Archive for category Visual Attention

Why We Can’t Live in the Moment


Why We Can't Live in the MomentThe sought-after ideal of “living in the moment” may be impossible, according to research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, which pinpoints an area of the brain responsible for using past decisions and outcomes to guide future behavior.

The study analyzes signals associated with metacognition, which is a person’s ability to monitor and control cognition — a term described by the researchers as “thinking about thinking.”

“The brain has to keep track of decisions and the outcomes they produce,” said Marc Sommer, Ph.D., who did his research for the study as a University of Pittsburgh neuroscience faculty member and is now on the faculty at Duke University. “You need that continuity of thought. We are constantly keeping decisions in mind as we move through life, thinking about other things.”

Sommer said the researchers “guessed it was analogous to working memory,” which led them to predict that neuronal correlates of metacognition resided in the same brain areas responsible for cognition, including the frontal cortex, a part of the brain linked with personality expression, decision making, and social behavior.

The research team studied single neurons in three frontal cortical regions of the brain: The frontal eye field, associated with visual attention and eye movements; the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for motor planning, organization, and regulation; and the supplementary eye field (SEF), which is involved in the planning and control of saccadic eye movements, which are the extremely fast movements of the eye that allow it to continually refocus on an object.

Study participants were asked to perform a visual decision-making task that involved random flashing lights and a dominant light on a cardboard square. They were asked to remember and pinpoint where the dominant light appeared, guessing whether they were correct. The researchers found that while neural activity correlated with decisions and guesses in all three brain areas, the metacognitive activity that linked decisions to bets resided exclusively in the SEF.

“The SEF is a complex area linked with motivational aspects of behavior,” said Sommer. “If we think we’re going to receive something good, neuronal activity tends to be high in SEF. People want good things in life, and to keep getting those good things, they have to compare what’s going on now versus the decisions made in the past.”

Sommer said he sees his research as one step in a systematic process of working toward a better understanding of consciousness. By studying metacognition, he says, he reduces the big problem of studying a “train of thought” into a simpler component: Examining how one cognitive process influences another.

“Why aren’t our thoughts independent of each other? Why don’t we just live in the moment? For a healthy person, it’s impossible to live in the moment. It’s a nice thing to say in terms of seizing the day and enjoying life, but our inner lives and experiences are much richer than that.”

The scientist said that patients with mental disorders have not been tested on these tasks, but added he is interested to see how SEF and other brain areas might be disrupted in people with these disorders.

“With schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, there is a fracturing of the thought process,” he said. “It is constantly disrupted, and despite trying to keep a thought going, one is distracted very easily. Patients with these disorders have trouble sustaining a memory of past decisions to guide later behavior, suggesting a problem with metacognition.”

The study was published in the  journal Neuron.

Source: University of Pittsburgh

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Multi-Tasking Competence Varies with Tasks, Often Over-estimated


Multi-Tasking Competence Varies with Tasks, Often Over-estimatedMost have heard the warnings that multi-tasking is inefficient, ineffective and may be dangerous, then go ahead and do it anyway.

A new study qualifies the general disclaimers that some types of multi-tasking are more dangerous than others.

For example, trying to do two visual tasks at once hurt performance in both tasks significantly more than combining a visual and an audio task, the research found.

Researchers also discovered that people who tried to do two visual tasks at the same time rated their performance as better than did those who combined a visual and an audio task — even though their actual performance was worse.

“Many people have this overconfidence in how well they can multitask, and our study shows that this particularly is the case when they combine two visual tasks,” said Zheng Wang, lead author of the study.

“People’s perception about how well they’re doing doesn’t match up with how they actually perform.”

The study appears in a recent issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Researchers used eye-tracking technology to show that people’s gaze moved around much more when they had two visual tasks compared to a visual and an audio task. Additionally, they spent much less time fixated on any one task.

That suggests distracted visual attention, Wang said.

In the study, participants who were performing two visual tasks were asked to complete a pattern-matching puzzle on a computer screen while giving walking directions to another person using instant messaging (IM) software.

Those who combined a visual and an audio task tried to complete the same pattern-matching task on the screen while giving voice directions using audio chat.

The two multitasking scenarios used in this study can be compared to those drivers may face, Wang said.

People who try to text while they are driving are combining two mostly visual tasks, she said. People who talk on a phone while driving are combining a visual and an audio task.

“They’re both dangerous, but as both our behavioral performance data and eyetracking data suggest, texting is more dangerous to do while driving than talking on a phone, which is not a surprise,” Wang said.

“But what is surprising is that our results also suggest that people may perceive that texting is not more dangerous – they may think they can do a good job at two visual tasks at one time.”

In the study 32 college students sat at computer screens and were asked to complete a matching task in which they saw two grids on the screen, each with nine cells containing random letters or numbers.

They had to determine, as quickly as possible, whether the two grids were a “match” or “mismatch” by clicking a button on the screen. They were told to complete as many trials as possible within two minutes.

After testing the participants on the matching task with no distractions, the researchers had the students repeat the matching task while giving walking directions to a fellow college student, “Jennifer,” who they were told needed to get to an important job interview.

Participants had to help “Jennifer” get to her interview within six minutes. In fact, “Jennifer” was a trained confederate experimenter. She has been trained to interact with participants in a realistic but scripted way to ensure the direction task was kept as similar as possible across all participants.

For this part of the task, half of the participants used instant messaging software (Google Chat) to type directions while the other half used voice chat (Google Talk with headphones and an attached microphone) to help “Jennifer” reach her destination.

Results showed that multitasking, of any kind, seriously hurt performance.

Researchers found that in the group that gave audio directions performance in visual pattern-matching dropped by 30 percent drop in visual pattern-matching performance.

Participants who used instant messaging did even worse — they had a 50 percent drop in pattern-matching performance.

Interestingly, although those who gave audio directions completed more steps in the directions task than did those who used IM, when asked to rate themselves, those that gave IM gave themselves higher ratings that those who used audio chat.

“They’re both dangerous, but as both our behavioral performance data and eyetracking data suggest, texting is more dangerous to do while driving than talking on a phone.”

“It may be that those using IM felt more in control because they could respond when they wanted without being hurried by a voice in their ears,” Wang said.

“Also, processing several streams of information in the visual channel may give people the illusion of efficiency. They may perceive visual tasks as relatively effortless, which may explain the tendency to combine tasks like driving and texting.”

Eye-tracking results from the study showed that people paid much less attention to the matching task when they were multitasking, Wang said. As expected, the results were worse for those who used IM than for those who used voice chat.

Overall, the percentage of eye fixations on the matching-task grids declined from 76 percent when that was the participants’ only task to 33 percent during multitasking.

Fixations on the grid task decreased by 53 percent for those using IM and a comparatively better 35 percent for those who used voice chat.

“When people are using IM, their visual attention is split much more than when they use voice chat,” she said.

These results suggest we need to teach media and multitasking literacy to young people before they start driving, Wang said.

“Our results suggest many people may believe they can effectively text and drive at the same time, and we need to make sure young people know that is not true.”

In addition, the findings show that technology companies need to be aware of how people respond to multitasking when they are designing products.

For example, these results suggest GPS voice guidance should be preferred over image guidance because people are more effective when they combine visual with aural tasks compared to two visual tasks.

“We need to design media environments that emphasize processing efficiency and activity safety. We can take advantage of the fact that we do better when we can use visual and audio components rather than two visual components,” Wang said.

Source: Ohio State University

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