"All I saw was the cake. Hunger effects on attentional capture by visual food cues"

This week's paper is by Richard M. Piech, Michael T. Pastorino, and David H. Zald, all researchers from Vanderbilt University. It's a great paper to get started with: short and relatively simple. At least skim it before you read below!

Image taken from paper linked above

Summary: This paper addresses the Emotional Blink of Attention, which is a phenomenon in which a task-irrelevant object draws undue attention due to its salience. The EBA has been demonstrated with sexual and gory images, and even neutral stimuli associated with negative events. However, this paper questions whether the EBA is modulated by the state of the subject. In particular, whether food images grab your attention to a greater degree while you're hungry.

The subjects were asked to identify a target in an Rapid Serial Visual Presentation, but were distracted with an image of either food, a romantic scene, or a neutral stimulus. Subjects performed two parts; one set of trials in a normal state and the other while hungry (in a randomly assigned order). The only distractors that demonstrated a significant effect upon performance between the two states were food images.   

The Take-away: The state of an observer might have an effect upon their cognitive processes, and therefore affect how they perceive the world around them.

My Thoughts: The idea is intuitive. When you're hungry, you look for food; think about all those food commercials you never seemed to notice until you watched television while hungry. However, I'm hesitant to  conclude from this paper that cognitive processes are significantly influenced by the state of the observer, just as the authors are. 

Food is integral part of our existence, and we can't live without it. From an evolutionary perspective, it would make sense for us to be particularly adept at recognizing food sources - especially while hungry. This is just speculation, i know, but I'm willing to bet that the increased allocation of attention to food while hungry is just as attributable to our intrinsic need to eat as it is to our current "state". Granted, being hungry is a "state"; however, the term evokes the thought of anger and sadness as well, which are almost completely incomparable to hunger. Hunger is a result of a need for sustenance. 

I would love to see this same study done with people who are in different states: lonely, sad, angry, etc. Would they be more sensitive to romantic, melancholy, and violent scenes, respectively? If so, the case for state-dependent cognition would be much stronger. 

Jonathan KeefeComment