Teachers College Professor and Doctoral Student Research Attention Loss While Reading
Even the most dedicated readers have experienced the sensation: you find yourself staring at the bottom of a page of type and realize you haven't read a word on that page.
A professor and a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, are now investigating this phenomenon--what the eyes are doing while you are day-dreaming--with the aid of a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research.
Why is the U.S. Navy interested in day-dreaming eyes?
"It's probably because long watches before radar screens and other vital instruments are part of naval life," said Ernst Z. Rothkopf, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education at Teachers College. "Wandering attention on such watches could endanger the safety of ships and planes."
But Rothkopf and Reg Hackshaw, a doctoral student in human cognition and learning from Hempstead, New York, see a number of other possible uses for their research, including the creation of a better way to monitor the attention of air-traffic controllers and a more objective way to judge how interesting texts are to their readers.
Rothkopf and Hackshaw hope to work with some 100 readers over the next few months. Each reader will be given a lengthy piece of expository prose to read for an hour or so.
Tiny sensors will be attached to the temples of each reader to monitor eye movements. "We think we know what pattern of eye movement indicates that attention is fading," Rothkopf said. "We want to see if what we surmise is true."
The research grows out of Rothkopf's long-standing "curiosity about what happens when we read." The professor is the author of more than a hundred scientific papers on what makes text instructionally effective and characteristics of the learning and reading processes.
The new research is also related to Hackshaw's work in the Sleep Lab at Long Island Jewish Hospital. There Hackshaw--who earned his bachelor's degree in psychology at Hofstra University--monitors the eye movements, brain waves, respiration and movement of people who say they have difficulty sleeping or that they sleep too much.
Rothkopf and Hackshaw think that, if a pattern of eye movement reflecting diminished attention is found, they will then be able to program a computer to notice such a pattern.
"We will be able to create, for example, a fairly objective method for screening texts," Rothkopf said. "Right now, we have to stop a reader and ask if he or she found a certain part of text interesting. If a machine can detect fading attention, we will have a much better way to judge these things."
A computerized system could also be used to detect any loss of attention among workers who have to remain very attentive--such as air-traffic controllers.
The official title of the project is "Electro-Oculographic Monitoring of Attention Losses During Reading and During Prolonged Inspection of Visual Displays."
Teachers College, a graduate school devoted to education, psychology and health science, is affiliated with Columbia University but retains its legal and financial independence. In the first survey of graduate schools of education completed by U.S. News & World Report, Teachers College was ranked fourth in the nation and first in the New York City area.
Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001