Interdisciplinary blog

MDR Vacation Bursary Project: Investigating visual search behaviour during the monitoring of heat maps

July 18, 2013
by Florence Greber


By Florence Greber, undergraduate student (BSc Psychology), School of Psychology, Faculty of Social and Human Sciences.

After being a Volunteer Research Assistant during my second year in the field of eye tracking and visual cognition, I am now working on a project linking Ship Science with this area of Psychology. Eye tracking is a method of measuring eye movements, which consist of fixations and saccades. Fixation locations and durations can be measured using an eye tracker which uses a video camera to measure the movements of the eye while participants are engaged with a visual task. The data gathered can tell us about how we process visual scenes, especially during visual tasks. I will be using a specific type of task, called visual search, to study behaviour. Visual search typically involves asking participants to search for a specific target amongst a set of non-target objects.

copyright BIS.govControl centres in ships and nuclear power stations create the need for humans to monitor and respond to a vast number of changing dials and control boards which are in a state of constant change. Within my interdisciplinary project, I will be examining eye movements made during a visual search task that is designed to mimic these types of complex monitoring environments. The key question that I will be addressing is how do we choose where to look and when to shift our gaze when engaged with complex monitoring tasks?

We are unable to process the visual information from all of the control panels simultaneously, so we make eye movements to focus on specific segments within them. These eye movements differ in duration and location. In a task where the displays are constantly changing and need to be monitored, a balance needs to be struck between spending time in one area monitoring the information without missing important information being presented elsewhere. This is vitally important in control centres as failing to notice a change or warning could have serious consequences.

I will be using a simplified version of these complex displays in my experiment. I will be presenting participants with a ‘heat map’ display. They will be asked to imagine they are in a power station control room, and that they must keep the system cool. The heat map will change in temperature over time, and participants will be asked to locate and click on hotspots to cool them down. Their eye movements will be measured while they complete the task. The key variables that will be manipulated experimentally will be the rate of change in the displays and the number of targets presented.

In the future, the heat map paradigm will be developed to explore the influences of individual differences and anxiety on visual search behaviour. A new PhD student will begin in the School of Psychology in October 2013 using this paradigm so a large number of experiments will follow the foundational work conducted as part of this bursary.

This Vacation Bursary project is supervised by Dr. Hayward Godwin.


MDR Vacation Bursary blog series available at:


Categories: Blog. Tags: Centre for Vision and Cognition (CVC), Dr. Hayward Godwin, Eye tracking, Florence Greber, Psychology, Ship Science, vacation bursary, and visual search. Project names: Investigating visual search behaviour during the monitoring of heat maps.