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Attentional Processes. Gaia Scerif Room 426, Ext. 67926 Office Hours: Thurs 12-2. Learning Objectives. Early development of attention: Describe maturational accounts. Early development of attention: Evidence for and against maturation.

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attentional processes

Attentional Processes

Gaia Scerif

Room 426, Ext. 67926

Office Hours: Thurs 12-2

learning objectives
Learning Objectives
  • Early development of attention: Describe maturational accounts.
  • Early development of attention: Evidence for and against maturation.
  • Can attentional control be modified by training? Is it under genetic influences?
  • Later changes in attentional processing: Continued changes in executive control and in attentional capacity.
  • Why study attention?
  • The early development of selective attention. Thus far presented as
    • Succession of stages
    • (Innate) Maturation of neural pathways?
    • Limitations
  • Training and genetic influences on attentional control
  • Later development:
    • Continued change in executive control and attentional capacity
theoretical issues

“Attention” is not well understood. So…

Theoretical issues
  • What is “attention”?

“Every one knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. […] It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” (James, 1890/1950, pp. 404-5)

theoretical issues5
Intriguing issues:

Multiple varieties of “attention” (Parasuraman, 1998)

Distinct attentional processes involve different, potentially interacting circuits (Posner & Petersen, 1990; Johnson, 2001)

Useful to build computational models (Braun et al. 2001)

Theoretical issues

Why study “attention”, then?

theoretical issues6
Key: Is attention a potential source of developmental change (e.g., think of AKS and attentional biases)? If so, is it:

Innately specified?


Theoretical issues

Why study attentional development?

theoretical issues7
Theoretical issues

Why study attentional development?

1. As a set of processes in and of themselves, to address the following questions:

  • Does attention develop through stages?
  • Are changes in attentional performance better accounted for by quantitative vs. qualitative changes?
  • Is it “innately” specified?
theoretical issues8
Theoretical issues

Why study attentional development?

2. As (one) source of developmental change across domains:

  • Attention influences experience of multiple types (e.g., vision, audition)
  • Could changes in attention account for some domain-specific developmental changes? (e.g., number, physics)
early visual attention methods
Early Visual Attention: Methods
  • Changes in looking time or speed of orienting as a measure of attentional effects: Video demonstration
attention maturational accounts
Attention: Maturational Accounts

Successive maturation of attentional processes (and pathways):

  • Bronson (1974):
    • Exogenous = driven by the environment
    • vs. Endogenous processes = driven by internal representations
    • [Brain: Subcortical vs. cortical mechanisms]
  • Atkinson (1984, 2000):
    • Exogenous vs. endogenous processes
    • [Brain: Subcortical and cortical mechanisms for 1. eye and head movement; 2. reaching and grasping]
evidence for maturation the newborn
Evidence for maturation: The newborn

Unlike later patterns of eye-movements (saccades), newborns produce:

  • Saccadic pursuit tracking: step-like and lagging behind moving stimuli (Aslin, 1981)
  • Preferential orienting to the temporal field under monocular viewing conditions (Braddick et al., 1992)

=> exogenously-driven processes [sub-cortical neural bases]

evidence for maturation 1 to 3 month olds

Central Stimulus

Peripheral Stimulus



Evidence for maturation: 1 to 3-month-olds

In contrast, 1 to 3 month-olds exhibit:

  • Onset of smooth pursuit tracking (Aslin, 1981)
  • Increased sensitivity to nasally presented stimuli
  • Obligatory attention (“sticky” fixation): slower in disengaging from a central stimuli (Stechler & Latz, 1966; Hood & Atkinson, 1993)
evidence for maturation 3 to 4 month olds





Evidence for maturation: 3 to 4-month-olds
  • Anticipatory saccades (Haith et al., 1988; Wentworth & Haith, 1998)
  • Inhibition of automatic saccades (Johnson, 1995)

Infants decrease looking towards the cue only in 1.

evidence for maturation through the 1st year
Evidence for maturation: Through the 1st year

Gradual improvements:

  • Faster facilitation towards peripherally-cued locations (Johnson & Tucker, 1996)
  • Using central cues to direct attention (Johnson et al., 1991)
  • Ability to withhold orienting towards locations (Gilmore & Johnson, 1995)

=> Driven by internal (endogenous) representations [more cortically-guided]

attention maturational accounts15
Attention: “Maturational” Accounts?
  • Johnson (1990, 2000):

Precise sequence of behaviours driven by the maturation of primary visual cortex (=> experience-driven?):

    • Not mature at birth
    • Inside-out pattern of maturation
    • Lower layers project more strongly to MT than to prefrontal cortex
    • Frontal projections are slowest to mature
attention maturational accounts16














Attention: “Maturational” Accounts?
  • Johnson (1990, 2000):

Maturation of multiple processes and pathways:

    • Retina to superior colliculus (SC)
    • V1 and Middle Temporal area to SC
    • Basal ganglia to SC
    • Frontal eye-fields
    • Parietal cortex
    • Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex

Driven by maturation of layers of V1 (experience-driven)?


maturational accounts limitations
Maturational accounts: Limitations
  • Onset of functioning is not all-or-none:
    • E.g., evidence of endogenous processing in newborns (pattern recognition, orientation discrimination, e.g. reviewed in Atkinson, 2000)
    • [Brain: Frontal cortices involved in perceptual processing early in development (electrophysiological markers, Csibra et al., 2000)]
  • Prediction of sequences, rather than static ages of onset
  • Dynamic interactions across processes are poorly understood
accounts of attentional development summary
Accounts of Attentional Development: Summary

Body of evidence seems to suggest successive maturation of attentional processes (although some suggest partly-driven by visual experience)


Can attentional processes be modified by training / experience? Are they under genetic influences?

beyond infancy what develops
Beyond Infancy: What develops?

Are there later changes in attentional processes?

  • Executive control (Rueda et al., 2005)
beyond infancy what develops20
Beyond Infancy: What develops?

Are there later changes in attentional processes?

  • Executive control (Rueda et al., 2005)
beyond infancy what develops21
Beyond Infancy: What develops?

Are there later changes in attentional processes?

  • Executive control: genetic influences?
beyond infancy what develops22
Beyond Infancy: What develops?

Are there later changes in attentional processes?

  • Attentional capacity
    • The task: Are “X” or “N” present in the centre (ignore peripheral irrelevant stim.)?

Low load: high interference from distractor that conflicts with target

High load: lower interference!




Irrelevant distractor, conflicts with central target identity








beyond infancy what develops23
Beyond Infancy: What develops?

In adults(e.g., Lavie & Cox, 1997)

beyond infancy what develops24
Beyond Infancy: What develops?

In adults:

Perceptual load of a visual display “uses up” available attentional capacity (Lavie, 1995, 2000):

  • Low perceptual load: irrelevant peripheral stimuli cannot be ignored very easily
  • High perceptual load: irrelevant peripheral stimuli are ignored
beyond infancy what develops25
Beyond Infancy: What develops?
  • Gradual changes in attentional capacity over development
  • Childhood: (Huang-Pollock et al. 2002)

At low load, children’s performance was poorer than adults (more affected by irrelevant distractors, due to poorer executive control)

At high load, children's performance was as efficient as adults‘ (their attentional capacity was “taken up” by the central load),

=> Gradual changes in both executive control and attentional capacity from childhood to adulthood

Training effects? Genetic influences?

beyond infancy summary
Beyond Infancy: Summary

Beyond infancy, there are gradual changes in:

  • Executive control
  • Attentional capacity

Thoughts for consideration

  • Can these be modified by training?
  • Are they under genetic influences?
  • How would they impact development in other domains?
  • Aslin, R.N. (1981). Development of smooth pursuit in human infants. In D.F. Fischer, R.A. Monty, and J.W. Senders (Eds.), Eye movements: Cognition and visual perception, pp. 31-51. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
  • Atkinson (1984). Human visual development over the first 6 months of life. A review and a hypothesis. Human Neurobiology, 3, 61-74.
  • Atkinson, J. (2000). The Developing Visual Brain, Oxford: OUP.
  • Braddick, O.J., Atkinson, J., Hood, B., Harkness, W., Jackson, G., & Vargha-Khadem, F. (1992). Possible blindsight in infants lacking one cerebral hemisphere. Nature, 360, 461-3.
  • Braun, J., Koch, C., & Davis, C.L. (2001). (Eds.) Visual attention and cortical circuits, 49-68. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Brodeur, D. & Enns, J.T. (1997). Covert visual orienting across the lifespan. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 51, 20-35.
  • Bronson, G.W. (1974). The postnatal growth of visual capacity. Child Development, 45, 873-890.
  • Csibra, G., Davis, G., Spratling, M.W., & Johnson, M.H. (2000). Gamma oscillations and object processing in the infant brain. Science, 290, 1582-5.
  • Diamond, A. (2001). A model system for studying the role of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex during early development in humans: Early and continuously treated phenylketonuria. In C.A. Nelson and M. Luciana (Eds), Handbook of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, pp. 433-472. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Enns, J.T. (1993). What can be learnt about attention from studying its development? Canadian Psychology, 34, 271-281.
  • Enns, J.T., Brodeur, D.A., & Trick, L.M. (1998). Selective attention over the life-span: behavioural measures. In J.E. Richards (Ed) Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention: A developmental perspective, pp.393-418. LEA: London.
  • Farroni, T., Csibra, G., Simion, F., & Johnson, M.H. (2002). Eye contact detection in humans from birth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A, 99, 9602-5.
  • Gilmore, R.O., & Johnson, M.H.(1995). Working memory in infancy: six-month-olds' performance on two versions of the oculomotor delayed response task. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59, 397-418.
  • Haith, M.M., Hazan, C., & Goodman, G.S. (1988). Expectation and anticipation of dynamic visual events by 3.5-month-old babies. Child Development, 59, 467-79.
  • Halit H, de Haan M, Johnson MH. (2003). Cortical specialisation for face processing: face-sensitive event-related potential components in 3- and 12-month-old infants. Neuroimage, 19, 1180-93.
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  • Huang-Pollock, C.L., Carr, T.H., & Nigg, J.T. (2002). Development of selective attention: perceptual load influences early versus late attentional selection in children and adults. Developmental Psychology, 38, 363-75.
  • James, W. (1890/1950). The Principles of Psychology. Volume I: Chapter XI: Attention. Online resources, www.
  • Johnson, M.H. (1990). Cortical maturation and the development of visual attention in early infancy. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2, 81-95.
  • Johnson, M.H. (1995). The inhibition of automatic saccades in early infancy. Developmental Psychobiology, 28, 281-91.
  • Johnson, M.H. (2001). Functional brain development in humans. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2, 475-483.
  • Johnson, M.H., Posner, M.I., & Rothbart, M.K. (1991). Components of visual orienting in early infancy: Contingency learning, anticipatory looking, and disengaging. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 3, 335-344.
  • Johnson, M.H. & Tucker, L. A. (1996). The development and temporal dynamics of spatial orienting in infants. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 63, 171-88.
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  • Lavie, N. (2000). Selective attention and cognitive control: dissociating attentional functions through different types of load. In S. Monsell and J. Driver, (Eds.), Control of Cognitive Processes, Attention and Performance XVIII, pp. 175-194. MIT Press: Cambridge.
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