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

Kilian Thayaparan24 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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UCL Neuroscience Symposium 2014: an overview

ucyow3c2 July 2014

pencil-iconWritten by Jack Moore, BSc student at St Mary’s University

With over 800 people attending and almost 200 posters being presented, there was a real sense of excitement around the halls of the Institute of Education (IoE) where the 5th annual UCL Neuroscience symposium was held on 19 June.

James Rothman

Professor James Rothman

With so many people at the event, and so much being presented, it was a great opportunity to discover what other researchers have been doing and share thoughts on the latest developments. Over the years the event has only got bigger, with the entry queue this year winding all the way up the stairs of the IoE.

The day began with last year’s Nobel Prize winner, Professor James Rothman (Yale University), giving a thought-provoking opening keynote speech on how calcium controls neurotransmitter release to a packed auditorium of both students and staff. As Professor Rothman is a Professorial Research Associate in the UCL Institute of Neurology, it seemed a fitting way to begin a symposium in which such a diverse and successful domain get a chance to come together and learn about what is being achieved by different institutes and laboratories.

After the applause for Professor Rothman had quietened down, everyone finally had a chance to see all 180 posters on offer at the event. Dr Martine Groen, who was on the panel deciding this year’s Laboratory Poster Prize, told me the winning poster would have to be one that was nice to read and walk through, making clear what the research question is and why it is interesting.

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Whatcha guvnor: inside the mind of a London cabbie

Clare S Ryan28 November 2013

London’s black taxis – or cabs – are as iconic as Big Ben, red buses and the London Eye, so it was no surprise to arrive to a packed audience at Dr Hugo Spiers’s (UCL Cognitive, Perceptual & Brain Sciences) Lunch Hour Lecture on 21 November.

The lecture was a whistle stop tour of the brains of a London cabbie, famously studied by UCL neuroscientists for more than 15 years.

London cabbies – what’s the big deal?
The Great Exhibition of 1851 gave birth to the London cabbie as we know it: the deficiency of the taxi service at the time became widely publicised and, in response, the first test for London’s taxi drivers was devised, called the London Knowledge.

Today, drivers who can complete ‘the Knowledge’ are able to perform amazing feats of memory multiple times a day. To pass the test, they must memorise more than 25,000 streets and one thousand sites of interest so that they can mentally map the route from any point in London to any other.

Learning the knowledge takes three years (similar to a UCL undergraduate degree) and the exam is rarely passed first time.

As a result of this gruelling training, the brains of cabbies are of particular interest to neuroscientists, as they can be used to study lots of interesting questions, such as does special memory change the shape of cabbies’ brains? How does the brain navigate space? And, fundamentally, how does memory work?

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

Rupert P Cole5 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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