Attention is a strange cognitive function – we only become aware of it when we don't have enough of it.
This is the observation of assistant psychology professor Paige Scalf, and she's going to travel halfway around the world to learn more about why that is, thanks to a recent award.
Scalf is this year's recipient of the George H. Davis Travel Fellowship, an award established by the UA Foundation in 2009 to fund work-related international travel for early-career faculty members. Named for Regents' Professor Emeritus of Geosciences George H. Davis, who served as provost from 2000-2007, the $5,000 award is given annually to UA faculty members in the first five years of their appointments.
Scalf's research has focused on attentional capacity, and she plans to use the money to go to the Netherlands for four to six weeks this summer to use a special magnetic resonance imaging – MRI – machine there to monitor the intervals at which the brain registers increased attention to visual information.
The idea came about when Scalf got to talking to a colloquium speaker for the cognitive sciences program – Hawkwan Lau, who is on the faculty at Columbia University but also has an association with Donders Institute in the Netherlands.
It so happens that Donders has an MRI machine that has higher spatial and temporal resolution than any machines available here in the United States, she said.
The temporal resolution is about six times faster than what she can get on machines here, she said.
Some of the questions she wants to ask about human attention require that higher resolution, so when she heard about the Davis travel fellowship, she thought it would be great if she could use it to conduct research in the Netherlands.
She hasn't completely worked out the design of her experiment yet, but she has the basic outline for it.
Scalf believes that human attention is allocated sequentially every 125 milliseconds.
"The whole purpose of attention is to decide what information is going to guide our behavior," she said. "Sometimes we choose what information is going to guide our behavior. Sometimes our attention is grabbed away. But attention is always the process of determining what information is going to guide our behavior."
Using the special MRI, Scalf and Lau will be able to monitor the "when" of visual information guiding people's behavior.
With a traditional MRI machine, Scalf said, you can tell that there's an increase in signal in the person's visual cortex.
But with the special machine, she will be able to see not only that there is a boost in signal, but exactly when that signal takes place in relation to what the test subject is seeing, she said.
She hopes to end up with physical evidence that the signal boost happens every 125 milliseconds.
Subjects will be asked to keep their eyes set toward one location on a screen and tell whether a visual stimulus has occurred on any of four other parts of the screen. Scalf will be able to detect the intervals at which the subjects' attention is reassigned to those other parts.
She plans to publish the results, she said.
"Finding whether we can see this particular signature in MRI or in the visual cortex is directly related to my work. My work is specifically concerned with directing attention to multiple items," Scalf said. "I really appreciate the opportunity to do this. I was so honored to win this award."