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Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention Lab

P.I.: Benjamin Tamber-Rosenau, Ph.D.

Research Interests

How does the human brain allow us to react adaptively to a wide variety of situations and tasks? And why does this extremely flexible system fail in seemingly simple situations? Everyday examples of these limits include our inability to pay attention to our work and the TV at the same time, our poor driving when we speak on the phone (even hands-free!), and our forgetting details of a photo right after we see it.

My research aims to understand the cognitive and neural bases of the paradoxical, flexible-yet-limited nature of human cognition. My work has mainly focused on healthy young adults, but will expand to include other populations, with the goal of learning how to ameliorate the reduced capabilities that can go along with aging and disorders.

I use a variety of methods to pursue two primary research directions:

  1. How are cognitive processes implemented in the human brain? Humans are very good at arbitrarily processing information to perform novel tasks. But this flexible information processing may come at a cost: if we use general-purpose mechanisms to select, represent, and transform information, we may be stuck using identical mechanisms to process even unrelated tasks, leading to bottlenecks on our ability to perform multiple tasks at once. A wealth of research has shown that our brains are not wholly general-purpose information processors, but neither do we depend on "grandmother cells"—completely specialized neural machinery for every situation and percept. I use behavioral measures, fMRI, and brain stimulation (tDCS) to determine the architecture of information processing in the human brain, with the goal of understanding how general-purpose and specialized neural mechanisms implement cognition. Furthermore, I ask how these neural mechanisms--particularly those underlying attention and response selection--explain capacity limits in human behavior.
  2. How do we represent the world we see now, and the world we saw in the past? A fundamental limit on human behavior is the accuracy with which we represent the world around us, both as we perceive it and as we maintain this information in memory. My research on perceptual representations has ranged from low-level mechanisms such as cortical magnification in primary visual cortex to high-level mechanisms such as the neural basis of individual differences in perception of items of expertise (e.g., what makes perception of cars different in car experts compared to novices?). In the domain of memory, I recently showed that visual working memory (VWM) representations have similar spatial resolution to perceptual representations, but encode information in a different format. The connecting theme of these studies is that the way we represent information enables our behavior but also places limitations on it. This means that to understand our flexible-yet-limited information processing, we need to understand the way we represent information as well as the way we process and transform it.

In order to carry out the above research aims, I use methods such as:

  • functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
  • multivariate/multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA)
  • transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) of the brain
  • computational modeling (quantitative mixture modeling)
  • behavioral measures of response time and accuracy
  • eyetracking

Prospective Graduate Students

I am seeking students with a strong interest in cognitive neuroscience and part or all of the research program laid out above. However, an important part of your graduate training is developing your own research interests and goals, and I want my students to expand on my research program with their own ideas and interests. Though I expect many applicants to have a psychology background, I am also happy to consider applicants from other disciplines, such as neuroscience, engineering, math, or others. It is useful, but not required, that you have prior experience with psychology research and/or computer programming/scripting. The most important factor, though, is not what your college major was. It’s your interest and ability to learn things that are new to you, and to perform research to learn things that are new to all of us.

If you think you might be interested in doctoral work, e-mail me. I’d love to hear about your background and your interests in advance of the formal application process.

My goals for graduate student training are:

  • To help students attain great theoretical knowledge in the domains of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, with specific expertise in one or more areas such as attention, cognitive control, capacity limits, and working memory.
  • To help students attain the technical skills needed to pursue their own research careers, including training in one or more techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), quantitative mixture modeling of behavior, and eyetracking.
  • To help students develop the professional skills and knowledge that will allow them to continue their careers in the academic research environment or in the broader world.

DCBN program webpage and the graduate application webpage.

Undergraduate Research Assistants

I am excited for undergraduate research assistants to contribute to the lab! Students can join the lab on either a volunteer or for-credit basis. Typical undergraduate lab duties include reading and discussing published research, brainstorming new research, assisting in participant recruitment and data collection, performing literature searches, helping to process lab data (e.g., demarcating brain regions in MRI images), and helping to prepare results for presentation outside the lab.  These duties will teach you skills that will be useful if you plan to go on to a future career in science or medicine.  I am also happy to help you learn tools such as Matlab programming/scripting that are useful in science, social science, and engineering. For-credit students will need to satisfy the requirements for independent study, typically a paper. If you are interested in working in the lab, e-mail me!


For a complete list of publications, please see my Google Scholar page. A few representative publications include:

Tamber-Rosenau, B.J., & Marois, R. (2016). Central attention is serial, but midlevel and peripheral attention are parallel—A hypothesis. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

Tamber-Rosenau, B.J., Fintzi, A.R., & Marois, R. (2015). Crowding in visual working memory reveals its spatial resolution and the nature of its representations. Psychological Science, 26(9), 1511-1521.

Tamber-Rosenau, B.J., Dux, P.E., Tombu, M.N., Asplund, C.L., & Marois, R. (2013). Amodal processing in human prefrontal cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(28), 11573-11587.

Tamber-Rosenau, B. J., Esterman, M., Chiu, Y.-C., & Yantis, S. (2011). Cortical mechanisms of cognitive control for shifting attention in vision and working memory. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23(10), 2905-2919.

Esterman, M., Chiu, Y.-C., Tamber-Rosenau, B. J., & Yantis, S. (2009). Decoding cognitive control in human parietal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(42), 17974-17979.