PhD Students

PhD Project Suggestion: Experimental Studies of Human Attention Using Behavioural and EEG Methods

Howard Bowman

Humans are very good at prioritising competing processing demands. In particular, perception of a salient environmental event can interrupt ongoing processing, causing attention, and accompanying processing resources, to be redirected to the new event. A classic example of this is the well-known Cocktail Party Effect. Not only are we easily able to follow just one conversation when several people are speaking, but the occurrence of a salient phrase in a peripheral conversation stream, such as somebody mentioning our name, causes auditory attention to be redirected. It is also clear that emotions, motivation and physiological state in general, play a key role in such prioritisation.

Through the combination of behavioural experimentation and the recent application of brain imaging, modern cognitive neuroscience is starting to clarify the mechanisms that underlie human deployment of attention. In particular, a number of experimental paradigms have started to reveal how timing constraints and sensitivity to salient events are reconciled in humans. Two experimental paradigms that are currently being explored in the attention research group at Kent are the attentional blink and the Emotional Stroop Effect. In particular, we have developed detailed theoretical accounts of both these phenomena.

The proposed PhD will undertake experimental studies targeted at evaluating a number of key predictions arising from our theoretical accounts of these phenomena. Many of these predictions focus on the nature of human conscious perception and the constraints that govern whether a stimulus is, or is not, perceived. In this respect, we are particularly evaluating the relationship between encoding into working memory and conscious perception.

The proposed experimental methods are traditional behavioural experimentation and electrophysiological work (i.e. EEG and ERP recording). The latter of these will be performed using the School of Computing at Kent’s BioSemi EEG system. There is also the possibility to run functional magnetic resonance imaging studies through Bowman’s part-time Professorship in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham.