York researcher recognized by CFI

The Canada Foundation for Innovation recently sent a certificate of congratulations to Professor John Eastwood. Eastwood received a CFI grant from the New Opportunities Fund for his work the development of an embodied attention laboratory. VP Research & Innovation Stan Shapson  had the happy task of delivering the certificate to Eastwood.

Left: Stan Shapson, left, and John Eastwood

John Eastwood, a professor in the Department of Psychology in Faculty of Arts, is studying how we pay attention. According to Eastwood, attention is a critically important cognitive skill. Whether it is the disciplined attention which requires effort and allows us to enjoy the subtle nuances of a Beethoven symphony or the automatic, orienting attention that alerts us to the danger of an oncoming car – our ability to pay attention is a fundamental cognitive process that supports purposeful and adaptive functioning in our everyday lives.

Up until now, theories of visual attention have largely been derived from artificial laboratory experiments in which investigators measure people’s reaction time and accuracy to flashes of light and colour presented on a computer monitor. Recent findings suggest that these kinds of laboratory studies, conceived and interpreted in isolation from the real world, often generate misunderstanding of how attention works.

“The goal of my work is to remedy this situation by developing an embodied attention laboratory that will allow us to explore how attention operates in observers that are physically engaged in real world situations,” said Eastwood. “This program of research will open up a whole new realm of methodology for studying how attention operates in the real world. By using an electro-magnetic body movement detection system, it will be possible to measure the movement of specific body parts as observers physically interact with objects that they are attending to.”

Furthermore, in addition to allowing for more ecologically valid observations of how attention works, Eastwood’s research program will focus on gaining a better understanding of the role of the body in the process of attending to objects. Early attention theorists assumed there was a tight connection between attention and bodily movement. However, despite this early interest in the relation between attention and body movement little work has been done over the past 50 years to further this line of inquiry, in part, because of technological limitations.

Applying new technology to the study of embodied attention will allow Eastwood to observe what has, until this point, been unobservable. These observations will have significant implications for our basic understanding of human attention and will help push the field forward into new, innovative territory.

Eastwood’s program of research will have a significant impact on applied areas, such as education, where it is important to understand how attention works in real world situations. In particular, the proposed research has the potential to improve our ability to assess an individual’s attentional state as well as our ability to improve their capacity to focus their attention effectively.