The eyes may be a window to the soul as far as philosophers are concerned; to Notre Dame Associate Professor James Brockmole they are roving indicators of attention and memory—“the keystones on which human experience is built.”
Brockmole’s research in the Department of Psychology looks at how eye movements influence what we pay attention to and how that visual attention translates into useful information and memories. His research specifically evaluates how visual memory works, how we retain visual memories, and how aging or psychological problems affects visual memory keeping.
“One’s ability to remember visual material such as objects, faces, and spatial locations declines dramatically as we get older,” Brockmole says, “and we want to know why.” His research indicates that after age 21 a steady decline in visual memory occurs that is so severe that observers over the age of 50 can, on average, remember fewer objects than 10-year-olds.
“We are considering multiple reasons for this decline, and I hope that the answers will provide insight into intervention techniques that may reduce the adverse consequences of aging on memory,” he says.
Human cognition has been the focus of Brockmole’s work since the beginning of his academic career. “As a Notre Dame undergraduate, I was very lucky to become involved in research exploring the relationship between eye movements and cognition. To my 18-year-old self, the ability to work with high-tech gadgetry was probably most appealing at first. But, as I spent more time working with professors on studies examining the acquisition, retention, and use of visual knowledge, I became hooked on these issues and I continue to investigate them today.”
Two interrelated aspects of cognition continue to intrigue Brockmole in particular. The first is the simplicity and fragility of human experience.
“The amount of information we could attend to, or could remember, at a given moment dwarfs our processing capacity,” he says. “Moment-to-moment, we have to choose little bits of the world to process. As a result, we simply let most of the world pass us by without a thought. For my part, I’m more impressed with our ability to function well without needing to know what we’re missing.”
The second most engaging aspect of research into memory and vision, Brockmole says, is the difference between what we are aware of and what we know.
“Conscious processing is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human cognition,” he says, noting that human attention and memory systems are extremely good at picking up and storing information about the visual environment without our knowledge or awareness.
“This unconscious, or implicit, processing gives us a sort of ‘auto-pilot’ when it comes to a lot of our behaviors,” Brockmole says, “and it probably goes a long way in helping us overcome our cognitive limitations.”
In addition to his own research, Brockmole recently accepted an appointment as associate editor for the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. As an editor of this leading journal, Brockmole will be charged with assessing the research of other scientists and deciding whose work is significant or groundbreaking enough to merit publication.
“I am honored that my peers have chosen me for this important task,” he says. “I am also proud to become the tenth member of the Psychology Department to serve as the editor of a journal. It is wonderful to be a part of a department where the level of scholarship is top-notch and where faculty and students are making a big impact in their fields.”