Pay attention to what we see: Nicholas Gaspelin receives the NSF CAREER Award

Every day our brains make decisions that we don’t notice until after the fact, if we do.

In the course of our daily lives, our eyes collect huge amounts of visual data that our brains sift through. Much of this data goes unnoticed, but some attracts immediate attention: for example, the red flash of a taillight that quickly sends your foot to the brake, or the wobbling of an item on a high shelf that prompts you. to get away before him. falls.

But how does your brain know which visual stimuli require immediate attention and how attention actually works? This is what assistant professor of psychology Nicholas Gaspelin hopes to find out.

Cognitive neuroscientist who arrived in Binghamton in 2017, Gaspelin specializes in visual perception and attention. He recently received a National Science Foundation CAREER Prize of $ 708,780 for a project that explores the relationship between attention and eye movements using simultaneous electroencephalography (EEG) and eye tracking.

“We are trying to understand how neural shifts in attention are used to coordinate ocular moments during visual search,” he said.

As part of the NSF Prize, Gaspelin will host a workshop that will teach undergraduates the basic computer programming involved in cognitive neuroscience research. Coordinated by the Center for Learning and Teaching and the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, the virtual workshop will take place during the summer of 2023 and will be open to students from several universities.

EEG and eye-trackers

Currently, much of the research in Gaspelin’s lab is focused on whether certain types of visual stimuli can automatically distract us, such as brightly colored objects or flashing lights. While we tend to view distraction in a negative light, there are times when we need to notice sudden stimuli to avoid danger, he pointed out.

Whether brightly colored objects capture attention has been the subject of decades of debate in cognitive neuroscience. The answer: probably not.

“They may initially capture attention or distract people initially, but then people learn as they gain experience to remove salient elements from their surroundings,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to be drawn to every shiny or brightly colored thing; you probably wouldn’t survive very many trips to the grocery store.

Gaspelin would like to know if the brain processes behind attention are initiated even before eye movements are physically generated. We are constantly moving our eyes during visual search, whether it is to spot road hazards while we are driving or to look for a can of soup in the store.

However, measuring brain processes of attention before eye movements will require certain technical innovations, namely the synchronization of an electroencephalogram (EEG) with specialized infrared cameras called eye-trackers.

In his lab, test subjects typically interact with what appears to be a simple video game. While using the controller to react to stimuli on the screen, eye-trackers measure their visual and behavioral responses; this data is processed simultaneously in a computer, giving researchers a clear picture of what subjects are watching in real time.

EEG, on the other hand, is a technology that has been around since the 1930s. Placed on the scalp with salt gel, electrode discs can measure an individual’s brain waves through tiny voltage fluctuations.

While the EEG can pick up when someone starts paying attention, it’s a wide brush: you can tell if the object in focus is to the left or to the right, but that’s it. There is another obstacle: eye movements cause a major change in blood pressure that makes it difficult to measure brain activity. Starting in the 1990s, scientists compensated for this by forcing test subjects to look for something. without actually moving your eyes – which is not usually the way people look at things in the real world.

Using these technologies together can help us better understand how attention works. This knowledge could potentially have a significant impact on our daily life, according to Gaspelin.

“Understanding the basic mechanisms of visual attention is really crucial for society to function effectively,” he explained. “If we could figure out how to develop better visual warning signals – for example, if we could figure out how to better control the attention of motor vehicle drivers or better control the attention of children in a classroom – we could end up having a much better society as a whole. . “

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