Funded Grants

Leveraging Virtual Reality to Unlock Interactions Between Visual Attention and Memory in Children and Adults

The fields of visual attention and memory in humans are vast, but almost the entirety of the research has been conducted within laboratory settings using relatively simple, static, stimuli presented on 2 dimensional (2D) visual displays with limited field of view (e.g., colored shapes presented for short durations on computer monitors). The use of 2D environments affords experimenters careful control and has led to the discovery of fundamental principles, such as how attention modulates sensory processing and gates awareness [1-4]. In the memory literature, the pervasive use of lists of objects or words has similarly elucidated central properties of memory processes and representations [5, 6]. However, these approaches are inherently limited because real-world behaviors are defined by the need to control attention over time in changing environments where memory, sensation, and action interact recursively [7, 8]. From this perspective, research to date provides limited insight on how attention and memory interact to drive behaviors in the real world, and how these interactions change from childhood into adulthood. The necessity of observing individuals in naturalistic settings to discover how learning occurs is underscored by recent advances in developmental psychology demonstrating that infants’ visual explorations in natural settings create unique opportunities for optimal learning through interactions with objects and people [9, 10].

Virtual reality (VR) technology holds the promise to achieve the ideal combination of providing individuals with immersive naturalistic experiences and allowing the experimenter to retain the methodological rigor of traditional laboratory research. VR has already been used extensively as a proxy for real world situations with subjective reports of behavioral realism [11-13]. We propose to develop VR games to address two main questions: 1) How do attention and memory interactions unfold dynamically and recursively in naturalistic environments? and, 2) How does this interactive process evolve from middle childhood to early adulthood (8-25 years of age)? We are guided by the overarching hypothesis that the dynamic experiences in novel environments will promote optimal interactions between attention and learning, and that these interactions can be quantified with indices of continued information extraction and memory retention that cannot be obtained in the laboratory. We expect age-related improvements in the processes contributing to the efficiency of attention-memory interactions. These improvements may be particularly pronounced when children are required to identify moments in space and time in which distraction may be uniquely detrimental. Conversely, attention and memory interactions in children may be particularly advantaged under conditions in which they can self-direct their explorations.

By combining continuous measures of eye-gaze and action responses with naturalistic and traditional memory tasks, we will be able to discover principles of how attention, learning, and memory, interact to guide behavior during exploration of new environments, exploitation of recurring environments, and incidental learning. We will increase ecological validity while gaining the opportunity to ask new questions, the answer of which we hope will transform our understanding of visual attention and its interaction with memory in children and adults.