Current research on visual attention is dominated by the object-based thesis, whereby visual input is organized into Gestalt groupings, and attention operates over these groupings. On this view, attention is more effectively allocated to a single object than to two or more. This theory is supported by experimental data, and has some ecological validity from research on Heads-Up Displays (HUDs). This research shows that under certain conditions pilots’ attention becomes fixated on one object (the HUD) at the expense of monitoring events from another object (the outside scene). This phenomenon, called “cognitive tunnelling,” cannot be explained by the spatial parameters of attention, and thus is consistent with the object-based thesis. Despite the evidence for object-based attention, the conceptual foundations of the theory are questionable. Perceptual organization is an inference-based process, rather than one based on Gestalt principles. Also, evidence shows that conative factors – motivations, goals, needs – play important roles in what people perceive and attend to as objects. In the present research, a series of seven experiments was carried out to examine attentional mechanisms underlying HUD use. These experiments show that attentional strategies, task demands and the locus of control of the display strongly influence on what pilots focus attention, and to what degree. On the basis of these results, and of a critical review of the research literature on attention, a conative model of attention is proposed. On this model, attention is an active process wherein the visual system uses visual objects as tools for directing attention according to an observer’s background knowledge, intentions, and task context. Observers focus on what is relevant to their tasks and needs, subject to perceptual constraints. According to this model, task demands and pilot training determine to what degree pilots “tunnel” their attention onto a HUD or its sub-parts. Wider implications for human factors research on HUD use, and for the study of cognition in general, are discussed.

Additional Metadata
Keywords attention, Heads-Up Displays, cognitive tunnelling, attentional mechanisms
Publisher Institute of Cognitive Science
Series Cognitive Science Technical Report Series
Jarmasz, Jerzy P. (2003). Objects, Pilots, and the Act of Attending: A Conative Account of Visual Attention. Technical Report 2003-04. Cognitive Science Technical Report Series. Institute of Cognitive Science.