Grabbable Objects Grab Attention  

katsback 57F
15215 posts
7/20/2006 7:22 am

Last Read:
7/20/2006 2:55 pm

Grabbable Objects Grab Attention

A Dartmouth research group has found a new and unexpected way our attention can be grabbed - by grabbable objects. Their study, which appears in the March 17 advance online issue of Nature Neuroscience, demonstrates that objects we typically associate with grasping, such as screwdrivers, forks or pens, automatically attract our visual attention, especially if these items are on a person's right-hand side.

In the brain, there are two primary visual pathways, one for identifying objects (perception) and one to guide your arms and legs based on what you see (action). To better understand how these two systems may interact, the Dartmouth team studied whether visual perception, specifically peripheral visual attention, influences motor systems in the brain.

"People have studied peripheral vision and how it helps perception, but nobody really talked about it in terms of helping action," says Todd C. Handy, the lead author and a research assistant professor at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth. "There are certain things that we all know attract our attention, like flashing lights and loud noises. Yet, think about how often we grab things without directly looking at them. Now here's evidence that, to help us do this, grabbable objects can literally grab our attention. There's a clear association."

The researchers devised a simple test to measure this connection. They asked their subjects to look at a computer screen with two objects: one was something graspable, like a tool, the other was not graspable, like a cloud or a sailboat. After about a second, a set of horizontal bars flashed over one of the pictures. While concentrating in the center of the screen, the subjects were told to indicate whether the bars appeared on the left or right. The researchers determined where attention was focused when the bars flashed by measuring the electrical activity in the brain with an electroencephalogram (EEG).

"When the bars flashed over a graspable object, the EEG response in the visual cortex was more intense," says Handy. "It shows evidence of attention being specifically drawn to those objects. Interestingly, the effect was more profound when the tool was on the right. It suggests that attention is more strongly drawn to grabbable objects when they are on our right."

Handy's team then used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), a method that precisely identifies areas of brain activity, to confirm their results. They found that when the tool appeared on the right, the brain's classic motor areas responded to it. If the tool was on the left, the motor areas weren't as active. According to Handy, this indicates that when graspable items are on the right, the motor system recognizes that there is something to grab and attention is drawn automatically to that location.

"People had already shown that simply viewing graspable objects activates motor areas in the brain," explains Handy. "What we didn't know was that graspable items can affect visual attention, and that it matters where these things are in visual space."

The team is now trying to understand whether being right-handed or left-handed influences visual attention and motor activity.

Grab Attention

Sudden movement or light can grab your attention, thanks to a second region for visual processing.

What are you paying attention to? These words? In a minute it could switch to a friend or to making coffee or to the person on the bus who just stood up and you noticed out of the corner of your eye. We don't pay attention to everything we see or experience. Following two conversations at the same time is hard, even though we hear both perfectly well, and, likewise, it's simply not possible to read every word on the page of a book simultaneously, although they're all in plain view.

While your senses work overtime to provide as much input as possible, there's a bottleneck in the brain's limited capacity for attention. So we consciously decide which line of text to focus on and read across and down the page, line by line. And this happens at the expense of all the other stimuli we could have attended to, such as the color of the walls or the traffic noise from the road outside.

Choosing what to give attention to is voluntary...mostly. But attention can also be captured.

3.5.1. In Action
Stand so that you're facing a crowded scene. Watching a crowded theater settle down is ideal. A busy street corner is a good choice, too. A TV screen or video game will do as well, as long as there's a lot going on in the frame.

Don't try to direct your attention; just let it wander and feast your eyes on the full field of view.

Notice that when a person waves, or stands up, your attention is grabbed and snaps to focus on the person's position. It's not so much that you notice the waving or standing up itself; the event simply captures your attention and you properly focus on that place a fraction of a second afterward.

Since you're relaxed, your attention soon drifts away, until someone else moves and captures it again. Your attention scintillates across your whole field of view, darting from point to point.

3.5.2. How It Works
After visual information leaves the eye, it doesn't just go to one place for processing; the signal divides. Our conscious appreciation of visual information is provided by processing done in the visual cortex. It sits at the back of the brain in the area called the occipital lobe and performs what we typically associate with the job of vision: figuring out exactly what shape the thing you're looking at is, what color, if it's moving, then in what direction and how fast, what it means, and so onproviding the raw information needed to put names to faces and avoid stepping in front of a car while crossing a road.

Attention capture, on the other hand, relies on processing done by a region of the brain called the superior colliculus. It gets a copy of the same visual information the visual cortex does from the retina, but processes it in a different way. This region is evolutionarily ancient, which means the basic structure was established and refined in brains far simpler than our own, through many species of animals. (Rather than relegating it to second place, fish and amphibians do most of their visual processing with their equivalent of the superior colliculus, called the optic lobe.) So as one might expect, it's not particularly sophisticated, compared to the visual cortex. And it doesn't use much of the information it receives; the superior colliculus looks at a black-and-white world through frosted glass. Then again, it doesn't need much. This processing is for rapid response, when it appears something potentially dangerous is happening and urgent action is needed quicker than the complex visual cortex can respond. It's just useful enough to guide reflex movements, tell the head and body to orient in a particular direction, and force attention to snap to important-seeming events.

The visual cortex and superior colliculus aren't the only regions of the brain that process signals from the eye; there are about 10 in total. Basic visual information also informs pupil size for different light levels, influences our day-night cycle, and influences head and eye movement.

That's what's going on when attention is captured. There's a sudden movement and the rapid response bit of your brain says, "Hey, I don't know what that was, but pay it some attention and figure out what to do in case it attacks us." Looking at the crowd, your attention darts around automatically because this bit of your brain feels startled enough to interrupt consciousness every time somebody waves suddenly.

When you're sitting in a darkened theater, absorbed in the dialog on stage, think about what happens when a door opens at the side of the room. The sudden appearance of light grabs your attention. If it happens again, despite the fact that you know you're not interested, it still grabs your attention and demands a response. It's distracting. That's the automatic nature of attention capture coming into play.

On the upside, that bright light flashing in the corner of your eye could well be a ray of sunlight being revealed as a large dangerous something lumbering out of the shadows toward you. The automatic capture of attention serves to orient conscious perception in important directions.

Automatic responses can go further than just grabbing your attention. This part of the brain is also responsible for the looming instinct which, given a growing dark shadow anywhere in the field of vision, can trigger not just attention but a physical flinch.

Events that capture attention include the two already mentioned: sudden light (actually, a sudden change in contrast) and sudden movement. In keeping with the purpose of facilitating rapid response, it's only new movement that captures attention. Ongoing motion, like a moving car or a walking person, doesn't trigger the automatic shift in attention.

Two other triggers provide hints as to what else our brains regard as so critical to survival that they deserve a rapid response. One is an object appearing abruptly. In general, our brains give special treatment to objectsas opposed to backgrounds and shadows, which are given less attention. This makes sense, as objects such as other people, animals or food usually require a response of some kind. There are even dedicated routines to object tracking [Hack #36] . An extra person, rock, or car in the sceneespecially if it appears suddenlyis likely to be a big deal, so attentional capture is triggered.1

John Eastwood and his colleagues also suggest another trigger that is worth mentioning as it shows just how deep our social nature goes. The trigger here is facial expression.2 Eastwood's team made simple line-drawing faces, happy and sad ones, and asked people to count certain of the lines that made up the drawings. When the drawings were upside-down, so they were unrecognizable as faces, people did the counting exercise easily. But when the drawings were the right way up, counting took longer for drawings of faces that displayed negative emotions rather than for drawings of positive expressions. Why? The team's conclusion is that negative expressionssad or angry facesdistract you, in just the same way as light through a theater door grabs your attention away from the main action.

VenusDiaries 63M
867 posts
7/20/2006 9:04 am

I am wondering if I walk around with my cock in my right hand if I will attract any attention with my grabbable object.

katsback replies on 7/20/2006 11:25 am:
fell out of my chair on that one,,lol

SingleWarrior 53M

7/20/2006 11:58 am

Kleptomaniac is another term for the grab stuff

katsback replies on 7/20/2006 12:43 pm:
your right,,,but it fortunate yours is stuck to ya,,,and no id never bob it, lol

SingleWarrior 53M

7/20/2006 12:50 pm

bob it...

That had to be the freakiest news story I ever heard! The guy was damn lucky to recover his "package".

katsback replies on 7/20/2006 1:23 pm:
from what i understand warrior, he has a much better package now, lol

rm_smosmof2 68M
3240 posts
7/20/2006 2:50 pm

Fascinating stuff. I'd be interested to see the results of the "left-handed" study...

katsback replies on 7/20/2006 2:56 pm:
ya, i know,,2 of my 4 kids are left handed, both are boys..

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