Eyes on Autopilot, or in Search Mode?

CITEC psychologist investigates attention in routine tasks   

At the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC), Dr. Rebecca Förster investigates how attention works when tasks are repeated, running more or less automatically – and what happens when something suddenly changes. Her findings could be used to help develop assistive systems that are specifically tailored to their individual users.

Rebecca Förster investigates how long-term memory guides attention. As pictured here, Förster tests this out on herself by stacking cups, while eye-tracking glasses record her eye movements. Reaching for the coffee tin in the cupboard, you come up empty handed. You look around the kitchen, but it’s not on the table and it’s not on the shelf. Finally, you see it: the coffee tin is on the windowsill. “This example demonstrates how people shift their attention when familiar sequences deviate from the routine,” says Rebecca Förster, from the Neuro-cognitive Psychology working group (led by Prof. Dr. Werner Schneider).  

Building off these findings, a thinking apartment, for instance, could be developed. “If an intelligent apartment is able to provide customized support to its residents, adjusting to their changing needs and abilities, elderly people would be able to live at home for longer,” explains Förster.

Attention in Routines

At the heart of this research is the question of how attention is controlled when tasks become routine. In order to research how the brain deals with information in these types of situations, participants solve the same tasks repeatedly in the lab : they stack cups as quickly as possible in a certain sequence (so-called “speedstacking”), or click on numbers one after the next that appear on the same spot on the screen on each trial.

“During this, we record their eye movements,” says Förster. These eye movements reveal a great deal about the way a person’s attention is directed. First, their eyes search for a certain number on the screen. They find their way through the task, and learn. Once someone has completed the task 20 or 30 times, something changes. Long-term memory comes into play, and the person’s gaze is no longer in search mode. Instead, the participants think that they already know where the next number will be, and they click there directly. But Förster doesn’t make it so easy for her participants: she switches, for instance, where the numbers 3 and 6 appear on the screen. “One might expect that the study participants would look for the 6 where the 3 previously had been,” says Förster. “But this doesn’t happen.” Instead, the search begins anew, and rather than being directed by long-term memory, attention is now guided by the search mode.

Individual Differences

Now, how can these observations be applied to assistive systems? “We know that when such systems are engaged in learning processes, they can react very sensitively to disturbances,” Förster explains. Moreover, disturbances in real-world conditions outside of the laboratory setting can never be completely avoided.

“Humans process information in very individual ways,” says Förster. “Someone might need more input, and someone else gets along better with less information.” This makes developing technology that can be very specifically tailored to the individual a challenge. Add to this the fact that everyone reacts differently. “Some deal better with information that they hear, while others react more to things they are able to see or touch. And we have to make sure that no one is overloaded with information.”

Dr. Rebecca Förster (born 1985) studied psychology and earned her doctorate in psychology at Bielefeld University. Since 2008, she has been a research associate in the Neuro-cognitive Psychology group (led by Prof. Dr. Werner Schneider), a working group at the Faculty of Psychology and Sports Science and at the CITEC.

More information is available online at:
Neuro-cognitive Psychology work unit: www.uni-bielefeld.de/psychologie/abteilung/arbeitseinheiten/01

Dr. Rebecca Förster, Bielefeld University
Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC)
Telephone: 0521 106 4503
Email: rebecca.foerster@uni-bielefeld.de

Written by: Maria Berentzen