Feature

The American Psychological Foundation is awarding its first Frank J. McGuigan Young Investigator Research Prize of $25,000 to Steven J. Luck, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. In his notable research, Luck takes a multifaceted approach to understanding the basic processes of visual attention.

Luck earned his doctoral degree in neuroscience in 1993 while working in the laboratory of Steven Hillyard, PhD, at the University of California, San Diego. In 1994, he joined the faculty of the University of Iowa as assistant professor and was named associate professor in little more than three years. He became a full professor in 2002--an "exceptionally early" rise within his department, according to the nomination statement of Iowa chair of psychology, Gregg C. Oden, PhD, "but clearly warranted by his record."

In his research, Luck has consistently managed to find novel approaches, and his results have proven to be compelling and definitive in a number of instances.

Q: What initially drew you to research on the human mind?

A: When I was in high school,I was fascinated with philosophy, especially the philosophy of the mind. When I was in college, however, I thought that I could never make a living as a philosopher, so I chose to major in psychology. I knew nothing about the field, and I assumed that I would be a clinical psychologist in the mold of Freud. Within three weeks of beginning my first introductory psychology course, I discovered that the mind could be studied as a scientist, and I set out to be a psychological researcher. I owe a large debt of gratitude to Professor Allen Neuringer at Reed College, who made it abundantly clear in those first three weeks--and over the ensuing years--that psychology was an exciting scientific enterprise.

Q: What led you to look especially at the psychophysiological perspectives in this area of inquiry?

A:My interest in the psychophysiological approaches began when I was hired to write a computer program to record event-related potentials (ERPs) in my junior year of college. As I worked on the program. I learned about ERPs and became very interested in them. The next year, I did a senior thesis in which I studied the effects of attention and task factors on ERPs, and I've been doing similar research ever since.

Psychophysiological measures are particularly useful for studying attention, because they make it possible to measure the brain's processing of an ignored object without requiring the observer to make an overt response to the object (in which case, it is no longer truly ignored). Attention, in turn, is an excellent cognitive process to study if one is interested in understanding the human mind, because attentional processes form a bridge between lower-level sensory perceptions (which are well understood) and higher-level central processes (which are not well understood). By studying the neural and cognitive mechanisms of attention by means of psychophysiological measures, I hope to use our firm understanding of perceptual systems to bootstrap an understanding of higher-level cognitive systems.

Q: Which areas of research into the human mind are showing particular promise and which seem underdeveloped to you?

A:The study of attention is particularly promising, for the reasons that I just gave. This can be seen simply by virtue of the huge number of attention studies published each year. At the same time, some aspects of attention are relatively underdeveloped. In particular, our understanding of voluntary versus automatic processing is rather meager. The essential problem is that most theories either implicitly or explicitly involve a homunculus--a little "person inside the head" that controls the nonautomatic processing. We are chipping away at the homunculus notion, but we have a long way to go before we can provide a true explanation of voluntary processing.

Q: Where do you see your own research heading over the next few years, and how specifically will the APF's McGuigan Prize assist you?

A:My research over the next five years will focus on dividing the current monolithic construct of attention into a set of distinct attention mechanisms. I hope to demonstrate that different mechanisms of attention operate in different cognitive systems (e.g., in perception, in memory, in decision-making) and that these mechanisms are independent of each other. In parallel, I plan to study how these mechanisms of attention can be independently impaired as a consequence of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or focal brain damage. The foundation's generous Frank McGuigan Prize will make it possible for me to purchase the technology that is necessary for the rapid pursuit of my goals....I feel extremely honored to receive this award. Frank McGuigan was an innovator in the field, and it is extremely gratifying to win an award in his name.

Theodore J. Baroody is assistant director of the American Psychological Foundation.

The Frank J. McGuigan Young Investigator Research Prize (a $25,000 award) will now be given biennially to support empirical research to explicate the concept of the human mind. The research should primarily be psychophysiological, but physiological and behavioral research also qualifies for support. A scientific review committee, convened by APA's Science Directorate, reviews all nomination packets. The next application deadline is March 1, 2004. Go to the APF Web site for nomination guidelines at www.apa.org/apf.