Cognitive Psychology Opens the Doors for Lleras

Alejandro Lleras is a young Beckman Institute researcher who found his calling in the study of cognitive psychology.

Alejandro Lleras has the kind of zeal for psychology that is often found in recent converts to a cause. In looking at his curriculum vitae it turns out that Lleras did in fact discover his passion for the study of the mind and behavior late in his academic career.

A native of Columbia who earned an undergraduate degree in engineering, Lleras had never even taken a psychology class until required to do so for his master's in human factors at Penn State. It was there, in Happy Valley, Pa., in his first psychology class, that Lleras found happiness with his true calling in life.

"I was totally mesmerized. I could not believe people actually studied cognitive psychology; they actually studied the mind," said Lleras, a faculty member in the Beckman Institute's Human Perception and Performance group and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Illinois.

And right there in the classroom, Lleras had an epiphany.

"I just couldn't hold it in anymore," Lleras said. "I stood up in class and went to the professor and said 'how do you get to do this, how do you get to work on this?' She said 'you get a Ph.D. in psychology.' And I asked 'how do I get a Ph.D. in psychology' and she said 'you can come and be my student.'"

Lleras finished his master's in human factors - the study of human interactions with technology - but from that moment on his focus had shifted to cognitive psychology.

"I was lucky because the person who was teaching that class, Cathleen Moore, was one of the best visual cognition researchers out there," Lleras said. "She was open to accepting me into her lab. It was a life-changing moment that I had the realization that that was what I wanted to do and also that she accepted me into her lab. I quickly finished up my master's and then totally devoted myself to psychology and have been happy ever after."

Lleras jumped in with both feet and the results, as demonstrated by his published work and honors like a coveted National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Award, have proven the soundness of his grad school conversion.

Lleras earned his Ph.D. in Psychology at Penn State in 2002 without ever having taken one high school or undergraduate college course in psychology. But even while he was finishing up his engineering degree in France Lleras knew that that he wanted a career path that included more of a human element.

"As I was nearing the end of those studies I realized I really didn't want to be an engineer," he said with a laugh.

Once Lleras began working with Professor Moore at Penn State, his excitement over psychology didn't wane; in fact he couldn't get enough of it.

"Taking a class with her and getting in her lab really ignited a passion in me," Lleras said. "When I became a grad student, I felt like I had to overcompensate for my total lack of background in psychology. And everything about psychology looked interesting to me because I had never thought about these problems.

"Also I ended up meeting my wife who was a grad student there. Had I not taken that class I probably would have entered the workforce doing human factors or something and not met my wife and not had my children. So it was really an amazing coincidence."

Lleras joined the faculty at Illinois in 2004 with a research focus on people's awareness of visual information and how they use that information.

"Of all the visual information in front of your eyes, which parts of it are you aware of?" Lleras said in describing his work. "Are there things that you fail to notice? What are the rules that govern what you fail to notice in the environment? If we understand those rules, can we better understand people's accident prone behaviors?"

Lleras uses eye-tracking and other technologies for understanding what he writes on his Web site is a fundamental question in perceptual psychology: "how is it that we become of aware of visual information and what is it that determines which information we see and attend to, and which information we ignore or suppress."

Lleras said a lot of his research focuses on showing how a person's awareness of a given scene or a given visual event is heavily influenced by similar previous events or scenes they have encountered.

"What we're trying to show is that there is this very powerful biasing system in your brain that is trying to keep you away from failure," Lleras said. "It's a way of trying to help you in the future. When you see a scene that is similar to a previous scene that had led you not to find any targets, you will try to suppress the common information between the current and previous (unsuccessful) scene so that you can concentrate on what will hopefully be information that will lead you towards new targets."

Lleras' academic and research career is off to a fast start. His Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation - from which he earned a $400,000 grant in a competition with more than 100 other young psychology researchers - was centered on his research into visual awareness. He and his collaborators have a recent paper, Inter-trial inhibition of focused attention in pop-out search in the journal Perception & Psychophysics on the subject and more are in press.

Lleras also has an emerging and already successful interest in the topic of embodied cognition, an area of study which looks at how our cognitive abilities are intertwined with how our bodies interact with the world. He and graduate student Laura Thomas published a paper in 2007 with the breakthrough finding that eye movement is not only a function of cognition but can actually affect our cognitive processes.

In addition to the paper, downloaded more than 300 times and mentioned in national publications, the findings earned them an invitation to discuss their paper at the Association for Psychological Science annual conference. Lleras and Thomas demonstrated that by directing the eye movements of test subjects, they were able to help the subjects solve a problem.

"I think it was very significant," Lleras said of their findings. "That got a lot of attention. We were mentioned in an article in the Boston Globe and now that we are writing more papers people are starting to see the generality of these kinds of manipulations. They are starting to see that the way you move affects the way you think."

Lleras added that "if I ask you to move I can change the way you are thinking. It's not necessarily self-directed movement that changes the way you think. If I ask you to move in particular ways it's more likely to make you think in specific ways, which I think is very powerful."

Lleras said this line of research is taking a new perspective in showing that mental representations about body movement and space are integrated with brain functions involving higher cognitive processes.

"The work that we have been doing is showing that mental representations in different systems influence each other, in particular having to do with motion and motion representation and thought," he said. "People wouldn't have necessarily thought that there is going to be a connection between the mental space that they have for higher cognition and the mental space that they have for body movements. We think they are either equivalent or closely interconnected."

The discoveries could have important implications, especially for learning and problem solving. He said other similar studies have shown that instructing children to move in certain ways improved the learning of mathematical concepts.

"Those children that use their body in conjunction with their mind to understand the mathematical concept, they learn it better, they learn it faster", he said. "So you can use your body to think."

Lleras said the embodied cognition approach could also prove valuable when it comes to understanding the esoteric concept of insight.

"There has always been a little mystery in human cognition, at least to me, and that is the fact that there are two different kinds of problems that the human mind tries to solve: there is the typical math problem, physics problem, where you know where you start and you know where you want to get to and all you have to do is follow a series of steps," he said. "We understand how that's done.

"There is much more speculation about what happens in a different type of human thinking that is called insight. When there is a problem that does not lend itself to a straightforward set of steps, that really needs a radical new solution or a radical new approach or looking at the problems from a different perspective, getting yourself out of impasses because you feel like there is no solution to the problem."

Lleras said their research could help to understand how people get past a mental impasse.

"I think some of this embodied cognition research that we've been doing shows a potential solution to this puzzle," he aid. "I give you this really complicated problem and you're trying to solve it and you're frustrated; then you go for a walk or you go out and exercise and all these different interactions you are having makes you think differently about things. Those patterns of activity in your brain are going to interact with your attempt at solving that problem. So this is a different way of thinking about how we think. What we do influences how we think about these very abstract problems."

Lleras has more papers due to be published on this topic, as well as on his continuing work with awareness. He is also looking at returning to some human factors research and exploring new collaborations in the future.

Lleras' wife Christy Lleras is an Assistant Professor of Human and Community Development at Illinois. His wife's focus of study is on inequality in the world and her work appears to exert an influence as Lleras continues his academic journey on the humanistic side of science.

"Basically her research has a direct impact on the quality of life of people and I think I need to do a little bit more in that area," he said. "She's my inspiration."