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Attention can be better directed than previously thought

23 June 2011

People are capable of directing their attention more flexibly and have better control over this process than previously thought. This has been discovered by researchers at the University Medical Center Groningen.  They established that people consider the reliability of information when deciding whether or not to direct their attention to it. These findings could aid in developing technology to make driving safer. The research can be found online in the scientific journal PLoS One.

People are incapable of focusing their attention on more than a few things at once. This can lead to dangerous situations, for instance while driving. Technology that aids in directing our limited attention properly could help drivers to maintain their overall grasp of situations, making driving safer. Automobile manufacturers are already working on such devices, for example computers that warn drivers about cyclists or pedestrians suddenly crossing. Such technology can only be successfully implemented if people want to use it and indeed are able to do so.

Major European study

The research the Groningen scientists began three years ago is part of a major European study into methods of directing attention, including developing technology to make driving safer. One of the main research questions was whether people are consciously able to direct their attention.

Reliability of information directs attention

The research showed that the human brain has more influence on what receives attention than previously thought. Apparently, people are capable of deciding on the size of the visual field to which they allocate attention. Until now it was thought that people were primarily led by what was happening in their environment. Researcher Dr Marije van Beilen of the UMCG Neurology department has this to say: ‘It’s certainly of scientific interest that the reliability of signals can influence the level of attention, as this was unknown until now. The findings are important for developing technology to monitor and even direct attention, for instance when driving. Of course directing attention must be done well, otherwise people will just ignore the signals and simply decrease the size of the visual field to which they allocate attention. This could lead to the technology having the reverse effect and decreasing drivers’ grasp of the situation.’

Research methodology

Participants in the research were required to find information on a computer screen as quickly as possible. The computer would sometimes briefly give a clue as to where the desired information could be found. If people knew that the information was reliable, they used it, which resulted in their being able to assess a greater area than otherwise. However, if they felt that the information was unreliable, they ignored it, which led to their attention only being directed at a very restricted part of the information reaching their retina. The researchers measured the eye movements of participants during the process. This information was used to judge the size of the area that the participants were able to assess.

Impetus for navigation systems

The findings could give developments in attention monitoring and extra-safe navigation systems a new impetus. Current research is conducted in the laboratory. Follow-up research will have to show at precisely which moments such new technology should be used to actually make driving safer.  

Follow-up research

According to Dr Frans Cornelissen of the UMCG Ophthalmology department there is still a lot to investigate: ‘We now want to discover how the human brain regulates such attention direction. This could provide us with a greater understanding of how attention is represented in the brain. Such research could provide information on the degree to which directing attention leads to increased energy use in the brain and to accelerated fatigue.’



European research project website:

Research into attention monitoring and direction while driving:

Lexus develops first Driver Attention Monitor (in English)

Volkswagen working on subconscious aid to driving (in German)

Last modified:02 February 2018 10.33 a.m.
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