Jan Theeuwes Discusses Control of Visual Selection

New Hot Paper Commentary, November 2011

Jan Theeuwes

Article: Top-down and bottom-up control of visual selection

Authors: Theeuwes, J
Volume: 135, Issue: 2, Page: 77-99, Year: OCT 2010
* Vrije Univ Amsterdam, Dept Cognit Psychol, Van der Boechorststr 1, NL-1081 BT Amsterdam, Netherlands.
* Vrije Univ Amsterdam, Dept Cognit Psychol, NL-1081 BT Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Jan Theeuwes talks with ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about this month's New Hot Paper in the field of Psychiatry/Psychology.

SW: Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

This paper covers 20 years of research on attentional capture. Back in the early nineties (1991, 1992) I started working on this research question investigating whether objects that are salient in our environment (e.g., a flashing light, a salient traffic sign) will grab our attention automatically in a stimulus-driven manner. I showed that the most salient object (irrespective of whether people have the intention to look for it) gets attention first. The early work on attentional capture had a large impact on the research community. There was and still is a controversy regarding the extent to which this automatic grabbing of attention can be controlled by the observer.

The current paper summarizes all this research looking at behavioral evidence as well as evidence from ERP, fMRI, TMS, and single-cell recording. On the basis of this "selective" review, I conclude that selection is initially salience driven (determined by the characteristics of the environment) and only later in time top-down control can alter the selection priorities.

SW: Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

One can argue that it is a synthesis of knowledge. I discuss evidence from a whole range of techniques (behavioral, ERP, fMRI, TMS, and single-cell recording) and explain that all these findings point towards the notion that selection is stimulus-driven. I also discuss experiments that seem to suggest that selection is goal-driven; yet I try to make clear that the data of these other studies is in fact compatible with the view that selection is stimulus-driven.

"The reward-based modulation of attention possibly plays a crucial role in clinical syndromes which are related to attention and reward such as drug addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and obesity."

My viewpoints are controversial and run against mainstream viewpoint in psychology and neuroscience that assumes that people have intentional, volitional control over what they select. I present an alternative view suggesting that there is no intentional control over selection. Once engaged in a task, selection processes run off in an automatic way without much, if any, conscious control.

SW: Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

The studies that I describe show that our attention and our eyes may be captured by events in the environment against our intentions, goals, or beliefs. For example, while you are watching a soccer game on TV, your goal is to follow the ball with your eyes. However, when billboards (typically placed along the soccer field) switch messages (especially when they are bright and fast moving) you sometimes notice that you are looking at the billboard instead of looking at the ball. This is makes intuitively clear the things that I have been studying.

Of course in the lab we do not use billboards and soccer games but rather abstract visual stimuli such as squares and circles but the idea is more or less the same: things in the environment may grab your attention against your intentions.

SW: How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you've encountered along the way?

When I started doing this research back in the earlier nineties, not many researchers were interested in this question. At that time I worked at an applied research laboratory (TNO) doing research on visual selection in driving. One day, someone from the department of transportation asked the question: if two salient traffic signs are simultaneously present along the road, which traffic sign does a driver select first? I did not know the answer, and I thought it was an important question.

The theories at that time were also not clear on this. I decided to start investigating this; not using traffic signs but more abstract stimuli. And the answer is quite simple: the sign that is the most salient one (the one that stands out from its environment) gets selected first, then the second most salient one, and so on.

SW: Where do you see your research leading in the future?

The viewpoint that initial selection is very much determined by the salience of the objects in the environment is important as it explains how the brain is wired. Currently we are running brain imaging studies to determine the areas that drive automatic attentional capture. Recently, however, with the same experimental paradigm, we have shown that reward given to an observer after he/she has performed a search task can alter the appearance of objects in a scene. Objects that are highly rewarding seem to be more salient and are selected against the intentions of the observer.

The influence of reward on attentional prioritization is very interesting. It fits with the notion that we as humans are very sensitive to salient events, especially when they are highly rewarding.

SW: Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

One could easily see that my research can be applied to, for example, the design of computer interfaces, the road environment, escape routes, or the design of effective advertisement. My recent work on reward showing that people cannot ignore at will formerly rewarding stimuli has implications for the treatment of drug abuse. The reward-based modulation of attention possibly plays a crucial role in clinical syndromes which are related to attention and reward such as drug addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and obesity.End

Jan Theeuwes
Cognitive Psychology
Vrije Universiteit
Amsterdam, The Netherlands



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