How do variations in the relevance of events over time influence the way other, possibly unrelated information is perceived? To answer this question we ask participants to perform a simple task: Respond to a target item that appears in a stream of distractors (e.g., count the white squares in a stream of black distractor squares) while simultaneously remembering an unrelated stream of images. Because attention is limited, increasing attention to the target should impair memory for coinciding background images. Surprisingly, the data indicate that the opposite occurs: Memory for an image presented at the same time as a target square is better than memory for an image presented with a distractor square (Swallow & Jiang, 2010). Increasing attention to a goal relevant event appears to boost the processing of concurrent information, producing what we have called an attentional boost effect.


Ongoing research in the lab is geared toward understanding the cognitive and neural mechanisms that produce the attentional boost effect. For example, we have found that activity throughout primary visual cortex increases in response to targets (Swallow, Makovski & Jiang, 2012). Surprisingly, this effect occurs even when the targets are auditory tones and there is no new visual information.


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Event Perception and Memory

In another line of research the lab investigates how changes in perceived activity influence attention and memory. These moments in time, called event boundaries, structure the perception of ongoing activity, separating “What is happening now” from “What just happened.” Shifts from one event to another appear to influence what information is available for later retrieval, when it can be retrieved, and how it is retrieved from memory (Swallow, Zacks & Abrams, 2009; Swallow, et al., 2010).

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How do people learn and use statistical structure in the world to better anticipate goal-relevant events? Previous research shows that people are remarkably sensitive to the statistical structure of the world, using it to learn to attend at particular moments in time (Swallow & Zacks, 2008), as well as to particular regions of space (Jiang & Swallow, 2013), that are likely to contain goal relevant items. Ongoing research is exploring the relationship between statistical regularities in events and attention.

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