Lab Interviews: Calen Walshe

For the first real post on the lab website, I thought it would be nice to hear about the lab’s research from one of the lab elders. Calen Walshe has generously agreed to answer a few questions that give us some insight into the cognitive science work being done at SFU.

JB: So, Calen, why don’t you tell us a little about your academic background?

CW: Well Jordan, I enrolled at SFU with the goal of entering the Cognitive Science Program. I had thought of enrolling at UBC in their Cognitive Systems Program, however, it became apparent that the program at SFU was more mature as it had been around for a number of years. I did an honours degree which then led into what I am currently doing, a MA in psychology.

JB: When did you join the lab?

CW: I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I believe it was sometime around the Fall of 2007.

JB: You’ve had some of your work published, what was the nature of that work?

CW: While working in the Cognitive Science Lab, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on a number of different projects. One project has resulted in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. This paper details a pair of eye-tracking studies that look into how we distribute our attention on a categorization task.

JB: What did you find?

CW: Well, we found a couple of things. Firstly, we show that on our task elicits what we call stimulus specific attention. To explain this simply, we found that rather than allocating attention in the same way to everything that is presented, our participants showed that they distribute their attention in different ways depending on what is presented to them. One other thing we found was that our participants modified their attention in the absence of error. So basically, they were still busy determining what was important to look at even after they had stopped making any errors on the task. These two findings were of interesting to the field because many current theories would not have predicted them.

JB: Some people in the lab have mentioned that you get all of your good ideas from me. Not really a question there, more of a comment really. What kinds of stimuli elicited these different kinds of attention?

CW: One of our goals with the stimuli was to make them visually pleasing and somewhat true to life. We designed images of fictitious microorganisms that had various organelles as the diagnostic features. The way you categorize the microorganism is to look at what combination of three different organelles it has. Since there are three different regions of interest and each region can contain one of two different organelles this means that there are a total of 8 unique instances of the stimulus.

JB: And one set of features affected people’s attention differently than another set of features?

CW: Yes, basically what we saw was that people modify their attention as they are exploring the stimulus. This is in contrast to having a preset expectation of what to attend to. They are dynamically modifying their attention based on the particularities of the stimulus.

JB: This may be beyond the scope of the paper you worked on, but do you have an intuition about why that may be?

CW: I’m not really sure. However, I will say that what we are seeing is a more flexible form of attention that has previously been identified. One thing that this does is allow a certain amount of information reduction. Our environments are so complicated and information rich that a system that compresses or filters out certain irrelevant details might confer a selective advantage.

JB: So, what’s next for Calen Walshe?

CW: Well, currently I’m doing my MA with Dr. Blair in the Cognitive Science Lab. For my thesis I’ll be extending some of the results I was just discussing. I also have an ongoing collaboration with a lab in the linguistics department who is interested in what information the eyetracking technique can shed on linguistic theories.

JB:Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.

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