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Lunch Hour Lectures: Distracted, confused and unaware – the elusive gift of attention

KilianThayaparan24 October 2014

Active brain“I hope you’re not all here for the wrong reason – so distracted, confused and unaware that you can’t pay attention”, Professor Nilli Lavie (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) joked at the beginning of her lecture on the psychology and brain research of attention. One would suspect that among the packed out audience, many (like myself) were in fact there in the hope of a ‘cure’ for the attention difficulties we all face in our everyday lives.

Professor Lavie first provided a succinct yet simple definition of ‘attention’, describing it as a process of gathering our mental resources and focusing on a portion of information around us; a selective focus of our neural and mental processes.

She then posed two specific questions with regards to this: Why at some times are we so distracted that we can’t pay attention? And why at other times do we pay so much attention that we don’t notice important things that are happening around us?

Focusing on her first question, Professor Lavie provided some examples of where distraction occurs in our everyday lives; at work, research has shown that distractions take up 2.1 hours of the working day, whilst on the road, we’re exposed to both internal (e.g. mobile phones, children) and external (e.g. billboards, accidents) distractions.

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Can fish count?

SiobhanPipa27 January 2014

Can fish count?
In the first Lunch Hour Lecture of 2014, Professor Brian Butterworth (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) asked the rather unusual question: Can fish count?

The peculiarity is not lost on Professor Butterworth, whose introduction includes slides on ‘Why you might think it’s a silly question’: Part 1 and Part 2. But there’s nothing fishy about this topic.

MosquitofishThere are numerous reasons why this could be considered a bit of an unusual subject for a lecture. It’s a common held belief that only humans can process abstract concepts, which numbers essentially are.

Then, there’s the idea that counting is intrinsically linked to language; to be able to possess the concept of ‘four’, ‘five’, ‘six’ there needs to be a counting vocabulary. As Noam Chomsky said: “The human number faculty [is] essentially an ‘abstraction’ from human language.”

What do we mean by counting?
If, like Chomsky, we consider it the recitation of counting words, then any group without such words cannot count. If, however, we define it as the ability to exactly enumerate the numbers in a set; through either identification or discrimination, counting words are no longer essential.

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Take that Descartes! “How the body shapes the mind”

Rupert PCole5 September 2012

Here in Aberdeen, the British Science Festival kicked off with a fascinating series of talks on recent research into the way bodily experiences affect even our most abstract mental facilities and knowledge.

UCL’s own Gabriella Vigliocco, professor of psychology, organised the panel. Professor Vigliocco and three fellow professors in the field tackled the mind-body problem – one of the most notorious headaches of Western philosophy.

Mind over grey matter?
Stefano F. Cappa, professor of neurology at Milan’s San Raffaele Scientific Institute, gave the first of the talks. Professor Cappa introduced us to the key questions and experiments in cognitive neuroscience.

If we take for granted that the brain has something to do with the mind, then what is its relation? Alluding to Alan Turing’s computer analogy, Cappa asked is the brain “hardware”; the mind “software,” like a program? If so, how does the brain compute, or problem solve?

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And finally…symposium posters and prizes

newseditor6 July 2012

In the fourth and final blog post of a series about the UCL Neuroscience Symposium 2012, held on Friday 29 June, Post-doctoral Research Scientists Fiona Kerr and Oyinkan Adesakin (UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing and UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) highlight the  poster session and various prize winners in words and video.

Poster sessions
Early in your scientific career it can be difficult to find ways of discussing your research, which is often a work in progress, with a wider scientific audience.

Poster sessions provide this opportunity, enabling young scientists to discuss their ideas and obtain feedback on their work without the nerve-racking experience of an oral presentation.

As a poster presenter at this year’s UCL Neuroscience Symposium, I found it to be a particularly engaging experience, obtaining useful advice and being able to discuss my work freely within the safety of the world-renowned UCL Neuroscience community.

The poster session covered a wide-range of neuroscience topics, from the level of the nerve cell to animal behaviour and diseases of the nervous system, showcasing the breadth and depth of neuroscience studied at UCL alone.

Carl Zeiss PhD Poster prize
A particular highlight of the poster session was speaking to Bethan Kilpatrick, proud winner of the Carl Zeiss PhD poster prize in only the first year of her PhD studies.

Bethan’s research aims to find out why Gaucher’s disease (GD), a lysosomal storage disorder, and Parkinson’s disease (PD), a neurodegenerative disorder, are genetically linked. Using cells obtained from skin biopsies, Bethan’s work has shown that there is a change in the way in which calcium is stored in cells from patients with GD compared to people of the same age who don’t have the disease.

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