MSU psychology study takes unique look at visual learning
6:36 p.m. CDT October 26, 2014
You’re driving on the interstate with traffic all around you. In tiny increments of time, you are aware of the types of cars on either side. Because you’re familiar with them, your conscious attention is directed elsewhere.
Psychologist Wayne Mitchell, coordinator of the experimental psychology graduate program at Missouri State University, is fascinated by the response to the unfamiliar, especially in infants. He is examining the physiological changes that take place — like longer looks and decreased heart rate — as children actively encode new information to understand what they’re looking at.
How quickly a person habituates to experiences is tied to physical and mental development. Babies who are two to three months old may look at a new object for as long as eight minutes, learning its visual characteristics. In just a few more months, if they develop normally, they scan the object more exhaustively and quickly.
“We try to develop stimuli that are something you’ve never seen before,” Mitchell said. He and his students design abstract shapes, make line drawings of animals and modify photos of faces.
At-risk populations — for example, individuals with mental retardation, attention deficit disorder or schizophrenia, and infants with developmental delays — tend to visually scan new objects differently than normal individuals. The at-risk individuals may continue to take longer looks and may never fully habituate to some experiences.
“The more we can understand developmental and individual differences in visual learning and scanning,” he said, “the better we can develop appropriate interventions to help those infants and young children with learning deficits.”
Mitchell’s lab is using the Tobii eye tracker to compile information about where participants have looked, how many times they looked there, how long they looked and how rapidly they responded to different areas of the image. Researchers can then compare visual patterns created by those with and without developmental delays or disabilities.
“This gives us more data than we could even hope to get elsewhere,” said Bret Eschman, an experimental psychology graduate student. “It gathers so much information so quickly.”
Mitchell hopes the research leads to new ways to detect developmental problems in infancy or early childhood, then to the creation of new intervention methods to improve visual learning. Hopefully, the findings will prevent developmental delays in at-risk infants and young children.
Story by Michelle Rose, office of publications at Missouri State University