In a nutshell: Attention is allocated differently to objects depending on what kind of goal they are relevant to.

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Our survival relies on us approaching things that benefit us (such as food), while avoiding things that endanger us (such as physical harm). Sometimes, the same thing can represent a reward or a threat, depending on the circumstances. Think of it like the old video game, Asteroids: each flying piece of space rock can earn you points or kill you. How you react to each one depends on your top priority at the time.

When processing sensory information, our brains use ‘selective attention’ to pick out relevant input and filter out the rest. In the case of visual information, current theories predict that selective attention is allocated preferentially to objects that are relevant to the current behavioural goal – either approach or avoidance.

However, just like when playing Asteroids, we might find ourselves in a situation that requires both approach and avoidance behaviours. In that case, how does the brain allocate attention?

Traditional experiments to study the brain and behaviour rely on participants reporting what they see on a display, but this approach doesn’t necessarily reflect how we behave in the real world.

To overcome this limitation, Brain Function CoE investigators Angela Renton, David Painter and Jason Mattingley from the University of Queensland designed two experiments that required participants to interact with the display.

In both experiments, participants manoeuvred a cursor among differently coloured objects moving around a computer screen. The researchers tracked where the participants looked on the screen and measured their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG).

In the first experiment, participants had to maximise contact between the cursor and objects of one colour (approach behaviour), while minimising contact with objects of a second colour (avoidance behaviour). The second experiment involved two tasks, one requiring approach behaviour and the other requiring avoidance behaviour. In both experiments, objects of the third colour (which didn’t need to be approached or avoided) acted as irrelevant distractions.

The researchers found that attention is allocated differently to objects depending on what kind of goal they are relevant to. During tasks requiring approach behaviour, the participants directed their attention towards task-relevant objects. But in tasks involving avoidance behaviour, their attention was directed away from task-relevant objects.

Although the researchers don’t yet know why the brain works this way, their discovery has implications for current theories about selective attention.

It also highlights the importance of designing experiments in neuroscience research that more closely resemble dynamic, interactive environments – just like the real world.

Next steps:
The team hopes to take the concept of interactivity even further, designing experiments that require multiple participants to cooperate with each other on joint tasks, or that require participants to interact with computers or virtual environments.

Renton, A. I., Painter, D. R., & Mattingley, J. B. (2018). Differential deployment of visual attention during interactive approach and avoidance behavior. Cerebral Cortex, 29, 2366–2383. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhy105

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Image by David Lloyd, University of Queensland