How do Independent Attentional Mechanisms Coordinate Information and Processing Across the Visual System?

Naseem Al-Aidroos
Department or Unit: 
NSERC Discovery Grant
Project Dates: 

About the Project

We live in environments that contain far more visual information than our finite brains can process. While this means that sometimes we fail to see parts of our world (as demonstrated by the popular invisible gorilla:, we can nevertheless use this environmental information to guide our behaviour in amazingly complex ways, such as when driving a car. How do we make sense of overwhelming environments to successfully guide behaviour? The key to our success is attention. Our brains use of a number of attentional mechanisms that shape how we process information based on our current goals. In this way, attention simplifies information processing by focussing on the important information, and ignoring the rest. For example, when searching for a friend in a crowd wearing a red sweater, attention will prioritize processing of red things, over non-red things. Indeed, there are numerous attentional mechanisms that allow us to prioritize visual processing in different ways. There are mechanisms for prioritizing features (e.g., specific colours or shapes), spatial locations (e.g., specific regions in your visual field), and categories (e.g., faces or scenes), among many others. While past research has studied each of these attentional mechanisms in isolation to identify their basic properties and limitations, my research program will investigate how these individual mechanisms coordinate to guide information processing in a coherent manner across the visual system. This level of description is critical for understanding the attentional constraints on human behaviour. While we sometimes make mistakes due to a lack of attention, our mistakes also frequently result from attending to the wrong information. For example, in Canada, motor vehicle collisions have social costs measured in the tens of billions of dollars (Transport Canada, 2011), and 80% of motor vehicle collisions have driver inattention as a contributing factor (NHSTA, 2010). By studying how control over visual processing is coordinated and passed between attentional mechanisms, the present research program will provide an important guide in optimizing behavioural performance across diverse domains, including applied settings such as driving a car, screening luggage at airports, and detecting anomalies on diagnostic medical images.