The time and place for your attention

New research shows that, when focused, we process information continuously, rather than in waves as previously thought.

By Katie Willis on December 5, 2016

You’re in a crowded lecture theatre. Around you are a million tiny distractions: someone rustling in their bag; a door opening for latecomers; a phone vibrating or lighting up; another listener having a snack; a pen dropping on the floor. However, you remain focused, concentrating on the speaker, listening and engaging with the talk.

But, how do you do that?

New research shows that when we’re paying attention to something, that information is processed in a continuous manner. But when we’re trying to ignore something, we perceive and experience information in waves or frames, like scenes in a movie.

Paying attention

“We are bombarded with so much information and stimulation that we can’t possibly process it all at once.” —Kyle Mathewson

Cognitive neuroscientist Kyle Mathewson and Sayeed Kizuk, graduate of the bachelor of science program in honours psychology and current master’s student, recently published research explaining the phenomena.

“We are better at prioritizing certain times when we are not attending to that space in the world,” explains Mathewson, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta and Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute affiliate. “This research shows that the two processes for attending to space and attending to time interact with one another.”

Our brains oscillate at many different frequencies, explains Mathewson, and each frequency has a different role.

“This study examined 12 hertz alpha oscillations, a mechanisms used to inhibit, or ignore, a certain stimulus thereby allowing us to focus on a particular time or space that we are experiencing, while ignoring others” says Mathewson.

For example, if there is a repetitive stimulus in the world, such as the sound of someone’s voice in a lecture theatre, the alpha waves lock onto the timing of that stimulus, and the brain becomes better at processing things that occur in time with that stimulus. The new findings show, surprisingly, that this happens more in places we are ignoring.

Avoiding information overload

“We are bombarded with so much information and stimulation that we can’t possibly process it all at once. Whether it be commuting, engaging in our work, studying for a class, or working out, our brains select the useful information and ignore the rest, so that we can focus on a single or a few items in order to make appropriate responses in the world. This research helps explain how,” says Mathewson.

Mathewson is now working on stimulating the brain at alpha frequencies in order to understand how to improve brain function in meaningful ways. For instance, improving one’s ability to focus and perform in real-world situations, such as working on a project or riding a bike.

“To better understand how the brain and mind works can help us improve performance and attention in our everyday lives, to improve our safety, increase our work productivity, do better at school, and perform better in sports,” explains Mathewson. “We’re developing and testing novel, portable technologies to make this possible.”

The paper, “Power and phase of alpha oscillations reveal an interaction between spatial and temporal visual attention” was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in fall 2016.

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Dear Colleagues,

I will have an opening in my laboratory at the University of Alberta for one, and possibly two, excellent graduate students at the masters or PhD level beginning in September 2016. If you or any of your colleagues have honours or research students who are interested in pursuing graduate studies in cognitive neuroscience of attention, including the electrophysiological and psychophysiological correlates of perception and cognition, please alert them to this opportunity.


The official application deadline is 15 January 2016 to be considered for admission beginning in September 2015, however, applications will be reviewed as soon as they are complete. Please refer to our departmental web pages for information about our graduate program, and to my own web pages for information about my current and recent research. I can also accept students through the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute, which has a later deadline, less course load, no GRE requirement, but has no guaranteed funding from the department.

My brand new laboratory in the department of psychology is equipped with cutting edge electrophysiological monitoring equipment, including 64 channel active EEG systems in shielded chambers, as well as portable 16 channel amplifiers. We are able to measure brain, muscle, eye, and heart activity both during traditional laboratory tasks, as well as in real world applied situations like driving and sports. The University of Alberta also has a new 3T MRI scanner, along with an MRI compatible EEG system, and numerous other tools in various labs around campus. I plan for my graduate students to routinely attend local, national, and international conferences to disseminate their research findings as well as to network and establish contacts with like-minded scientists from other institutions. Importantly, my students and I have a record of publishing in top journals.

Strong background in either electrophysiological research or Matlab programming (or both) is desired. Students who bring or apply for their own funding are particularly encouraged to apply, but NSERC and start-up funds are available to fund graduate students.

I thank you in advance for thinking of my laboratory when advising your trainees about potential graduate school opportunities. Please do not hesitate to have them contact me directly with any questions they may have, or to forward this note to interested students.


Thank you,

Kyle E. Mathewson, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor – Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science

Affiliate – Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry

University of Alberta

P455 – Biological Sciences Building

11455 Saskatchewan Dr.

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, T6G 2E9

Phone: 1-780-492-2662



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My Phone 0 Sep 21, 2015 With the help of University of Alberta psychology professor Dr. Kyle Mathewson, Jordan finds out if his phone is really making him less focused, attentive and overall, a more stupid, shallow person.

Source: Should I Be Scared of This?: My Phone

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The Future of Wearables: Kyle Mathewson on New Interfaces for the Human Body

June 12, 2015   The Future of Wearables: Kyle Mathewson on New Interfaces for the Human Body By Sooz 06-10-15| THE FUTURE OF WEARABLES A psychology professor from the University of Alberta will blow your mind in episode 4 of the Future of Wearables podcast this week. Kyle Mathewson has developed new technologies relevant to wearables – […]

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Talk this week at MacEwan

March 15, 2015

This week I will be giving a talk at my alma mater MacEwan University: Illuminating the Brain Dynamics of Attention, Learning, and Performance Tue, Mar 17 2015 Presented By: Kyle E. Mathewson, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology Faculty of Science, University of Alberta The mechanisms by which our brain selectively attends to the world […]

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Speaking at Ideafest Victoria – March 3

February 15, 2015

I’ll be out west speaking at an Ideafest event with Jim Tanaka and Kim Kerns regarding the brain and technology:  

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Radio interview with BBC world service – health check

December 1, 2014

An interview covering our research on distracted driving has been featured on BBC world service – Health Check with Claudia Hammond. You can listen to a podcast of the interview here.  

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Graduate Opportunities, Mathewson Lab, University of Alberta

November 3, 2014

Dear Colleagues,   I am writing now to let you know that I will have an opening in my laboratory at the University of Alberta for one, and possibly two, excellent graduate students beginning in September 2015. If you or any of your colleagues have honours or research students who are interested in pursuing graduate studies in […]

Read the full article →

BBC World News Piece on new Psych Science Paper

October 24, 2014

Here is a clip of the BBC World News IMPACT broadcast coverage of our new paper in Psychological Science: Gaspar, J., Street, W., Windsor, M., Carbonari, R., Kaczmarski, H., Kramer, A.F., & Mathewson, K.E. (in press). Providing Views of the Driving Scene to Drivers’ Conversation Partners Mitigates Cell-Phone-Related Distraction. Psychological Science.   Live Broadcast topic. […]

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Video phone could help curb distracted driving

October 8, 2014

Safer driving possible when cellphone callers can see what the driver sees, study shows. By Kristy Condon on October 8, 2014 In a driving simulator, study participants were better at avoiding collisions while using a cellphone if the phone gave the caller a video view similar to what a passenger would see. A new study […]

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