Workshop report: What is Attention?

On April 21st – 22nd 2017, we held a workshop at Carnegie Mellon University, called What is Attention? The core organising group was Wayne Wu (Carnegie Mellon University), Britt Anderson (University of Waterloo), Rich Krauzlis (National Eye Institute), and myself Ben Vincent (University of Dundee). We had an esteemed set of attendees (see below) who enthusiastically took part in a series of talks and discussions about core conceptual issues in the study of attention.

Attention research has a long and rich history, but despite the immense body of knowledge that has been built there are still debates about what exactly attention is. Attention has been considered as a cause (driven by an internal mechanism) as well as an effect (where attention is seen as a by-product of an agent achieving some objectives). It can also be discussed at all of Marr’s levels in terms of its neural implementation, what algorithms are being implemented by those neurons, and what computational or behavioural goals are trying to be achieved.

The workshop attendees, all accomplished in their specific areas, included those studying behaviour and mechanisms (both human and non-human), and using computer modelling, information theory, and machine learning approaches. Some of the most interesting discussions and themes that popped out (in my opinion) were:

  • That cross-species comparisons of attentional mechanisms were going to be increasingly important. Studying attentional mechanisms in one species alone won’t be able to separate whether some aspect of attention is a ‘feature or a bug’ as it were.
  • There appeared to be some recognition that the field as a whole does need to focus a bit more on theory-level accounts of attention in order to provide a unifying force to the vast array of empirical observations.
  • The general feeling in the room (not universally held) was that artificial agents would be unlikely to exhibit attention.

The workshop was entirely successful and bringing together this diverse group of leaders in the field, giving us all an opportunity to get of our research silos for a while. Excellent discussions were had, and new contacts were made. It’s very likely that some publications will follow either directly from this meeting, or from new connections made possible by this meeting.

Workshop participants


Britt Anderson, University of Waterloo
Alison Barth, Carnegie Mellon University
Marlene Behrmann, Carnegie Mellon University
Marisa Carrasco, New York University
Marlene Cohen, University of Pittsburgh
Carol Colby, University of Pittsburgh
Brent Doiron, University of Pittsburgh
Lindsey Glickfeld, Duke University
Lori Holt, Carnegie Mellon University
Rich Krauzlis, National Eye Institute
John Maunsell, University of Chicago
Tirin Moore, Stanford University
John Reynolds, Salk Institute
John Serences, University of California, San Diego
Sarah Shomstein George Washington University
Chris Summerfield, University of Oxford
Matt Smith, University of Pittsburgh
Ben Vincent, University of Dundee
Wayne Wu, Carnegie Mellon University
Byron Yu, Carnegie Mellon University

Post Doctoral Associates

Amy Ni, University of Pittsburgh
Patrick Mayo, Duke University
Doug Ruff, University of Pittsburgh
Adam Snyder, University of Pittsburgh

Graduate Students

Katerina Clemens, University of Pittsburgh
Kyle Donovan, Carnegie Mellon University
Sanjeev Khanna, University of Pittsburgh
Tina Liu Carnegie Mellon University
Casey Rourke, Carnegie Mellon University
Charles Wu, Carnegie Mellon University


Thank you to our funders, BrainHub (Carnegie Mellon University) & University of Waterloo, Canada

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