Brain Hacks: Attention is located in space

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 17, 2011

I borrowed a great book from a friend (@mindkeep) who probably thinks that it’s been gathering dust on my shelf I’ve had it so long.  But no, rather, I got so drawn into it that I’ve been reading it cover to cover, even though it’s more of a browse-through-and-find-something-interesting perusing type of book.  It’s called “Mind Hacks” by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb, and I completely recommend it to anyone who likes knowing about perception and cognitive psychology.  It’s got all sorts of different tricks and insights into the brain, through the use of some of the weird stuff that it does, from vision to attention to memory.  I’ve been meaning to write about some of them, and here’s one:

Charles Spence has shown that drivers who listen to sounds coming from the side made more errors in an driving simulation while repeating a set of words played over a speaker coming from the side rather than from the front.  A tough task indeed. Though, in less artificial situations, it’s true that people are remarkably good at allocating their mental resources to the different tasks at hand — by telling the passenger to shut up for a minute, for example, or turning off the radio, or just tuning it out while making a difficult navigation.  Spence’s task required them to be always “on”, without a choice of whether to concentrate on the road for a few moments.

Still, they say, even though the effect in real life may be small, “when you’re traveling at 80 mph towards something else that is traveling at 80 mph toward you, a small effect could make a difference.”

Our cortical processing is interconnected, explain the authors of Mind Hacks, and that processing uses spatial coordinate maps in order to organize its activity.

On the other hand, if you want people to attend to two different pieces of constantly updating information, then have them come from two different modalities (vision and audio, say), and come from the same location.  You can see this in tv newscasts for example — you can quite easily divide your attention between the talking heads and the news ticker on the bottom, gleaning information from both streams.

{ 1 comment }

Claire Walter March 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm

I wonder how Stafford and Webb would explain this: Draw a clockwise circle in the air with your right leg/foot. Then, with your right had, draw the numeral 6 in the air. Your right foot will reverse direction. At least that works for right-handers like me. Ot maybe this weird phenomenon isn’t sufficiently perceptual or cognitive for them to explore.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: