A Ben-Gurion University of the Negev study using archer fish has shown that the
way animals and humans shift their visual attention is similar.
paper just published in Nature Communications, a group of BGU scientists used
the archer fish to examine these issues. The BGU team selected this fish species
to serve as the model because of its remarkable ability to shoot down insects
found on foliage above the water level and its ability to learn to distinguish
between artificial targets presented on a computer monitor in an experimental
They found that the fish present similar attention effects to
those of human participants, demonstrating the presence of an attention
phenomenon called “inhibition of return” (IOR) even in a species lacking a fully
Scientific debate has focused on two possible sources
for attention – a midbrain structure called the superior colliculus or more
advanced cortical structures. Fish have a superior colliculus in their brain,
but, unlike humans, they lack fully developed cortical structures. The
researchers thus explored whether fish exhibit an attention phenomenon called
the “inhibition of return.” They showed that despite the lack of advanced
cortical structures, archer fish in fact demonstrate IOR.
includes Prof. Avishai Henik, Dr. Shai Gabay and doctoral student Tali Leibovich
from the psychology department, and Prof. Ronen Segev and Dr. Avi Ben-Simon from
the life sciences department.
“This work, which at this stage is specific
to the archer fish, elucidated an important aspect of the study of attention. It
also suggests that basic attention mechanisms evolved early on in evolution to
enable very primitive systems to function in their environment,” Segev
Attention, a critical component of the human cognitive process, is
the ability to concentrate on a specific aspect of the environment or a specific
information processing task in the brain. Since humans use vision extensively,
visual attention has been the focus of the scientific community for the most
part. By moving our attention around, we can concentrate our brain power on a
specific task important to us at the moment. For example, students focus by
looking at the whiteboard in a classroom.
Sometimes your attention shifts
even if you didn’t intend to do so. For example, a door slamming during class
will immediately draw people’s attention and make them look at the door
reflexively. Interestingly, moving attention reflexively is not a simple
Specifically, early on, people initially respond to stimuli in
recently attended locations very quickly, but respond more slowly when there is
a lag before the next stimulus in the same location. It has been suggested that
this slowdown is our way of preventing the return to locations already searched
in favor of searching new locations.
For instance, if the door were to
open and close again, the attention of those in the room would be drawn much
This ability is important for both humans and
For example, there is no point in looking in the same place
twice during a very short period for your keys, if you are human, or prey, if
you are an animal or a human. This complex process of moving visual attention
around can improve the ability of animals to forage for food or other important
items in their environment. Previous studies have suggested that this slowdown
in returning to an already searched location – IOR – is triggered by the
However, further research suggested that in
actuality, more advanced cortical structures were essential for inhibition of
“Interestingly, although the inhibition of return is an important
aspect of visual attention, there is almost no work on this issue in animals and
almost all studies were conducted with humans. This raises the important
question: To what extent is the way animals and humans move their visual
attention around similar?” Henik said.
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