Neuroscientists find differences in brain activity depending whether people are outdoors or in a lab.

By Katie Willis on January 29, 2018

The brain acts much differently when we’re outdoors compared to when we’re inside the lab, a new study has found.

“It happens when we’re doing normal, everyday activities, like riding a bike,” explained Kyle Mathewson, a neuroscientist in UAlberta’s Department of Psychology.

Mathewson and his research team put EEG equipment into backpacks and had subjects perform a standard neuroscience task while riding a bike outside. The task involved identifying changes in an otherwise consistent set of stimuli, such as a higher pitch in a series of beep sounds. They had previously performed the same experiment on stationary bikes inside their lab but in the but in the new study, the scientists were able to record laboratory quality measurements of brain activity outdoors, using portable equipment.

“Something about being outdoors changes brain activity,” said Joanna Scanlon, graduate student and lead author on the study. “In addition to dividing attention between the task and riding a bike, we noticed that brain activity associated with sensing and perceiving information was different when outdoors, which may indicate that the brain is compensating for environmental distractions.”

The great outdoors

Neuroscientists at the University of Alberta are measuring auditory P3 during outdoor cycling using an active wet EEG system.

The study showed that our brains process stimuli, like sounds and sights, differently when we perform the same task outdoors compared to inside a lab.

“If we can understand how and what humans are paying attention to in the real world, we can learn more about how our minds work,” said Scanlon. “We can use that information to make places more safe, like roadways.”

“If we want to apply these findings to solve issues in our society, we need to ensure that we understand how the brain works out in the world where humans actually live, work, and play,” said Mathewson, who added that almost everything we know about the human brain is learned from studies in very tightly controlled environments.

Next, the researchers will explore how this effect differs in outdoor environments with varying degrees of distraction, such as quiet path or a busy roadway.

The study, “Taking off the training wheels: Measuring auditory P3 during outdoor cycling using an active wet EEG system,” was published in a special issue of Brain Research.

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University of Alberta to have first of its kind in Canada

By Katie Willis on August 23, 2017

Using lasers and photodetectors, a new optical brain-imaging tool is providing a never-before-seen look inside your head. The non-invasive tool projects and measures infrared light as it is projected into the brain and the rate at which it exits, painting a picture of brain activity and blood flow at the same time—something that is impossible without this technology.

The optical brain-imaging tool, called the Imagent, comes to the University of Alberta as the result of new funding for neuroscientist Kyle Mathewson, from the John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF), a Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) initiative.

On August 15, Mathewson received funding to purchase this state-of-the-art optimal imaging tool, which allows researchers to accurately measure detailed brain activity in a non-invasive way. The equipment will be housed in a new Shared Cognitive Neuroscience lab in the Faculty of Science.

“This optical imaging system provides images of rapid changes in brain activity, solving many unanswered questions about how our brains function from moment to moment,” explained Mathewson. “The system is genuinely cutting edge. Our lab at the University of Alberta will have one of only a few in the world and first of its kind in Canada.”

Invaluable implications

An assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta andNeuroscience and Mental Health Institute affiliate, Mathewson studies how the brain focuses on and filters out different information. His research has implications from job training and professional development to creating smarter artificial intelligence.

“We want to measure a person’s state of attention from moment to moment,” said Mathewson. “For instance, we could pinpoint the moment when a driver stops paying attention to the road, or determine practices to help students learn better and more efficiently. This tool will allow us unprecedented views of the brain networks that give rise to these and other important behaviours.”

The implications, Mathewson explained, are huge.

“This optical imaging system helps to put the UAlberta cognitive neuroscience program even more firmly on the map,” said Mathewson. “Securing this tool widens the scope of potential research and is already attracting interest from students and scientists around the world.”

At the grant announcement last week, the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science shared a similar sentiment.

“Our scientists need the best tools and equipment for ground-breaking research and discovery and we are committed to ensuring they have them. Their successes will lead to an improved economy and will fuel an active research community here in Canada and internationally.”

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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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Graduate Opportunities in Mathewson Lab

October 21, 2015

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, […]

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Should I Be Scared of This?: My Phone

October 8, 2015

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 […]

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