Research

Below is a brief description of current and past projects in the lab, as well as associated papers.

Attentional Control

Our most recent work has examined experience-based attentional control, that is, how experience in a task environment helps ‘tune’ attention to become more selective and resist distraction (i.e., attentional capture). 

Perhaps most directly to this issue, we have asked if attentional control parameters can be configured or ‘tuned’ to exclude an irrelevant color singleton distractor.  We have known since Treisman’s pioneering work that a color singleton—such as a red apple among green apples—pops out of a scene.  Under some conditions, a salient color singleton distractor will fail to capture attention when attention is highly engaged in a demanding search task. We have demonstrated that this effective distractor rejection requires experience with the distractors themselves (Vatterott & Vecera, 2012; Vatterott, Mozer, & Vecera, under revision; Vecera, Cosman, Vatterott, & Roper, 2014).  

We have demonstrated that patients with medial temporal lobe amnesia—patients who show classic working memory limitations—can learn to configure attention to optimally perform a task by rejecting irrelevant distractors (Cosman & Vecera, 2013).  Specifically, when performing a demanding search, these patients can learn to exclude salient color distractors from their visual search.  However, when transferred to a new visual search context, these patients do not maintain their attentional control settings.  

Finally, our continuing work on this issue examines how explicit cues as to what to ignore (“ignore the red item”) can be learned through experience. Attention is initially distracted by a feature that one is explicitly instructed to ignore (the “white bear effect”). But, given sufficient practice, attention learns to reject the distracting feature; target identification becomes more efficient when the distracting feature is present than when it is absent. We are exploring how explicit distractor cuing relates to implicit (uncued) distractor rejection (Stilwell & Vecera, 2017).

Attention and Driver Distraction

A more applied line of work in the lab investigates the attentional operations that might impact driving performance under cell phone use or other distraction. Our initial work demonstrated that older adults who show a disproportionate decline in their ‘useful field of view’ (the spatial range over which they can extract visual information) appear to show a delay in attentional disengagement (Cosman et al., 2012).  The useful field of view is highly predictive of driver safety in older adults:  Reductions in the useful field of view are associated with an increased risk of automobile accidents.  Based on our research, we hypothesize that a basic attentional operation—the ability to disengage attention from its current focus—might lie at the heart of many driving safety issues in older adults and in driver distraction.

Extending this reasoning we have asked if declines in driving performance due to cell phone use are partially caused by delays in attentional disengagement (Lester & Vecera, 2017).  We examined the impact of a critical component of cell-phone use—active listening—on the effectiveness of attentional disengagement. Saccadic latencies significantly increased under an active listening load only when attention needed to be disengaged, indicating that active listening delays attentional disengagement.  

Object-based Attention

Visual attention research has suggested two types of attentional selection. Space-based selection accounts propose that the location of a stimulus is selected. Object-based selection accounts propose that organized "chunks" or groups of information are selected; these groups of visual information correspond to objects. We have a long-standing interest in understanding how “objects,” or perceptual groups, influence the allocation of attention.

Most recently, we have demonstrated that surfaces and perceptual groups can modulate attentional capture (Vatterott & Vecera, 2015) and that attentional “spill over” in low perceptual load displays is confined to single groups or surfaces (Cosman & Vecera, 2012). Finally, we have also explored the mechanisms that produce object-based attentional effects and have argued that attention appears to spread within attended objects in some circumstances (Richard, Lee, & Vecera, 2008; Hollingworth, Richard, & Vecera, 2012).

Figure-Ground Assignment and Perceptual Organization

Figure-ground assignment is an important visual process because figures underlie many visuomotor processes; humans recognize, attend, and act upon figures, not backgrounds. There are many visual cues that lead to figure-ground organization, notably the classic gestalt cues of area, symmetry, and convexity. Our past work on figure-ground assignment has included demonstrating a new cue to figure-ground assignment that we termed 'lower region' (Vecera, Vogel, & Woodman, 2002). 

Much of our work on perceptual organization has explored how organizational processes influence and are influenced by later visual processes. For example, we have shown that visual short-term memory appears to keep aligned regions from being completed behind an occlude (amodal completion; Lee & Vecera, 2005) and that spatial attention acts as a potent cue to figure-ground assignment, in some cases overriding strong gestalt cues such as convexity (Vecera, Flevaris, & Filapek, 2004).