How environmental regularities help visual search – and to find beer

beerblogpostBy  Yu Luo

How far can you go as an undergraduate research assistant in a psychology lab? Your first thoughts may be giving debriefing, running subjects or entering data. These were exactly what I had had in mind before joining Dr. Jiaying Zhao’s lab. However, I have gained far more experiences than I expected.

Everything began with my research project in Psyc366 (methods in research). I had to find a supervisor and an interesting project to work on for two terms. I looked through all psychology labs’ website and Dr. Zhao’s projects attracted my attention. When I first joined the lab, Dr. Zhao introduced a topic that I had never heard before. I started to read some related articles to build background knowledge and she clarified everything that I did not understand. Then, I ran subjects and analyzed data as expected. I thought that it would be the end after analyzing data and writing a report for my course. However, it was not the case. We submitted our findings to Vision Science Society (VSS) conference. We got reply from VSS in February and our project was accepted as a talk. I was excited and nervous at the same time, because I will be the presenter. We prepared and practiced in May many times. Finally, I presented at VSS conference in Florida in front of more than two hundred scientists. It was my first conference presentation and an unforgottenone. Now, I am working on our paper and we will send it to a journal soon.

My research project was on how environmental regularities influence visual attention. For example, how can I find a beer in a liquor store that I am not familiar on a Friday night? First, the overall shape of the beer bottles helps me to find the beer section in the store and the co-occurrence between the logo and the brand name of a particular beer help me to find the individual bottle. This is a very general example of how environmental regularities help visual search. More specifically, my research question is how statistical regularities alter the spatial scale of attention. Statistical regularities refer to the embedded regularities among objects. Spatial scale of attention is whether we pay attention to the individual objects or to the entire scene. We found that spatial regularities can automatically determine whether attention is directed to individual objects or the entire scene.

To sum up, if you want to get more experiences or have a sense of what does research looks like, you should definitely join a lab as I did. It will be a valuable experience added to your undergraduate studies, since you are not likely to gain such experience in psychology courses.

Bio: I am a 4th year biopsychology student. I am currently working with Dr. Jiaying Zhao as a research assistant on cognitive projects. My focus is on visual statistical learning. We want to know how learning of regularities from the environment influences cognitive processing.

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