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Jeremy M. Wolfe, PhD
Senior Psychologist, Brigham and Women's Hospital
Professor of Radiology, Harvard Medical School

Brigham and Women's Hospital
Department of Surgery
75 Francis Street
Boston, MA 02115

Phone: 617-768-881825
Fax: 617-768-8816

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Research Narrative:

Work in the Visual Attention Laboratory can be broadly divided into Basic and Clinical/Applied topics unified by a general interest in fundamental processes vision and visual attention. We use a variety of methodologies but we are primarily a human behavioral lab using psychophysical methods. Our basic research is mostly centered on the problem of visual search; how you find what you are looking for in a world full of things that you are not looking for. My theory, Guided Search, is one of the standard approaches to this problem.

Basic Research

1.     Preattentive vision - Studies of the processing of visual stimuli before they are selected by attention for further, more complete analysis. This includes studies of the fate of stimuli that are never selected for attentional scrutiny.

2.     Attentional deployment - Studies of the mechanisms by which attention selects specific items. We have a long-standing interest in the guidance of attentional deployment by preattentive information and an interest in the temporal dynamics of search including studies of how to terminate searches when no target can be found. The theoretical core of work in this lab area is our Guided Search model.

3.     Post-Attentive vision - Studies of the consequences of attention. Once attention has been deployed to an item and has been removed, what are the persistent effects of that act of attention? These topics, in turn, connect to questions concerning memory for visual stimuli.

4.     Searching scenes – How do humans search complex real world scenes for real objects?

5.     Non-selective vision – Some aspects of visual processing do not appear to require selection of individual objects by attention. Sometimes this is called “gist”, “gestalt”, or “holistic” processing. Whatever its name, we believe that this is the product of a “non-selective” processing pathway in the visual system, operating in parallel with the selective, attentionally-bottlenecked pathway that permits object recognition.


Clinical and Applied Research: Our civilization has created a host of socially important visual tasks that can be seen as difficult visual searches through complex artificial scenes. Our basic science can be applied to these tasks and, in turn, the specific demands of these tasks stimulate new basic scientific questions. Here we are particularly interested in the following problems:

6. Medical Image Perception - How do experts (typically radiologists) find what they are looking for in medical images? Why do they sometimes fail to find what they are looking for? How can an expert fail to "see" something that is right in front of their eyes? ...and what can we do about this?

7.   Airport security – Like medical screening, airport baggage screening is low prevalence search task involving complex stimuli and a strong aversion to miss errors. We are interested in behavioral interventions and modifications of the visual stimuli that could improve performance.

8.     Foraging – There are numerous other tasks that involve searching massive scenes or images for what may be hard to find targets. Some of these search tasks can be characterized as foraging tasks (c.f. picking berries from a bush, satellite surveillance, or reading a whole body CT of an accident victim). Here we want to know when it is time to move to the next bush, piece of territory, or the next case given that there might always be one more target in the current stimulus.