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.

In a 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 setting.

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 developed cortex.

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.

The team 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 said.

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 process.

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 more sluggishly.

This ability is important for both humans and animals.

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 superior colliculus.

However, further research suggested that in actuality, more advanced cortical structures were essential for inhibition of return.

“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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