The mechanisms behind attentional biases and visual working memory
My main research line is the ERC Consolidator Program “TEMPLATE 2.0” which investigates the relationship between working memory and visual attention. Several subprojects focus on the capacity, control, dynamics, and learning of top-down visual biases. I do this together with postdocs Anouk van Loon and Joram van Driel and PhD students Katya Olmos Solis and Ingmar de Vries, while PhD students Dirk van Moorselaar and Eren Günseli have laid some of the earlier groundwork.
The representational nature of attentional biases
Together with Johannes Fahrenfort and PhD student Eduard Ort I work on the representational nature of the attentional template: When does it represent features, conjunctions, objects, or some abstract semantic content? This is part of an international ORA(NWO)-funded collaboration with Martin Eimer (Birkbeck), Hermann Müller (Munich), and Stefan Pollman (Magdeburg). In a NWO-funded collaboration together with Falk Huettig at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, PhD student Floor de Groot also investigates the dynamics and mechanisms of linguistic and semantic influences on visual selection.
The senses do not operate alone, but directly communicate with each other. I collaborate with Erik van der Burg and John Cass (both Sydney) on audiovisual interactions, and how they steer attention to relevant events.
I did my undergraduate and MSc degree in Nijmegen, after which I worked on the perception of symmetry. From 1998 to 2001 I worked in the lab of Glyn Humphreys at University of Birmingham (UK) obtaining a PhD degree. This work focused on how the visual system actively ignores irrelevant information, and eventually resulted in a best thesis award from the British Psychological Society , and a new investigator award from the American Psychological Association. After my PhD I briefly worked in the south of Uganda, teaching students research methods in social science, as well as computer skills. In 2002 I started as a postdoc/lecturer at the VU in Amsterdam, where I have been ever since, working on various aspects of visual attention and memory. I teach Cognitive Psychology and Perception. My work has continuously been funded by national and international grants (NWO, ECRP, ERC) and has received an American Psychological Association Early Career Award.
My current interests are reflected in the projects described above. One of the most important features of human vision is that it is selective. It flexibly samples the environment on the basis of what is relevant to our current tasks – tasks such as driving, finding a product in the supermarket, or collecting a child from school. This means that the brain maintains some representation of what we are currently looking for, be it a traffic sign, a coffee brand, or a kid’s face. This “picture in your head”, or “template” as it is often referred to, remains a mystery. Current models of visual exploration assume it to be there, but without making explicit what its properties and mechanisms are. I want to understand this central concept of perceptual theory, by systematically investigating what distinguishes the template from other types of memory, how many templates can be active at a time, how we set up, change, and abandon the template with changing task demands, and how training changes the nature, dynamics and capacity of the template.