Earlier this year I published my first first author paper in the scientific journal Neuroimage.
(n.b. Being first author of a scientific paper is a big deal as it shows you did most of the work!)
Although our ears are bombarded with different sounds, our brains are very good at picking apart this soundscape and selecting relevant auditory objects for us to perceive. This selection and filtering process is what we mean by attention, and it is crucial for us to be able to navigate our rich sensory environments without overloading our feeble minds.
In this paper we showed that the regions of the brain that let us select sounds from this soundscape are different to those involved in selecting objects from our visual field. We had 20 people listen to busy background sounds (e.g. the sounds of a busy pub) that were full of distractors, and made them listen out for a specific target sound; a series of tones which made a simple melody. In another 20 participants, we made them view busy natural scenes (e.g. commuters walking down Oxford Street) and had them look out for a target shape; a red rectangle that could appear in two possible locations on the screen.
We scanned our participants using MRI during these tasks and studied the neural activity that happened while subjects were paying attention to the sounds and videos. We found that the connection between neurons in the middle frontal gyrus (MFG; which is important for the inhibition of a number of behaviours) and the posterior middle temporal gyrus (MTG; which is part of the extended auditory association areas) seems to be important for the selection of auditory objects. In contrast, for visual selection we saw activity in the superior parietal lobe (SPL; which is important for spatial navigation and awareness) and the frontal eye fields (FEF; which are crucial for controlling eye movements).
In addition, we showed that there is a common area of overlap between the two sensory modalities. The MFG was activated for both visual and auditory selection. This suggests that the MFG is important for coordinating which sensory modalities are being attended to, as it is able to connect to both visual and auditory attention areas simultaneously.
I was recently interviewed for this work by Faculti Media, and you can see the video below. Enjoy!