Our Research

About Us

The Attention, Perception, & EXperience Lab, or APEX Lab for short, is directed by Dr. Howard C. Nusbaum, Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology, at the University of Chicago. Our lab aims to develop our scientific understanding of how our experiences direct and shape our attention and, ultimately, determine how we perceive and understand the world. Language is the cultural tool that is the foundation for much of our social interactions, so it is one main area of focus. However, we also study the processes by which we make decisions and the role of experience and attention in such processes. We take the approach that cognitive and perceptual skills may share similar psychological and neural mechanisms. Thus, we study a wide range of psychological activities, from music perception to speech communication to practical decision-making. Altogether, our research questions can be thought of in the following three categories:

1. Attention

We are constantly bombarded with information, ranging from patterns of external sounds, sights, and smells to internal thoughts and memories. Yet, we are aware of only a small proportion of that information at any given moment. This is possible because of attention — our cognitive ability to focus on relevant patterns according to our goals. Some researchers think we attend to the world in relatively fixed ways. But in our research, we ask if we can train people to improve their attention and their working memory capacity. We analyze how past experiences interact with new sensory events to influence learning, memory, and decision-making as well as the goals and values people have. We use various research methods, including EEG, fMRI, and psychophysiological and behavioral measures for this line of inquiry.

2. Perception

In conversations, we pick up diverse acoustic signals and then transform them into language. Whether we’re in a noisy coffee shop or in the library, room acoustics change speech signals through reflection, echo, and absorption. Background noise masks and mingles with speech. And yet, we can still understand it all. Our brains could be following a rigid pattern-matching procedure, passively linking acoustic properties of speech from the environment with our knowledge of sound patterns of spoken words. However, speech perception may also be influenced by other information that directs our attention. Research suggests that speech perception is the product of both feedforward and feedback interactions among active brain regions that subserve a number of different psychological functions. Moreover, just as with attention, the role of learning, memory, and decision processes may be just as important as the sensory and language-specific processes. By thinking about perceptual encoding as a plastic, goal-driven, cognitive process, we may better understand the mind and brain and develop new insights into ways in which language and hearing problems may be addressed.

3. Experience

Context and experience greatly affect the ways in which we come to understand ourselves and the world. But how do context and prior experiences change us? And what kinds of information do we remember from past experiences that allows us to readily respond to similar situations in the future or to generalize from old to entirely new situations? This aspect of our research is broadly focused on understanding how human experience plays a role in decision-making, perception, and creative problem-solving. Our research first explores how experience influences human psychology. But much of our work further questions the untested assumptions about supposedly inflexible psychological processes (e.g., crystallized language processing abilities after a so-called critical period of development; learning absolute pitch; or making wise decisions). People tend to think of experiences as how we feel or what we do, but our lab also considers the social connection and interaction that occurs, be it in communication or decision-making, as part of the experience.