The profits and costs of attention
Under the leadership of Patrik Sörqvist the environmental psychology group at the University of Gävle have received SK2.25 million from The Swedish Research Council to investigate the profits and costs of attention.
The role of memory
The aim of the project is to create a model describing how working memory, attention and learning are connected.
The model involves showing that putting a load on our working memory certainly shields against distractions, but it is accompanied by a cost in the form of reduced learning from information in the surroundings.
“We aim to show that the capacity of our working memory should be considered as the ability to mentally concentrate on a task and not as other researchers claim, that it should be seen as a pool of resources that can be used to protect oneself from distraction,” says Patrik Sörqvist.
By working memory one means the ability to direct the attention, disregarding potential distractions in the surroundings, what is known in everyday language as concentration.
Focus and the surroundings
This is a research project in psychology that is about the interaction between what we focus on and how this affects our perceptions of what is happening in our surroundings.
For example, if one is driving and concentrating on the road ahead. How does this affect our awareness of the surroundings; eg cyclists about to enter the road from the side?
Or say one is sitting reading a text at the library. If one is reading something exciting and amusing one becomes very involved and concentrated on the text. Does the degree of excitement affect how we perceive our surroundings, for example if there is a conversation going on in the background, between colleagues?
So the project involves the interaction between how exciting or difficult an activity is, an interesting text or an exciting film, and how much it affects what we perceive in our surroundings.
“In this project we concentrate more specifically on what we can learn spontaneously about the regularities that are present in our acoustic environment.
There may be information; if colleagues are conversing maybe they are talking about something that we can glean a little information from, without us even thinking about it.That in some sense one can remember what they have said, and store the information in our memory
But at the same time there is another type of information in the acoustic environment that we can learn from, that more has to do with the fact that there is a classification or a link between different activities.
If we learn such regularities we will be able to spontaneously predict what will happen in acoustic environments in the future.”
Researchers from Gävle place old issues in a new light. At the beginning of the history of psychology one often used a methodology that is called conditioning.
The researchers return to the roots of psychology and use conditioning in this project, but they look at the connection between more complex mental abilities, specific to human beings, that are presumed to have emerged through evolution since then,and this conditioning.
“How are they linked really? One of our issues is to find out if classical conditioning is dependent on these complex abilities.
The working memory is a central part of cognitive psychology, social psychology and many of the academic sub-disciplines of psychology therefore the results of the project have the potential to create a large impact in many fields.
Our model digresses essentially from other models of consequence in modern psychology,” says Patrik Sörqvist.
Patrik Sörqvist, associate professor, Research Director of Environmental Psychology at the University of Gävle
Tel: 026-64 85 42, 073-658 72 03
Text: Douglas Öhrbom
Photo: Ove Wall