Exploring the effects of learning and motivation on visual cognition

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: School of Psychology

Abstract

To maintain a healthy lifestyle, people need to be able to choose healthy options even when surrounded by tempting alternatives. For example, someone may plan to lose weight, but when an advertisement for pizza is suddenly noticed, his or her motivation to eat may rise sharply, overriding a previous priority to diet. This is because the state of mind that drives a person to make certain choices can arise suddenly and be initiated simply by exposure to objects and information. These stimuli are called incentive cues and they acquire their power to spontaneously motivate behaviour through learning. Such stimuli are also effective at catching our eye and filling our thoughts, sometimes making it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. The aim of our project is to investigate how incentive cues affect perception and cognition because these critical processes are precursors to behavioural choice. Inappropriate choice in response to incentive cues is thought to be a leading cause of binge eating/drinking, relapse from abstinence in recovering drug addicts, and why some people, especially adolescents, engage in impulsive, risky behaviour. On the other hand, in multi-tasking situations, incentive cues can be helpful because they allow people to rapidly respond in optimal ways to new scenarios. This project will help identify how and when incentive cues help and hurt performance in visual cognition tasks.

Our interest in this topic stems from our recent work showing that incentive cues can be highly effective at gaining momentary, exclusive access to the brain's visual cognition network. It is well established that the visual cognition network is severely limited in capacity and requires a selection mechanism so that only the most relevant information is processed. Visual selection appear to work by a process of competition, with the brain supplying biases favouring the processing of one stimulus over another. We hypothesise that incentive cues activate two different types of processing bias, one based on subjective value and the other based on arousal. We think these biases help incentive cues gain control over visual cognition at different stages. The project will test our hypotheses in three series of experiments on healthy young adults and a fourth series involving teenagers (a PhD project). We will also test the idea that people who are especially likely to be distracted and motivated inappropriately by incentive cues will show an unusually strong propensity to visually orient to cues during learning. If so, behaviour during learning could be used as an indicator of risk for problems in controlling motivation (as in impulsivity).

In our experiments participants will learn to associate modest monetary rewards and punishers with different visual objects so that those objects can later act as incentive (or disincentive) cues. Then, participants will perform simple visual tasks involving these cues. We predict that performance on different tasks will be depend on whether cues are high versus low in arousal value or are high versus low in subjective value. We will also monitor visual orienting (eye movements) during learning to explore individual differences and also record the electroencephalogram (EEG) during engagement with visual tasks so that we can test our predictions that biases act at different times and in different ways during visual processing. The work conducted in this project will develop understanding of how learning and motivation influence visual attention and visual short-term memory. Importantly, the project is set within a well-developed neurobiological framework, so that findings will be relevant to theories of how brain mechanisms underlying reward learning interact with attention and memory. This advance in understanding will provide a crucial piece of the puzzle concerning how motivational disorders (e.g., addiction, overeating) occur and provide insight into how they might be treated.

Planned Impact

The project proposed here is primarily basic research and its immediate impact will be to influence thinking and theory development in related health and neuroscience academic arenas. This will primarily be achieved via publication in high impact, peer-reviewed, open access journals and through presentations at international conferences. However, the project also aims to develop knowledge that could significantly impact practice and policy in applied areas within the health and marketplace sectors. With this aim in mind, we outline here how that knowledge will be communicated and to whom.

Obesity and Overeating: Cue-induced motivational enhancements are a key problem in obesity (e.g., Nijs et al., 2010). This makes the knowledge gained from this project particularly relevant to academics and health practitioners concerned with controlling and preventing obesity and overeating. We will reach these groups through the University of Birmingham's Centre for Obesity Research (COR; www.obesity.bham.ac.uk), a campus-wide multidisciplinary collaboration to understand and tackle obesity. The Centre has excellent links with the local community and has a dedicated Translational Research Manager and Research Strategy Board to facilitate public engagement and develop research impact. We will communicate our findings via seminars and presentations to user groups (clinical practitioners), and by contributing to the Centre's website, with the long-term goal of helping the development of intervention programs.

Adolescent Mental Health: With the assistance of Prof. Stephen Wood, we will communicate our findings to local schools (e.g., parent-teacher groups) and adolescent mental health facilities and participate in a series of public engagement talks being set up by Prof. Wood on youth mental health and brain development.

Marketplace. Understanding how attention and incentive learning combine to influence motivation states is of keen interest to consumer product developers (e.g., Unilever) and to market researchers (e.g., Millward-Brown). Using long-standing links with Unilever and Millward-Brown, Raymond will present findings to user groups within these and other organisations. The goal of these seminars will be to help commercial organisations develop better ways to promote healthy consumption practices among consumers.

Public engagement. We will also work hard to engage the general public with the work we are doing. This will be achieved as follows:
(1) Collaboration with Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum. We will develop and deliver a session on motivation and attention to promote public engagement and dialogue on the research topic and the results of our project.
(2) Press. We will take full advantage of the University Press office to develop wide coverage of the research findings through internal and external press releases.
(3) Café Scientifique, Birmingham. One of the research team will present a science café talk at The Jekyll and Hyde Pub, as part of on going series of informal presentations.

Web-based dissemination
Working with the University of Birmingham's 'IdeasLab' (dedicated to the development of public awareness of research), we will promote the findings to the public and the media using web pages, facebook and twitter. In addition, the Visual Experience Laboratory at University of Birmingham will host a page describing the project as it unfolds and the Centre for Mind and Brain at UC Davis will host a link to this website and promote the project on its website.

Both the PDRA and PhD student will be involved in public engagement activities and will be encouraged to develop their skills in this area.
 
Description The primary objective of this project was to investigate how motivational context influences visual cognition in adults and teenagers.
Using a combination of behavioural and EEG measurements, we made four key discoveries. First, we found that when specific visual cues are repeatedly linked to winning or losing money, those cues can become particularly distracting when one is doing something else. Importantly, the extent of this distraction is reduced with experience but can quickly become worse when the brain is trying to keep track of too many other things. These studies helped us to develop a new theory about how the brain opts to analyse information to a greater or lesser degree depending on how much interference that information will cause in the brain right now and whether the information is really worth thinking about.
The second key discovery was that teenagers (17 year olds) are much more distracted by reward-associated visual cues than young adults (27 year olds). Teenagers seem to value information that is linked to winning even when it might interfere with another task and so are less able to adjust to the context in which reward-related information occurs.
The third key finding concerns how the brain prepares for upcoming information. Although we know that people try to focus when something mentally taxing is about to happen, we know very little about how the brain does this or even if it is possible to mentally 'try harder' for some kinds of mental work. Using EEG we were able to show that when adults expect to get rewarded for rapidly finding a visual object, they are able to actively terminate processing the information that tells them how much they will win, especially if that same incentive information has nothing to do with where or what the object is that they must find. Teenagers, on the other hand, tend to find mentally preparing for upcoming events difficult and instead organise mental activities in response to situations once they arise. This means that, unlike adults, they become caught up in processing incentive information to the detriment of doing that task that eventually will lead to a reward.
The fourth key finding concerns the brain mechanism used to guide visual orienting to specific locations in space. We found that this mechanism adds together two different pieces of information to bias where we look. Not only do we tend to look where information is most likely to occur but we also tend to be biased to look at locations where especially valuable information has been presented, even if that information is rare. Our work shows that these two signals are generated independently and this is important for explaining many aspects of reward-associated distractibility.
Exploitation Route The findings form this work may eventually influence thinking about, research into, and even interventions for addiction, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and obesity. All these problems may be related to inadequate control over reward-linked motivational and perceptual states. This work has already been linked to advanced studies on learning and motivation problems associated with obesity and also with sub-clinical OCD. A further area that this work may influence is the psychological study of poverty (extreme low reward states) and its effects on mental health. Other aspects of the project are informative for understanding adolescence and the additional life risk encountered at this time of life. The work has importance for theoretical models of how motivation influences the prioritisation of information processing and may be used to develop further means to measure brain response to relevant versus irrelevant reward-associated stimuli.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Retail,Security and Diplomacy

 
Description This work has influences activity in a number of different way. First, the relevance of our work for obesity has led to a collaboration between the University of Birmingham and the University of Amsterdam to specifically target problems of learning and motivation in obesity and other medical conditions associated with inflammation. The work has also led to other collaborations working on cognitive problems associated with air pollution; both projects have received funding for PhD students, thus have helped build capacity in this area. Second, the work has led to a 3-year funded project that extends our finding that emotionally rewarding information attracts gaze even when it is disadvantageous to do so. Specifically, this project addresses commercial and applied concerns over the perception and judgement of authenticity in banknotes, and other valuable objects and involves a collaboration with UCDavis (USA), University of British Columbia (Canada), and the University of Sydney (Australia). Third, the project has influenced theoretical understanding of reward mechanisms in the brain, attracting funding from the EU (Marie Sklowdowski-Curie Fellowship). Fourth the project has spawned pilot work on the effect on the psychological effects of poverty conducted in collaboration with the University of California at Santa Barbara. Other impacts have been to influence research on reward-related processing problems in sub-clinical OCD, autism and other sub-clinical mental health problems. Over the course of the project numerous events have been held to engage the public. These have included public discussion of psychological science principles as they relate to art exhibitions, neuroscience festivals, pint of science events, etc. These events have been well attended and feedback has been 'this changed the way I look at things". Other targeted events have included presentation about how attention and motivation affected learning and perception. Presentations have been given to a large international firms of solicitors, and to high level executives working on banknote security from more than 10 countries around the world.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description Cognitive Research on Authentication
Amount $796,138 (CAD)
Organisation Bank of Canada 
Start 02/2018 
End 01/2020
 
Description ESRC Transformative Grant
Amount £244,914 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/M001761/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2014 
End 02/2016
 
Description Open call
Amount £3,200 (GBP)
Organisation Bank of England 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2015 
End 04/2016
 
Description Understanding sequential trial effects in visual search 
Organisation University of California, Santa Barbara
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Ww have developed a new way of analysing data and are sharing this with the partner.
Collaborator Contribution The partner has provided us with empirical data for re-analysis, saving us time and effort.
Impact paper in preparation
Start Year 2017
 
Description An invited keynote to the primo international conference on banknote design 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A keynote address entitled: "Banknote Security: What do the public really look at?" This talk presented theory and methods about human eye movements and cognition and their application to understanding how the general public authenticate banknotes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.banknotedesignersconference.com/4/1.html
 
Description Art & Science Public Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A series of lecture on how to interpret fine art paintings on display at the Barber Institute for Fine Arts using ideas and knowledge from Cognitive Neuroscience. The talks present basic concept and methods from Cognitive Neuroscience to members of the general Public and help them see fine art in a new way. The audience then engage in a active gallery tour. They report seeing and enjoying art in an new way and gaining understanding of brain science. Events have been "sold" out and last year a repeat performance was engaged.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL http://barber.org.uk/arts-science-festival-evening-lecture/
 
Description Bring on the Brains at Community Day, University of Birmingham 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Researchers organised an event at the University of Birmingham's Community Day to promote the OWL app and Cognition and motivation Research. Over 100 families visited the stall. The event was a great success and the stall had a crowd of people around it all day long.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Currency Design 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Delivered Keynote address at the Currency Conference, a primo international conference attended by banknotes industry leaders and key figures in Central Banks from countries around the world. The keynotes concerned cognition, motivation and attention and how cognitive neuroscience is important for understanding counterfeit detection. The talk promoted the importance of a scientific empirical approach to banknote information choices.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.currencyconference.com/featured-presentations-and-presenters
 
Description Dividing Lines: A Brain Science view on Landscape Paintings 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A discussion of a artwork exhibited at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts centred around principles of Vision Science. The presentation provided an opportunity to educate and illuminate the general public about brain mechanisms underlying scene perception and aesthetic responses.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://barber.org.uk/arts-science-festival-evening-lecture/
 
Description ESRC Festival of Science Birmingham City Library 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Members of the public were invited to help collect data on human decision making. Lots of questions were asked and there were discussion held.

too soon to say
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Keynote to European Central Bank Conference on cash and counterfeiting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact An invited keynote lecture "Perception and Banknotes" to a group of high level decision makers at the European Central Bank and related bank-note and secure document industry leaders: The presentation focused on how principles of Human Perception and Cognitive Science address problems of the public's role in banknote authentication.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Psychological Science and communication in the legal professions 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A presentation about Psychological Science and how it can be exploited to improve communication in the legal professions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017