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Welcome to the Vision and Attention Lab!


Research Overview

Our research focuses on exploring the factors that influence how people pay attention while they perform tasks in their everyday lives.  We have explored various aspects of attentional engagement, such as (1) the ubiquitous experience of mind wandering, (2) media multitasking, (3) sustained attention over protracted periods of time (i.e., vigilance) (4) attention-related errors, and (5) peak engagement (i.e., flow).  We have examined these aspects of attention in tightly controlled experimental settings, as well as in more naturalistic everyday contexts (e.g., live undergraduate lectures). Our focus has been on developing theories of human attention, as well as on developing a practical understanding of how people engage with the world around them.  Recently, our research has focused on how attention operates in the context of education.

Specific Research Areas

Mind Wandering.  Have you ever tried to focus your attention on a task (such as listening to a lecture) yet found yourself thinking about something completely unrelated? This sort of mind wandering is a common occurrence, and has become the focus of much research in recent years, primarily because mind wandering seems to take limited cognitive resources away from the task at hand, thus increasing the likelihood of making errors.  This is particularly problematic in educational settings, where mind wandering has been linked to poor learning, and many safety critical settings, such as driving.  In our work, we examine the causes and consequences of mind wandering, and work to better characterize different types of mind wandering (e.g., intentional versus unintentional mind wandering).

Seli, P., Risko, E. F., Smilek, D., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). Mind-wandering with and without intention.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20, 605-617. DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.05.010.

Seli, P., Risko, E. F., & Smilek, D. (2016). On the necessity of distinguishing between unintentional and intentional mind wandering.  Psychological Science, 27, 685-691. DOI: 10.1177/0956797616634068.

Wammes, J. D., Boucher, P.O., Seli, P., Cheyne, J.A., & Smilek, D. (2016).  Mind wandering during lectures I: Changes in rates across an entire semester. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2, 13-32.

Media Multitasking. Recent technological advancements have made it easier than ever to engage with multiple forms of media at the same time.  This common behaviour, known as media multitasking, can include activities such as listening to music while you work on your computer, or having a video playing while you do your homework.  In a number of recent studies, media multitasking has been associated with changes in attentional engagement.  In our work, we explore individual differences in media multitasking and how media multitasking influences people’s ability to sustain attention in everyday life.

Ralph, B.C.W., Thomson, D.R., Seli, P., Carriere, J.S.A., & Smilek D. (2015).  Media multitasking and behavioral measures of sustained attention.  Attention, Perception & Psychophysics, 77, 390-401. DOI: 10.3758/s13414-014-0771-7. 

Ralph, B. C. W., Thomson, D. R., Cheyne, J. A., & Smilek, D. (2014).  Media multitasking and failures of attention in everyday life.  Psychological Research, 78, 661-669. DOI: 10.1007/s00426-013-0523-7.

Vigilance.  Vigilance refers to the act of sustaining attention over extended periods of time.  A common finding is that attention to a task tends to wane over time and this is accompanied by performance decrements. In recent work, we developed a model of sustained attention and have examined ways to improve sustained attention and reduce the commonly found vigilance decrement.

Thomson, D. R., Besner, D., & Smilek, D. (2016). A critical assessment of the evidence for sensitivity loss in modern vigilance tasks. Psychological Review, 123, 70-83. DOI: 10.1037/rev0000021.

Thomson, D. R., Besner, D., & Smilek, D. (2015).  A resource control account of sustained attention: Evidence from mind wandering and vigilance paradigms.  Perspectives on Psychological Science,10, 82-96. DOI: 10.1177/1745691614556681.

Attention-Related Errors. Everyone makes silly mistakes from time to time, such as trying to open their house door with their car fob or their office key.  These errors are often associated with brief moments of inattention, and so are referred to as attention-related errors.  Although most of the time these attention-related errors are harmless, there are times, particularly in safety critical moments, where they can have drastic consequences.  In our research, we have explored the various causes and consequences of these sort of attention-related foibles.

Cheyne, J. A., Solman, G. J. F., Carriere, J. S. A. & Smilek D. (2009). Anatomy of an error: A bidirectional state model of task engagement/disengagement and attention-related error.  Cognition, 111, 98-113.

Peak Attentional Engagement.  The newest addition to our research program has been a focus on peak attentional engagement - a state that is sometimes referred to as ‘flow’.  While peak engagement has been studied in specific areas such as sports, our work seeks to explore such states in everyday situations.


Lab Research is funded by:

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)