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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Attention in a meaningful world: brain responses to behavioral relevance Tipper, Christine


While it is known that primitive, low-level visual stimuli such as abrupt visual onsets or luminance changes can bias attentional orienting without willful intent on the part of the observer, comparatively little is known about how attention functions in rich, dynamic, meaningful contexts, such as those that comprise our everyday lives. The primary motivating hypothesis of this investigation is that, given our intrinsic needs as evolved social organisms, as well as our capability for behavioral flexibility, the attention system should be sensitive not only to low-level stimulus features, but also to complex stimuli that provide behaviorally relevant information. Three separate lines of research will be presented, each one providing a unique perspective on this issue. The first examined attentional orienting to socially relevant stimuli, finding that eye gaze serves as particularly potent cue for attentional orienting, driving the cortical orienting network more robustly than non-social stimuli, and resulting in a larger attention-related modulation of the early visual processing of stimuli appearing at attended locations. The second line of inquiry investigated patterns of eye movements while participants viewed naturalistic navigational scenes, revealing a dynamic interplay of orienting to the various behaviorally relevant aspects of the scene. The third set of studies specifically addressed whether, given the relevance of heading information for guiding navigational behavior, there is evidence that attention can be oriented automatically to the heading point in an optic flow field simulating the patterns of visual stimulation that accompany self-motion. Together, the results converge on the conclusion that attention can be oriented automatically in a dynamic, flexible, and continuous manner on the basis of complex visual stimuli that provide behaviorally relevant information.

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