VU Amsterdam professor Jan Theeuwes receives another ERC Advanced Grant of €2.5 million

Jan Theeuwes (cognitive psychology) has recently been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant of €2.5 million for his research project entitled ‘What to expect when you are not expecting it: How implicit regularities drive attentional selection’, focusing on implicit learning and how this process affects our perception and attention. The research is being conducted at the Department of Experimental and Applied Psychology of the Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam). The ERC Advanced Grant is the largest individual research grant in Europe. In 2012 Theeuwes was awarded an ERC Advanced Grant for his research into the effects of reward on visual attention.

03/28/2019 | 10:40 AM

Implicit learning
Even though we are not aware of it, we constantly extract the statistical regularities that are present in our environment. Jan Theeuwes: ‘An obvious example of this is the learning of a language. We learn certain regularities of a language without actually realising it. This type of implicit learning (or statistical learning) occurs everyday, everywhere without engaging much, if any, deliberate conscious effort. This learning process allows us to give structure to the world around us, which makes the world predictable, manageable and coherent.’ Although we already know a lot about ‘statistical learning’ when learning a language or, for example, when learning complex movements, we still don’t know much about how this process affects our perception and attention.

Visual attention
Over the next few years, Theeuwes will conduct experiments investigating  the underlying mechanisms of the unconscious learning of regularities in the visual environment. Through behavioural research, he will investigate the extent to which the learning of statistical regularities in the environment affects perception and patterns of attention. He will investigate how flexible this type of learning is, how environmental context influences learning and whether this type of learning is always fully unconscious. 

How does our brain work?
Through brain research, Theeuwes will also endeavour to determine which brain structures are involved in this type of learning, how this is represented at neural level, and how the learned irregularities affect attentional selection processes. He will also investigate why some people quickly learn and adaptively use this implicit knowledge, while others are slower at learning these regularities and find it more difficult to automatically apply this knowledge. The results of this project will provide new insights into how we learn from regularities in the visual environment and what kind of influence this has on our perception and how we direct our attention.   

Link to Jan Theeuwes