A prized theory of visual attention

September 27, 2013 - 06:54

In 1990, a Danish psychologist proposed a mathematical formula which enabled scientists to measure our attention. He recently received a prestigious Danish research award for his work.

Since 1990, scientists have been able to measure our attention, thanks to a theory by Professor Claus Bundesen. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Twenty-three years ago, Claus Bundesen, then a psychology researcher, came up with a ground-breaking theory, which has made it easier to diagnose brain damage, dementia and other mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and ADHD.

The theory was named the 'Theory of Visual Attention'.

Bundesen currently works as a professor at the University of Copenhagen and has since 1990 worked on refining his theory on how our attention and our short-term memory work.

Last week, he was awarded one of the prestigious Carlsberg Foundation Research Prizes for 2013, along with a €135,000 check.

”I am sincerely happy for the recognition this prize represents,” Bundesen said at the award show in Copenhagen.

“I think it would be a bit weird if I had not reacted this way. It’s obviously also great that the prize money can be used to boost the research that’s so close to my heart.”

A theory of attention

The researcher used a mathematical-psychological method when he developed his Theory of Visual Attention in 1990.

Quantitative measurements are generally difficult in psychology, but we have now come a long way in our understanding of visual attention.
Claus Bundesen

It’s a theory of how we humans distinguish what’s relevant from what’s not relevant when we choose to focus on things in our field of vision, and how to measure this distinction.

“Out of all the objects in our field of vision, the brain only picks a few that we end up focusing on,” he said.

The brain categorises the objects we see

When we notice an object, the brain immediately starts to categorise the object.

The brain detects that an object in the visual field has a particular characteristic, which enables the brain to store it in a category as e.g. a red letter, which it may or may not be relevant to focus on.

In a series of experiments, Bundesen and colleagues examined our attention and its interaction with our short-term memory by asking study subjects to look at a series of pictures which changed every 200 milliseconds.

To test the attention and the short-term memory, participants could e.g. be asked to remember the red letters in the pictures. Based on Bundesen’s formulas, the results of such experiments can now be analysed quantitatively. It’s also thanks to this theory that we now know how much space there is in our short-term memory.

Difficult to put psychology on a formula

It is generally difficult for psychology researchers to convert their results into numbers, and Bundesen is proud of his contribution in this particular area:

Many regard my Theory of Visual Attention as the best theory we’ve got is in this field. It’s more thorough and more accurate than other theories, and it’s being used by researchers around the world.
Claus Bundesen

”Quantitative measurements are generally difficult in psychology, but we have now come a long way in our understanding of visual attention,” he said.

“Many regard my Theory of Visual Attention as the best theory we’ve got is in this field. It’s more thorough and more accurate than other theories, and it’s being used by researchers around the world.”

The sleepy person’s attention

Bundesen would at some point like to try to describe the intensity of our attention, also known as ‘Arousal Attention’.

”The intensity of our attention can be studied by e.g. examining how people’s attention works when they wake up or fall asleep.”

The professor is currently working on a mathematical theory on Arousal Attention to supplement his theory from 1990.

The other prize winner at the Carlsberg Foundation Awards 2013 was Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard, a professor of astronomy at Aarhus University.

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Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

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