Attention Gets Faculty Member’s Research Attention

The research of Bryan Burnham, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, involves the mechanisms and processes of selective attention.
Bryan Burnham, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at The University of Scranton.
Bryan Burnham, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at The University of Scranton.

Ever wonder why you notice one advertisement over another; why you pay attention to a siren; or how you manage to find your car in a crowded parking lot? Psychology Professor Bryan Burnham, Ph.D., does and he focuses his research on understanding the cognitive complexities involved in “selective attention.”

“I look at how phenomena draw attention, and if then we can manipulate that. Our understanding of these mechanisms can eventually lead to developing ways to help you focus more and ways to become less distracted,” said Dr. Burnham, whose research focuses on the understanding component rather than the application. In more scientific terms, his research involves “the mechanisms and processes underlying selective attention, implicit learning and the connection between working memory and executive attention.”

His experiments, many of which are conducted with the aid of undergraduate students, carefully control and manipulate stimuli to better comprehend the cognitive functions of the brain regarding working memory. These functions guide our attention in a given environment.

Working memory is “what is brought into an active state from long-term memory,” explained Dr. Burnham. “To use a simple example, to find your car in a parking lot full of vehicles, you would pull information into your active memory about your car, such as its color, shape or other physical attributes.”

Dr. Burnham’s experiments involve introducing objects into a subject’s working memory, then measuring the subject’s involuntary responses to focus on certain stimuli while ignoring other stimuli. Much of his research focuses on “pop out” perceptual phenomena, which is a stimulus that is very distinctive from the background, involving an “abrupt change that would be noticed, usually from physical features such as color,” said Dr. Burnham.

“The research focuses on trying to understand exactly how attention and memory interact and what are the different mechanisms involved in the involuntary shifting of attention. Also, is the shifting truly involuntary or is there possibly some conscious intent involved?” said Dr. Burnham, who joined the faculty at Scranton in 2007 after earning his master’s and Ph.D. in experimental-cognitive psychology from the University of Albany.

Dr. Burnham’s earlier research involved a comprehensive review of existing studies regarding involuntary response and attention. His review showed “empirically there has not been a clear demonstration that attention shifts to novel things completely automatically. I’m not saying  the involuntary response is not there. I actually think it is just based on an evolutionary, common sense standpoint. I am just saying, based on existing data, it hasn’t been proven.”

So far, Dr. Burnham’s studies have found two cognitive mechanisms in the brain causing attention, but notes more may exist. The first is selection bias or attentional bias, that is “once a stimulus is introduced, then there is a bias in favor of it.” The second is a memory retrieval mechanism, that is “when you process something, you retrieve a memory of something. You retrieve previous examples, such as pulling a color or shape into working memory.”

Dr. Burnham’s research, some of which includes University undergraduate students as co-authors, has been published in more than a dozen academic journals, including The Journal of Experimental Psychology; Human Perception and Performance; Psychonomic Bulletin and Review; Attention, Perception; and Psychophysics, Brain and Cognition. His research has also been presented through poster and paper presentations at more than 25 professional conferences. He also works with undergraduate students in psychology laboratory courses to replicate studies recently published in academic journals. The students’ results are then added to the published national archive

Study tip from Dr. Burnham: Listening to instrumental music may enhance studying by helping to keep you focused. The music should be “background noise” and not distracting. Music with words, however, would distract and would not be recommended for use while studying.

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