Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Psychology

Academics

Cognitive Neuroscience Research Lab

Location

1106 Mars Center for Science & Technology

Phone

508-286-5591
(Note: Phone Typically Not Answered During Data Collection)

Director

Jason E. Reiss, Ph.D.

Research Interests

General Topics

Cognitive Neuroscience; Visual Attention, Perception, and Awareness; Spatial Cognition and Cognitive Development

Specific Topics

Object Substitution Masking; Attentional Blink; Inattentional and Change Blindness; Object- and Space-based Attention; Visual Search; Motion Perception; Orientation Perception; Williams Syndrome; Infant Perceptual Categorization

Summary

As we go throughout our day and interact with the world, our impression is that we have a complete perceptual representation of our visual surroundings. This, however, is an illusion. The typical visual scene simply contains far too much information for the limited capacity of our visual processing machinery. In order to cope with information overload, our brains have developed attentional mechanisms that allow us to select visual information commensurate with current expectations and goals. Visual attention is a particularly important determinant of what information reaches awareness; people consciously experience what they pay attention to. This link between attention and awareness leads to a number of startling cognitive phenomena in which we lose conscious awareness for salient aspects of visual scenes. For example, under conditions of inattentional blindness (Mack & Rock, 1998), when attention is preoccupied with one facet of a scene, we fail to notice other salient visual stimuli that are otherwise in full view. Change blindness (Simons & Levin, 1997) is a related condition where drastic changes to visual stimuli remain undetected when attention is directed elsewhere.

The goal of the research in this lab is to use functional blindness to elucidate the relationship between visual attention, perception, and awareness. More specifically, we explore questions such as:

  1. How do perceptual representations differ between objects that occur within versus outside the focus of attention?
  2. What are the perceptual consequences of simultaneously attending to multiple objects?

In attempting to answer these questions, we use high-density, event-related brain potentials (ERPs; brain activity associated with specific stages of processing), eye tracking (our eyes are often directed at the focus of attention), and standard behavioral paradigms to assess specific processing stages and to constrain cognitive theories of selective attention and perception.

Research Facilities

The laboratory, located in the new Mars Center for Science & Technology, is divided into (1) a main space with analysis computers and a scanner opposite a participant preparation station; (2) a private two-room research station comprised of a control room (where the experimenter operates the computers and monitors everything) and a running room (where the participant performs the experimental task and the sensors collect the data).

Our high-density ERP research is conducted using a Geodesic Electroencephalography (EEG) System 300 from Electrical Geodesics Incorporated (EGI; see picture). This system records tiny electrical brain activity with millisecond timing, using 128 soft sponges which are soaked in a saltwater solution and rest on the individual's scalp.

We also use an ETL-300 binocular 120-Hz eye tracker from ISCAN to measure the moment to moment changes in where participants look at our displays.

Collaborative Research

In addition to the work outlined above, the lab feels strongly about fostering collaborations. Working closely with students and colleagues has allowed us to combine resources and answer unique questions about fundamental issues in cognition. Examples include:

  • Spatial Cognition in Williams Syndrome: Work with researchers at the University of Delaware, Johns Hopkins University, and MIT on a project which examines the development of spatial cognition in children and adults with Williams Syndrome (WS), a rare genetically-based disorder that results in relatively preserved language capacities but profound impairments in spatial abilities. This population provides a unique case of specialization across/within cognitive domains and allows for the study of what constellations of skills or deficits go together. The approach to understanding the nature of deficits in WS is to conduct fine-grained analyses of performance in a variety of related tasks (e.g., motion perception, orientation perception, and visual short-term memory) in order to 'zero in' on the specific subprocesses responsible for performance deficits. This approach is essential if we are to gain a clear understanding of the WS cognitive profile with the hope of developing ways to improve their daily lives. It is also possible that by studying the pattern of damage in WS, we may learn more about the cognitive architecture in other special populations as well as in the typically developing individual.
  • Object Categorization in Infancy: Another relatively new line of collaborative research with researchers at the University of Delaware focuses on the development of human visual cognition, in particular, how young infants come to represent information about object categories. Several projects are currently underway that use both high-density ERPs as well as eye tracking to examine the mechanisms, visual cues, and developmental/experiential time course by which infants group visual objects into category representations (e.g., how do young infants learn to group heterogeneous visual stimuli into perceptual categories that adults would refer to as "cat", "dog", "beagle", "St. Bernard", etc.). In many ways, this remarkable ability has been suggested to serve as the foundation for higher-order human cognition.

Research Done with Students

Work with students in the lab is designed to (i) provide them with a foundation in cognition and cognitive neuroscience and (ii) give them hands-on experience with the research process. To accomplish these goals, we try to create a friendly and collaborative environment where new and experienced students can work and learn from both each other and Dr. Reiss. We hold lab meetings during which we discuss important conceptual issues and empirical findings regarding the focus of the lab (i.e., visual attention, perception, and awareness). In the process of covering these questions and findings, students learn about the underlying principles and advantages/disadvantages of different methodologies so that they can know when and how to apply these techniques to specific research questions. As we discuss these topics, we also work as a group to develop new experiments that may serve as lab projects. Dr. Reiss strives to involve students with every stage of the research process.

Interested in Working in the Lab

We are always looking for highly motivated students to work in the lab through the WRP (Wheaton Research Program) and various grants during both the academic year and the summer. We also welcome volunteers who are interested in gaining experience in a research setting and who are interested in visual cognitive neuroscience. Please contact Professor Jason E. Reiss (reiss_jason@wheatoncollege.edu) if you would like to get involved!

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