Young infants learn incredible amounts of information as they interact with their
environment, often without any explicit instruction. Though researchers have identified
mechanisms that support learning about regularities in the environment, it is unclear how
these mechanisms contend with the massive amount of potentially relevant stimuli
available in the world. Selective attention may constrain early learning, since information
that is selectively attended may be preferentially processed by learning mechanisms.
Previous studies have relied on social-cueing paradigms to examine learning of
selectively attended items. However, attention can also be manipulated in a non-social
manner using the spatial cueing paradigm, in which salient spatial cues initiate exogenous
shifts of attention. Individuals are typically faster to respond to items appearing in the
cued location; however, this facilitation is dependent on the timing between the cue and
target presentations. Following relatively short cue-target delays, attention is biased towards targets in the cued location, whereas longer delays bias attention towards targets
in the non-cued location, a process known as inhibition of return (IOR).
This dissertation consists of two studies. Study 1 examined whether selective
attention biases modulate 7-month-old infants’ learning of predictable information. Study
2 addressed individual differences in 7-month-old infants’ sensitivity to spatial cues.
Specifically, Study 2A examined the consistency of cueing behavior across repeated
testing, while Studies 2B and 2C explored behavioral and genetic factors that may
influence variation in infants’ sensitivity to spatial cues. Results of Study 1 indicated that spatial cueing modulated selective attention,
with enhanced learning of the item that was preferentially attended. Study 2A
demonstrated stability in IOR behaviors when using qualitative (categorical) but not
quantitative measures. Studies 2B and 2C found that variations in infants’ sensitivity to
spatial cues were related to both individual differences in their reactivity to novel stimuli
and genetic polymorphisms that affect the dopamine and acetylcholine neurotransmitter
systems. These results highlight the complexity of interactions between early attention
and learning processes, the wide array of factors that may impact infants’ responses during a basic attention task, and the range of neural systems that are likely involved in
early selective attention.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. September 2010. Major: Child Psychology. Advisor: Kathleen M. Thomas. 1 computer file (PDF); xii, 203 pages.
Markant, Julie C..
Selective attention and Individual differences in infant learning: a comprehensive investigation of exogenous orienting among 7-month-old infants..
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