Uh oh, somebody asked about an aspect of my research in the comments! That's all it takes for me to ramble on for an hour.
Aside: A few months ago, Rebecca called at the last minute and asked if we would like to go see Josh Ritter in concert in Milford (home of our infamous beach walk). No idea why Josh was playing a 6pm gig at a tiny little venue in a tiny little Connecticut town, but we had seen him in NYC previously and loved it, so Ayelet and I agreed to accompany her. The gig itself was awesome in the way only a tiny-venue small-town gig can be, and afterwards we hung around outside until Josh and bandmates came out to sign autographs. We strategically waited until the queue had dispersed, and lo and behold, Josh came over to chat to us.
"What do you do?" he asked me. So I told him. "Oh wow, my parents are both neuroscientists.... what kind of work do you do?" he asked. Wrong question! The lucky man got to hear a monologue about attention-emotion interactions as they related to motivationally-relevant stimuli for quite some time. Have to say he looked interested, though. (Although possibly drunk). He said it sounded very cool and gave me a big ol' hug and a kiss on the hand (just for doing such awesome research, I guess!)
Anyway, so attentional bias in parents. Attentional bias to a stimulus just means that that particular class of stimulus attracts your attention, and is difficult to disengage attention from. Interesting research has shown, for example, that very anxious people show a much stronger attentional bias to threat than non-anxious people. When faced with a threatening image (in the lab they use angry faces or scary animals - in the real world it could be your boss!) these people notice it more quickly than others and have trouble tearing their attention away in order to do something else. Also, people struggling with a substance dependence show attentional bias to their drug of choice. An alcoholic, for example, has difficulty not paying attention to a bottle of booze when it's in sight (or they know it is there). This is theorized to be one of the reasons that it is so hard to stop using drugs: your brain is sensitized to the very sight of them, and you just can't ignore them if you know they're available.
We test this in the lab by showing two pictures simultaneously very briefly (~ 250-500ms). One of the pictures is then replaced by a probe (like a *) and the participant's job is to report where they saw the probe. If, for example, there was a rose on the right and a scary dog on the left of the screen, and the probe replaced the scary dog, you would expect an anxious person to be quicker to respond to the probe than if it had replaced the rose. This is because their attention would already have been in that location. If the probe replaced the rose, they would have to disengage their attention from the rose location and move it to where the probe is. (We think of attention as being like a spotlight that can be moved around, even if the eyes stay in the same place).
Previous research has shown that non-parents (they used undergrads) show attentional bias to infant faces using this task. That is, they are quicker to report a probe that replaces an infant face than an adult face, which we take to mean that they were paying attention to the infant. The lab here at the Child Study Centre is interested in parenting research, so they would like to know if parents show the same effect, and if so, is it stronger than the effect in non-parents? If this is the case, it would then be interesting to look at individual differences in parents: for example, do poorly-attached parents show less bias to infant faces? Do substance-dependent parents or depressed parents show the same effect? Certain groups of parents have been shown to spend less time interacting with their infants in general, so it would be interesting to see if this extends to subconscious attentional effects and the brain areas that produce them.
Of course I have a whole host of plans to extend this more into my area of research, but that will have to wait until we have explored the basic effect more thoroughly!
Man, you are right that I should blog more often though. Although things are deathly quiet right now, I had an exciting few months what with a conference where I had to present, all kinds of excitement with customs, a visit from Del, a quick trip to the Vermont border... maybe I will try to catch up on relating everything this week.