How Does the Brain Pay Attention?
The volume of signals that enter our eyes is much greater than what the brain can effectively process. The brain solves this problem by selecting from all the incoming signals the ones that are most relevant to our goals and actions.
When the brain structures involved in directing attention are damaged, there are serious deficits in our interaction with the environment. Currently, between four and eight percent of Canadian children suffer from attentional deficits and therefore have learning disabilities and poor performance in school. Canada Research Chair Dr. Julio C. Martinez-Trujillo hopes to apply the results of his research to the treatment of these children.
Dr. Martinez-Trujillo studies the mechanisms by which attention modulates information processing in the normal brain. Using a variety of neurophysiological techniques, he is able to explore brain activity during a variety of visual tasks that involve attending to behaviourally relevant objects and ignoring irrelevant ones. He has found that brain cells react more strongly to the same information when it is attended to, than when it is ignored. This explains why we are more accurate and make fewer mistakes at solving a problem when we are attentive than when we are distracted. It also explains why many times we do not "see" or remember features of a visual scene, even when they were right before our eyes.
At present, Dr. Martinez-Trujillo is trying to identify the brain structures that are involved in directing and maintaining attention on the relevant components of a visual scene. By isolating the components and the mechanisms by which they interact, it will be possible to identify and treat specific deficits in children with attentional disorders. Furthermore, by helping to create artificial systems that are able not only to see, but also to select the most relevant information, the research may also result in applications in robotics and computer vision.