University of Queensland, Australia
What does your research focus on?
Our world constantly serves up far more sensory information than can be processed at the level of awareness. Thus, it is vital that humans are able to sort the important information from the irrelevant, and select the correct responses to this information from a veritable plethora of options. These tasks are thought to be undertaken by the attention system and I am interested in understanding the cognitive and neural underpinnings of this system and, in particular, the mechanism(s) that give rise to the capacity limitations of attention. In addition, I am interested in how humans overcome such limitations by employing environmental cues such as the context in which relevant items appear and how training improves cognitive performance and reduces the impact of attentional bottlenecks. A key question pertains to the transfer of training from one cognitive task to another. To investigate these questions, I employ behavioral, neuroimaging (fMRI), and neurostimulation (TMS) techniques.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I have always been interested in human performance and, in particular, its limits. I could not even begin to estimate how many hours across my life have been devoted to watching sports for this reason (at least in part for this reason). What I have always found amazing is that despite having immense processing power and approximately100 billion neurons, the human brain is unable to handle two simple tasks at once, which typically results in severe failures of consciousness and/or decision making. Attention is vital for virtually every task we perform, from driving to managing multiple tasks at work, and is impaired in a wide range of mental and neurological disorders. Thus, research in this field in both vital and exciting.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I have been extremely lucky to work with some wonderful mentors throughout my career. As an undergraduate at Griffith University, Karen Murphy introduced me to the study of the capacity limits of temporal attention. In graduate school at the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science, Macquarie University, Veronika Coltheart, Irina Harris, and Max Coltheart provided me with excellent training in cognitive psychology and showed me the opportunities a career in research could provide. At Vanderbilt University, René Marois introduced me to cognitive neuroscience research and trained me in functional imaging, helping to hone my skills in order to become a lab head. All these individuals are not only mentors, but also great friends and continue to be wonderful supporters of my work.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
Any success I have achieved has been due to hard work, drive, commitment, a willingness to make sacrifices and of course a little luck. In addition, I have always studied things that interest me and tried to stay in the present, only focusing on the things that I can control. I also really believe that one must always keep an open mind and think deeply about the issues at hand. Obviously, however, no man is an island, and I have been lucky to be wonderfully supported by the mentors above, an amazing family, and the best wife anyone could ever hope for. I also have fantastic colleagues at the University of Queensland and a lab full of great students. Finally, I have received funding support from the Australian Research Council.
What’s your future research agenda?
I am always focused on conducting sound research that interests me and has significant implications. In addition, I am strongly committed to training students and postdocs. My current grants investigate different forms of human attentional capacity limitations and how they are related using behavioral experiments, fMRI and TMS. A particular focus is on testing for the existence of a central bottleneck in the brain, the influence of training on these bottlenecks and the functional anatomy of the frontal lobes.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientist? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Further to what I discussed above, always do work that excites you, work with the best individuals who can provide you with the best training and always be willing to give your all — research is incredibly rewarding when you do.
What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Dux, P. E., Ivanoff, J. G., Asplund, C. L., & Marois, R. (2006). Isolation of a central bottleneck of information processing with time-resolved fMRI. Neuron, 52, 1109-1120.
This was my first fMRI paper. It took a long time to conduct, was technically challenging, and I got to work on it with some wonderful scientists and friends.