Control of Attention by the Motor System: A Motor Bias Theory of Attention

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Psychology


Humans must process an overwhelming amount of visual information with limited cognitive resources. Spatial attention allows us to select the relevant information. A metaphor for attention is that of a spotlight; only things within the 'beam' of attention are processed. A widely held view is that control of the spotlight is implemented by the motor system. If we wish to attend to something, we plan (but don't necessarily execute) an action that would orient the eyes or hands to that thing. This 'Premotor' theory of attention has been very influential, but does not explain the full range of empirical data. This project will test a new Motor Bias theory of attention which offers a new explanation of the relationship between motor control and attention. Specifically, it is argued that movement preparation influences attention in a stochastic fashion, such that attention is more likely to be allocated to movement goals when (a) the same goal is being selected by more than one effector system, (b) the movement is close to being initiated and (c) the organism is confident that the movement will reliably acquire the desired target. The project aims to precisely characterise the interaction between attention and the motor system by testing these principles. Understanding the psychology of attention will also inform the development of novel rehabilitation techniques for patients with neuropsychological deficits of attention.

Planned Impact

There are a number of ways in which we plan to disseminate our findings to different groups. To engage with the broad range of scientists and practitioners interested in attention and the motor system we plan to host a research workshop at the end of the project during which we will set out our MBTA. This workshop will include a specific session dedicated to engaging school pupils and undergraduates with our research. We will also develop a webpage to report on our progress, and provide regular updates on our research via social media (e.g. These updates will be written to be accessible to the general public, and will not require any specialist knowledge. To engage with the broader public the results of our project will be described as part of the PIs and the post-doc's normal public engagement activities (i.e. talks and open days aimed at schoolchildren and events such as café scientifique). The research will also be publicised through mainstream media outlets by the Durham University media relations team. We will engage with the academic community by publishing the results of our project in leading scientific journals and by presenting our results at scientific meetings (e.g. meetings of learned societies such as the Experimental Psychology Society) and international scientific conferences (European Conference on Visual Perception, Society for Neuroscience, Vision Science Society).


10 25 50
publication icon
Casteau S (2018) Covert attention beyond the range of eye-movements: Evidence for a dissociation between exogenous and endogenous orienting. in Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior

publication icon
Smith DT (2018) Spatial working memory in Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. in Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior

publication icon
Smith DT (2019) The effect of offset cues on saccade programming and covert attention. in Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006)

Description The human field of vision is very broad. We can see things that are up to 120 degree into the periphery. Our first experiments have shown that covert attention (the ability to pay attention to things without looking at them) can only be allocated to locations up ~40 degrees into the periphery. This is as far as the eye can move without needing a combined eye-head movement. This result shows that covert attention is limited by the range of eye-movements, not the range of the visual system. However, there are two types of 'covert attention'. Exogenous attention is engaged when something salient captures attention (e.g. a flashing blue light when driving), whereas endogenous attention is engaged when we choose to pay attention to something (e.g. a student covertly monitoring thier phone while sitting in a lecture). This difference is important, because our next experiments showed that only exogenous attention was limited by the range of eye-movements.
Exploitation Route These results are helping us and our collaborators develop a new theoretical model of attention we call "Motor Bias Theory". We also hope to apply these findings to understanding and developing new therapies for neuropsychological disorders such as Neglect, Hemianopia and Progressive Supranuclear Palsy
Sectors Healthcare

Description Progressive Supranuclear Palsy Project 
Organisation South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Department Department of Cellular Pathology
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Hospitals 
PI Contribution I applied some of the ideas developed during this award to begin developing a new test for a disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. This collaboration was also strongly influenced by my previous ESRC grant
Collaborator Contribution Dr Neil Archibald has helped recruit patients with PSP and acts as the local NHS investigator
Impact We have published a paper and a book chapter outlining some preliminary results
Start Year 2017