Vanessa Lee

Biological Bases of Behavior, Perception, and Cognition: Exploring the Building Blocks in Psychology at Minnesota
Dr. Vanessa Lee

Vanessa Lee, PhD, is focused on attention. Human beings as biological systems have evolved to solve problems; we corral our attention to recognize faces, communicate with others, and plan for the future. Yet despite a large swath of our brain being involved in attention, we have not evolved to multitask successfully and, hence, the ubiquitousness of technology in our 21st century lives is a challenge to our ability to attend (e.g., driving while texting, parenting while phoning, watching YouTube in class). We also have not solved many of the attention issues brought on by aging. As populations live longer, researchers are increasingly focused on how people can maintain their mental acuity; attention is a key feature in improving memory and reducing confusion.   

Lee and her colleagues have demonstrated how past experience supports or limits our success in paying attention when appropriate; we drive home without much effort because our attention to the location of traffic lights has become habituated. Yet such learning and habituation can be maladaptive. Currently, Lee and her lab are studying the role of attention in medical image perception. Lee is concerned that the false negative rate for breast cancer screenings can be as high as 30% due to radiologists not being able to attend sufficiently to the data in order to identify a possible anomaly. By working with doctors, computer scientists and others, Lee intends to help improve diagnostic accuracy.

"Our field is young," reflected Lee. New tools such as fMRI and optogenetics have significantly enhanced the ability of researchers to study the brain as a biological organ, rather than a black box. According to Lee, "our department is notable for the use of cutting edge technology and for approaching the biological bases of behavior from multiple angles." Someday multi-disciplinary teams may be able to link specific cellular activity to specific human behaviors, even those involving higher cognitive functions, such as those utilized in reading and writing. Lee and her colleagues will add to this work by attending to the research and bringing the science to bear on improving human life.  

Addleman, Douglas A., and Yuhong V. Jiang. “Experience-Driven Auditory Attention.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 23, no. 11 (September 11, 2019): 927–37.

Sisk, Caitlin A., Yi Ni Toh, Jihyang Jun, Roger W. Remington, and Vanessa G. Lee. “Impact of Active and Latent Concerns about COVID-19 on Attention.” Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications 7, no. 48 (June 3, 2022): 1-19.

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