A James Cook University scientist is investigating how people are distracted from vital tasks and how that might be prevented.
JCU psychology lecturer Dr Nicole Thomas said her research is relevant to many skills – from driving a car, to reading a book, to piloting an aircraft.
“We possess a remarkable capacity to focus our attention and ignore all other distracting information. Unfortunately, our ability to focus is not perfect,” she said.
Dr Thomas is investigating four ways attention may be disrupted; with noise, emotional upsets, having other mental tasks to do, and where in the viewer’s field of vision images appear.
“Where an object appears in the visual field either high or low or left or right, influences how we see it and estimate its basic properties such as size, brightness, length, etc. So this has obvious implications for how much attention we give it,” she said.
Dr Thomas said cognitive load – the amount of other things that are being thought about – also affects attention.
“We know that people with a high cognitive load shift attention to their right side. But there are other effects of it that we don’t fully understand yet,” she said.
Volunteers in the experiment will also be subject to noise and emotionally disturbing pictures while hooked up to an eye tracker, galvanic skin response and heart rate monitors, and an EEG machine to measure electrical impulses in their brain.
Dr Thomas said approximately 78% of car crashes are due to driver inattention, and the increasing use of navigational systems and mobile phones makes understanding how visual distractions affect attention even more crucial.
“Attention is divided across the visual field during driving, so by understanding how we become distracted, the design and location of visual displays can be optimised to decrease driver inattention and distraction,” said Dr Thomas.
She said there are also some unexpected applications of the research – such as in airport security.
“Airport security officers are presented with a lot of information, so they have a high cognitive load, both visual and auditory.
“Understanding how attention is spatially distributed could help with the development of optimal security screening techniques, including techniques for managing the cognitive load and emotional distractors effectively.”
The research is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award.