dealing with a high-functioning but still depressed person, I’d say the whole challenge is to get that person to see their situation as almost any other person would see it, and to take the steps that almost anyone else might recommend. And this is true even when the depression has a clear exogenous cause (like loss of a job, breakup, or celibacy). There are usually practical steps that almost anyone else would suggest to deal with such situations; the challenge is to get the sufferer to switch from a first-person to a third-person perspective. (I say this as someone who, while not a psychiatrist, does have some intimate experience with depression.)

    And Carl: as long as we’re correcting each other, my name is Scott, not Aaron. 🙂

  14. Anon Says:

    @Scott #13 second paragraph:

    Well said, I agree completely (speaking from personal experience).

    It’s a shame that we know so little about how the brain works. If there were some sort of brain scan we could run on depressed people and point to something specific and tell them “There. Here’s your brain now and here’s your brain before you were depressed. This physical change causes depression in such-and-such a way” it would make a huge difference. Not only would we be able to treat depression much better but depressed people would have a much easier time seeing that what they’re going through is an illness like any other and not a sign of “weakness” or a character flaw. Hopefully in the next couple decades neuroscience advances to the point we might be able to do this.

  15. Carl Lumma Says:

    Sorry Scott! 1am brain there.

    Something to consider is the fraction of suicide victims who have sought/received help for depression. As above, I just quickly googled:

    press release — Ahmedani and colleagues in the Mental Health Research Network studied the medical records of 5,894 health plan members in eight states who committed suicide between 2000 and 2010. 20% of people who committed suicide made a health care visit in the week before they died. Of those seeking medical attention in the four weeks before they died, 25 percent were diagnosed with a mental health condition. — Psychological autopsy studies have shown that about one-third of people who took their lives did not communicate their suicide intent to anyone. 30% of all those who died by suicide had received mental health services during the last year of life, and 19% in the last month.

    (Note that such statistics may cover two distinct populations of suicide victims: relatively young and geriatric. Note too that rates for the general population aren’t given.)

    As always, it’s terrible to hear about such a loss. If my comments here have any influence on anything, I hope it’s ultimately to help those who might take their own lives.

  16. fred Says:

    This is quite sad, I’m sorry for his family.

    Whether a cave man or an astronaut, we are all facing the same human condition – no amount of technology and science is ever going to make it disappear.
    Evolution made is so that most people and humanity as a whole just happily ignore the ultimate question “What are we doing here?” (and surviving is often easier than living), but some just can’t bear it.

  17. jeffry klugman Says:

    the only drug for which there is empirical evidence of not just an improved mood, but an actual reduced rate of completed suicide is lithium. interestingly, lithium has this effect even if the people taking say it is not helping their mood. my own interpretation of this is that lithium reduces impulsivity.

    clinical depression, as opposed to the commonly experienced sad mood called depression, is known to have a genetic component. having 1 parent with a history of clinical depression doubles the odds of an individual suffering from a depression at some point. calling it “a chemical imbalance” is a kind of poetry that helps lay audiences get the idea that it has a biological basis, but we really don’t understand the pathophysiology of the disease.

    it is impossible for us to even guess at what led to seth teller’s suicide. [btw- i take “blunt trauma” to be most likely the product of a great fall] here was a man at the height of his powers, successful, smart, with a wife and children. if he was clinically depressed, then it is relevant that a central feature of depression is anhedonia: the inability to experience pleasure. depression would have deprived him of the emotional support we assume he might have drawn from all that was good in his life.

    he may not have been suffering from a clinical depression – we don’t know. not everyone who kills himself is clinically depressed. but if he was indeed depressed, he was skilled in hiding it at least from those in his professional world. but his motives remain a mystery in the absence of more information.

  18. Abel Says:

    +1 fred #16.

  19. fred Says:

    I would recommend to everyone to look into meditation as a gentle practice to help center one’s life, thoughts, emotions, and cope with stress.
    It also helps create a sort of “baseline reference” that makes it easier to recognize and deal with unusual thoughts and depression. Don’t wait until things are too difficult to start doing it.

  20. Rahul Says:

    It’s a shame that we know so little about how the brain works. If there were some sort of brain scan we could run on depressed people and point to something specific and tell them “There. Here’s your brain now and here’s your brain before you were depressed.

    I agree. But it also makes me feel sad that a lot of the modern research enterprise has lost touch from doing what’s “useful” for society. And it doesn’t seem to bother us so much any more.

    Maybe it’s just my subjective pessimistic assessment but I’ve had to sit through so many meetings lately cringing at the presentations wanting to shout out loud “Yes, but how is it going to improve the world?”

    There seems no dearth of smart people nor resources but I find the allocation questionable: it seems to have become fashionable to work on cool but somewhat silly or abstruse problems. We have elevated puzzles & intellectual curiosities to the status of respectable problems deserving to be worked on. Even when ostensibly we are working towards a practical goal it’s often lip service & the main thing that matters is “coolness”, citation counts & impact factors.

    If you improve yields of the Haber Bosch process by 0.5% no body will care. But if you show that women more likely wear red clothes on fertile days you’ll get fifty media outlets vying to cover your work. Norman Borlaug died popularly unknown but everyone knows Steven D. Levitt.

    People like Tyler Cowen say we ought to elevate the relative status of academics in society. Maybe. But more importantly we ought to ponder on the relative status of various sorts of academic achievements. There really is a need for calling out the silly & the useless.

  21. Rahul Says:

    Psychological autopsy studies have shown that about one-third of people who took their lives did not communicate their suicide intent to anyone.

    The number who do not communicate is probably under-reported due to the possibly significant fraction of suicides which do not get reported as suicides.

  22. Scott Says:

    Rahul #20: I don’t know why you’re knocking basic research on when women do or don’t wear red clothes—it sounds like work that could have practical implications for boyfriends, husbands, and single guys all over the world. 🙂 (Nothing sex-specific here: judging from the magazine covers in the supermarket checkout aisle, many women seem to take an analogous practical interest in male sexual psychology.)

    More seriously, have you read any of Steven Pinker’s books, like The Blank Slate, or his more recent book on violence (which I just finished last week)? Whether or not you agree with everything he says, I’d say Pinker is the example par excellence of someone drawing serious argumentative lines from current basic research in cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and other “sciences of human nature,” to major non-obvious practical implications for how societies should be run.

  23. Rahul Says:


    Sorry, I wasn’t knocking on basic research exclusively. Lots of stuff in Engineering is silly or only superficially useful or redundant or playing the citation game.

  24. Rahul Says:

    jeffry klugman says:

    the only drug for which there is empirical evidence of not just an improved mood, but an actual reduced rate of completed suicide is lithium.

    Do you have a citation for that? You might be right but I just find that so hard to believe. That nothing in the wide arsenal of a modern psychiatrist works for reducing suicide rates except Li?

    I’ve heard other reports of the exceptional efficacy of Lithium but the big problem I remember is that the therapeutic dose is very close to the dangerous dose. So constant titre of the blood seems very essential to adjusting the dose.

  25. Simple Says:

    Often the real reason that a person may be depressed or anxious is that something very bad or very stressful is happening to them.

  26. jeffry klugman Says:

    1. i’ve heard the data on lithium and completed suicide on several occasions directly from the lips of fred goodwin, former head of nimh, probably the world’s leading authority on manic-depressive illness, and co-author with kay jamison of THE reference book: manic-depressive illness, now in its 2-volume 2nd edition. i suggest you go there for a citation. alternately, you might find the citation at pubmed.

    2. the therapeutic dose of lithium is NOT close to a toxic dose in most individuals. lithium in overdose, however, is quite dangerous.

    3. i was not stating anything about the therapeutic benefit of lithium for ameliorating the symptoms of manic-depressive illness and as an augmentation agent for depression [though it is substantial and well-documented. again, see goodwin and jamison. lithium has become an under-utilized drug because of fears surrounding its possible long-term effects on the kidney, the probability of which may be minimized in several ways.] i was merely saying that it reduced the incidence of completed suicide even in those who do NOT respond in any other way.

  27. Anonymous D-deficient Says:

    I’ve never attempted suicide, but had a lot of suicidal thoughts and low mood. Then I got diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency during tests for other things (high blood pressure). Started consistent use of D3 and suicidal thoughts disappeared. I don’t think it was placebo effect, since I did not expect D3 to affect my mood at all. So, perhaps chemical imbalance.

    I know this is anecdotal, but it’s cheap and safe, so if it helps even someone, that’s great. Talk to a professional though.


  28. John Sidles Says:

    Some references include:

    PMID 23814104 “Lithium in the prevention of suicide in mood disorders: updated systematic review and meta-analysis” (2013)

    Lithium was more effective than placebo in reducing the number of suicides (odds ratio 0.13, 95% confidence interval 0.03 to 0.66) and deaths from any cause (0.38, 0.15 to 0.95) [JAS note: these are very strong effects].

    PMID: 19523343 “Review of lithium effects on brain and blood” (2009)

    “Lithium acts through multiple pathways to inhibit glycogen synthetase kinase-3beta (GSK3 beta). This enzyme phosphorylates and inhibits nuclear factors that turn on cell growth and protection programs, including the nuclear factor of activated T cells (NFAT) and WNT/beta-catenin. … Lithium has been reported to be beneficial in animal models of brain injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s diseases, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinal cord injury, and other conditions. Clinical trials assessing the effects of lithium are under way.”

    PMID: 24308291 “Adult neurogenesis and its role in neuropsychiatric disease, brain repair and normal brain function.” (2014)

    “Neural stem/progenitor cells (NSPCs) in the mammalian brain retain the ability to generate new neurones throughout life in discrete brain regions, through a process called adult neurogenesis. Adult neurogenesis, a dramatic form of adult brain circuitry plasticity, has been implicated in physiological brain function and appears to be of pivotal importance for certain forms of learning and memory. In addition, failing or altered neurogenesis has been associated with a variety of brain diseases such as major depression, epilepsy and age-related cognitive decline.”

    Summary  Although we are a *LONG* way from understanding the dynamical and anatomic details — details that span all length-scales from nanometers to microns, millimeters, and meters, and all time-scales from femtoseconds to minutes, weeks, years, and decades — multiple lines of evidence confluently indicate that mental health has an architectural aspect, such that effective treatments have a regenerative aspect (and in particular therapeutic agents like lithium in particular may act slowly because they are acting regeneratively).

    Conclusion  There’s more to mental health than “chemical imbalance” … and this is hopeful news for patients and their families.

    Acknowledgments  These references are offered with a view toward encouraging people and families to (1) seek help, and (2)  be patient and persistent and hopeful — for years and even decades if necessary — in finding treatments that work.

  29. Anonymous Says:

    Considering the kind of money thrown around lately, including a new version of Newton North High School in the over-100 million zone, I think Seth’s idea for transforming MIT’s campus by taking over the land where Memorial Drive now runs is not such a bad one, and the money can surely be found if there is the will to do it.

    I didn’t know Seth but his ideas and sense of community sound great. He was a person I saw across the room, most recently at Cape Cod. Once in awhile, especially in such a beautiful setting, I must remind myself that however wonderful I may feel, this is no earthly paradise and in spite of appearances, someone else may be feeling something different at the same time in the same place. I was escaping, I thought, briefly from a family crisis. A brother-in-law (very cheerful normally, very into golf) had been diagnosed with what can only be terminal stage 4 lung cancer which is now in his spine, necessitating heavy pain meds. He was still cheerful the last time we met just before the Cape trip, and I have shared Seth’s story with my sister now. We are in awe of how two different people might experience pain – physical or psychic. One person would seem to be a candidate for assisted suicide, but instead he is embarking on a tough round of chemotherapy in hopes of a few more years of life, fighting for it every inch of the way. It’s a puzzlement how each of us occupies this physical body so differently, but I feel that in all cases there is justifiable hope, until the end.

  30. Pablo Says:

    Scott #20

    “I’d say Pinker is the example par excellence of someone drawing serious argumentative lines from current basic research in cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and other “sciences of human nature,”

    Isn’t “basic research” a little superflous here?

  31. Luke G Says:

    I see several posts that may be read as saying antidepressants aren’t effective because they have not been proven to reduce suicide. I think this is an unfair assessment. The point of antidepressants is not just to prevent suicide; it’s to improve quality of life, which is not the same and not necessarily even correlated to preventing suicide (suicide risk is not always monotonic in how bad someone’s depression is, if that could even be quantified). I realize suicide is topical to this thread, but I think we should be clear it’s a false and harmful inference to say “drugs not proven to reduce suicide” => “drugs aren’t useful for treating depression”.

  32. Some guy from Boston Says:

    I will miss playing Ultimate Frisbee with Seth, he was the man.

  33. Scoosh Says:

    What I am going to write will be seen as insensitive by some. I accept that criticism. I’ll say it anyway. What Dr. Teller did was very sad. He must have been in extreme pain to have done such a thing. What Dr. Teller did was a also crappy. It was a lousy thing to do. He invited a lot of other people to experience a great deal of pain that they will now have to live with-some for the rest of their lives.

    Children and those close to people who kill themselves suffer greatly. They suffer because of the actions of the person who killed themselves. They often can’t get answers or arrive at an understanding because the only one who could really provide that is gone. They are victims. Dr. Teller who spent his life doing amazing things victimized his students and others close to him when he made the decision to kill himself. Whose to say it was his fault, not me, but it is still not ok. It was not fair to his students or to anyone else.

    I say this for anyone who may be romanticizing what Dr. teller did. Students are sometimes influenced in ways we don’t want them to be. They can romanticize thing done by people they admire. In this case, that would be a shame. I wish that more was known about what happened and why. I’m not a student of Dr. Tellers and I want to know. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have been close to him and not know. This is not the kind of legacy anyone wants.

  34. Artgirl Says:

    I am so glad for this thread, it is so important to talk about this. I too have suffered depression, and I finally got help. It took me a very long time but I finally did it and medication has helped me so much. I feel like I have a new life. The problem with depressed people is that non-depressed people don’t understand what they are going through and it compounds the problem. Then there is the notion that we can fix it ourself which is a myth. Comments like “Snap out of it” or “Lighten up” are sophmoric and damaging to a person with depression. It is like high blood pressure or diabetes, you have to treat it. The saying “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” helped me when I saw myself going in that direction. You have to have compassion for yourself and say, “Yes, I need help, where do I turn?” I will miss you Seth. You are a friend and you helped me a lot. Good night, sweet dreams.

  35. Chris W. Says:

    In that July 2 MIT News article on Teller, see the section on his work on assistive technologies and then read the first comment, by Barbara Johnson.

  36. John C. Says:

    There was a documentary about Golden Gate bridge jumpers some time ago. They interviewed one guy who had miraculously survived the event. He said “As soon as my foot left the concrete I realized that every mistake I’d ever made was correctable — except for one.”

  37. Fernando Pereira Says:

    Mugizi #12: Sam was a dear friend and colleague, deeply missed by many then and now. When I learn a new idea, I still wonder what Sam would have said ( But we can’t presume to speculate on what might have led Sam or Seth to their doom, and what we might have missed that could have mattered. People, especially such gifted people, are very complex and subject to many influences that are way beyond our ability convert into useful action. Even if we could agree on what is useful (a common reason why people drop supposedly beneficial medications is that they impair what they feel is most worthwhile in them).

  38. Zoltan Says:

    Very sad. Sometimes depression is hidden and the person tries to suppress it even from him/herself with cheerful behavior. It reminds me of another great loss, David Foster Wallace.

  39. Dude Says:

    I would like to add few things to the discussion about depression.

    I’ve been depressed (minor to medium level in BDI) and I’ve been Depressed (just throw out the test because it can’t even come close to describing what I’m feeling). If you’re Depressed you are not going out living what seems to be a normal life. Someone here posted how telling a depressed person that their condition is “just” a chemical imbalence would be hurtful. Wrong, that is the absoultely BEST thing anyone could have said to me, because then I’d know I can manage it. It felt like my problems were so severe, so deep, that I could NEVER win them. But if it was a chemical inbalance I could fix with meds (which worked) then what a relief it would be.

    Also I don’t understand whyt people still make distinction be tween mental and physical illness, last time I checked my brain is a physical object.

  40. Gil Kalai Says:

    Seth Teller was a postdoctorate researcher around 1992 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and I remember that he was considered a big star already then. I remember an amazing lecture of him where he demonstrated a ground breaking system to virtually walk in a building. Our paths did not cross since then and it is sad to learn about this tragedy.

  41. Sara McMains Says:

    @John C., Yes! Basically that same quote from Ken Baldwin, a Golden Gate bridge jump survivor:
    “I still see my hands coming off the railing…I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”
    That quote was still vividly in my mind when I heard about Seth, over 10 years after I had read it in this New Yorker article.

    I think the case for barriers is made even more strongly in the NYT article Sid K. linked to above.

    I checked if there exists a fund to donate to for a long-overdue suicide barrier at the Golden Gate, which would seem like a fitting memorial donation, and found that funding for the project was finally approved just last month.

    May others who find themselves feeling immense pain find hope from Ken Baldwin’s experience.

    My thoughts are with Seth’s family, students, colleagues, and many friends, who I have met around the world.

  42. Psych Survivor Says:

    Before getting into the core of the matter, I want to send my deepest sympathies to Seth Teller’s family. I know what’s like to lose somebody close to me in similar circumstances and it is the most painful experiences anybody can go through in life. As Rick Warren said, some deaths are easy to explain or to deal with. A person who dies of old age is painful but everybody understands that people die of old age. A spouse, is much harder. A dad, in the case of young children, is extremely painful. If Seth’s parents are still alive, a child’s death is above all that. Add a suicide, and you have all you need to leave his survivors in the deepest pain possible. The good news is that over time, things do get better, but it is not easy by any means. His family needs right now all the support they can get, not from psychiatrists or psychologists but from friends and family. That’s what my post is about.

    I find it very strange that, of all people, a professor in Computer Science would buy the chimera that so called “mental illness” can be modeled with the simplistic “chemical imbalance” fairy tale since in computer science everybody understands the difference between hardware (the brain) and software (the mind) very well.

    Nobody would call a software engineer to fix your broken hard disk, just as nobody would call a hardware engineer to fix a genuine software problem such as a memory leak. Surely, adding memory to the computer can provide temporary relief, but the right way to fix a memory leak is to reprogram the computer.

    In this analogy, psychiatrists are hardware engineers trying to fix software problems. And “mental illness” is to think of “software problems” as if they were problems with the transistors that make up the computer memory instead of the software that needs that memory to be executed.

    When I say this, I am usually told that the analogy is too simplistic, which I concede but, the ways the analogy breaks make the case against psychiatry stronger, not weaker:

    – Computers do not have “free will”, we do. Whether this “free will” is real or an illusion is irrelevant. “Free will” is embedded in our laws and is a basic prerequisite for the establishment of civil society. So, while in theory it is perfectly possible to predict what a given computer will do in every case (the same inputs, no matter how large those inputs are, always result in the same output), in humans, the same inputs not only result in different results for different humans but also the same human at different times. This aspect of human nature is what makes endeavors like economics so unable to make good predictions.

    – In computers what a good “hardware” is can be perfectly defined. It’s equivalent in humans, “a good brain” can also be defined to a certain degree using only biological parameters. To a certain degree, what “good software” is can also be defined with metrics such as “how fast does the operating system boots” or “how many scientific computations does this computer do per second”. I say to a certain degree because there is no possible way to say whether the user interface of Windows is “better looking” than that of MacOS; it’s a matter of taste. In humans, because of our subjectivity, there is no real definition of “good software” (ie, “good mind”) or “normal software” (ie “normal mind”). The right way to deal with “abnormal minds” is the criminal justice system. And even then, at least in constitutional democracies that protect individual rights, there are issues the criminal system cannot criminalize, such as political speech. Again, psychiatry sells the lie that there is such a thing as a “normal mind” that can be “fixed” through biological interventions.

    So those who believe in “mental illness” really believe in “institutional bigotry by MD degree holders”. The DSM is the expression of the current bigotry of the membership of the APA. Until 1974, a majority of WASP doctors thought that homosexuality was a “mental illness”. Now the APA endorses gay marriage. Until 2013, when the DSM-IV was succeed by DSM-5, having undesirable homosexual attractions and thoughts was still a “mental illness”, now said thoughts are reflection of the homosexuality of the person that has them and the “therapy” is to make that person accept his/her sexual orientation. There are countless other examples with what constitutes “delusions”, “eating too much”, “eating too little”, being “too sad for too long” after the death of a loved one, etc. The DSM is an entertaining reading in the sense that it is an explicit statement of the twisted minds of the APA membership.

    Finally, even the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) acknowledges that the way psychiatry now treats so called “mental disorders” is scientifically invalid

    “While DSM has been described as a “Bible” for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each. The strength of each of the editions of DSM has been “reliability” – each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure”

    To say that something as complex as human emotions, including the pain that might lead somebody to conclude that the only way out is to take his own life, can be modeled by a simplistic “chemical imbalance” or “neural circuit” is both an insult to intelligence as well as a lack of respect for the person experiencing the pain. Simply pathetic.

  43. Artgirl Says:

    I think it is important to add that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Sometimes people with depression/bi-polar etc (or whatever they are suffering) from believe that their thoughts at the time are real. And they can’t get out of this state of mind. Thus the sorrow of depression. But if you can just wait long enough to talk to someone or go to a doctor or an emergency room, you can get help. I know this because I did it myself and I lived to tell about it.

  44. Wilf Says:

    I never knew Seth, or indeed knew anything about him until a few minutes ago, but I am saddened by this loss. It’s true we never know the most private demons our loved ones, friends and colleagues face. I am reminded of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s wonderful and tragic poem “Richard Cory”, written over a hundred years ago.

    Richard Cory

    Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him:
    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean favored, and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;
    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    ‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked, and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet through his head.

  45. artgirl Says:


  46. Roy Says:

    For those moved to do so, contributions to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation help underwrite investigations into the neurological correlates of suicidal impulses.

  47. anonymous Says:

    I am very sorry for the wife, daughters and family and friends of Seth Teller who was loved by so many. I did not know him but one of my professors committed suicide years ago in a small Canadian university department. That prof was always cheery and joking. For a brief moment in a passing encounter, I had a premonition. I do not know why. Unpredictably, he committed suicide. Had he thought about it in some dark corner of the mind or was it spontaneous? What I would like to say is that no-one would ever commit suicide if they understood the pain of loved ones, family, friends, colleagues, students. I hope you will all take courage in the thought that Seth would not have wished you to suffer as you do. Courage!

  48. Chris W. Says:

    I’m sorry to report another loss under similar circumstances of a gifted, highly respected, and much loved professor at Vermont Law School, Cheryl Hanna. She was 48 years old.

  49. Neel Master Says:


    I am in shock about this tragic news. I haven’t seen Seth in years however I think of him often and like to periodically check his webpage to see what amazing things he is working on.

    Seth was one of the people in my life who gave me a chance and I will always be indebted to him for the knowledge I received. He was brilliant, fun to be around and caring.

    Professor Teller was brilliant and like many of his MIT colleagues had a great talent for education. He was extremely curious and what attracted me to working for him was his ability to consider and incorporate many disciplines together. He had a great and infectious intellectual curiosity.

    I had the privilege to work for Seth from 1997-2002 at AI/LCS.

    My heart goes out to his family and loved ones.

    Neel Master

  50. X Says:

    I remember a discussion concerning the philosophical significance of a print of a certain famous work by Hieronymus Bosch in Seth’s office, and a debate about the potential consequences of increasingly widespread automation for the labor markets and for society. Whether such things had any bearing upon the matter I cannot say. He was an extraordinarily complicated individual. I appreciated the time we spent together, brief as it was.