UEL Baby Dev Lab

Sustaining Focus in Real-World Settings

Sustaining Focus in Real-World Settings

Tom Northrop

The study of sustained attention in cognitive science has been limited by its adherence to screen-based, difficult, and abstract tests used to measure the construct. Such experiments (e.g., the continuous performance test) are somewhat a defeatist tradition, implicating our cognitive system as a fragile and limited resource, which usually always fails to keep up with the demands of the task. But then, if attention is defined by failure, why can we sit happily for hours watching TV, reading a book, or as is the case for toddlers – play with toys and watch Peppa Pig? The answer is likely that they are comprehensible, but as opposed to traditional studies, this would suggest that some learning must happen prior to our ‘executive’ ability to focus.

My planned research concerns ascribing mechanisms to the way we sustain our focus in real-world settings. The central aim is to demonstrate that learned comprehension of stimuli is a prerequisite to being able to focus on those stimuli, with familiarity and context as major factors in driving comprehension. This hypothesis then opens up other questions, such as, how is this form of learning stored as an internal, and neural, representation? 

One appealing candidate for such a representation is the ability to hierarchically parse our continuous experience of life into meaningful chunks – or events, on a fine-to-course spectrum, as suggested by proponents of Event Segmentation Theory (EST). Previous research into this theory has demonstrated that we form ‘event models’ in working-memory for fine-grained events. When these models accurately represent what we are seeing, they are kept. When models are no longer accurate (an event boundary is reached), they are updated, making prediction of the near future easier. Presumably, event models are informed by our structural knowledge of the observed elements and how they interact.

So, earlier research suggests, but does not confirm that having structural knowledge of the environment makes tracking it easier – we just need to prove that this is the major limiting factor in developmental attention. The naturalistic paradigms employed by ONACSA are potentially the best candidate for understanding how the child pays attention during events that the child encounters daily (play). In both lab and home settings we can begin to understand if familiarity and context are important for comprehension, and how comprehension is important for sustained attention. In addition, by utilising recent advances in EEG analysis, we can understand how the smallest meaningful chunks are represented and bound together in the brain.

The research questions also lend themselves to a screen-based experiment at the later ages tested in the longitudinal project (10-, 14- and 36-month-old). Such a task would identify event boundaries in a children’s television clip, and then randomly reassign boundaries – essentially removing the coherent structure in the clip (disorganised). Whilst controlling for visual salience, the original and disorganised clips will be shown to the children and attention-related EEG, autonomic and looking data between the conditions will be compared. The hypothesis from this task is that coherent structures will be marked by greater looking times, higher stability in the EEG signal over time, and more sustained heart-rate decelerations. 

At the very latest stages of the project and beyond (36-month-old +) the relation between comprehension-driven attention in naturalistic settings and ability to focus in early educational settings will be assessed. One appealing outcome of the project is that it will identify targets for attention training interventions – such that the child’s natural ability to focus on comprehensible and well-structured narrative can be leveraged in educational content. This later research on educational outcomes will be supported by my collaboration with the Centre for Educational Neuroscience.