Nov. 3, 2022

Eyes High postdoc examines how we shift focus from external world to internal world, and back again

Psychology scholar one of 19 new postdocs joining UCalgary via flexible funding program
Sairamya Nanjappan Jothiraj
Sairamya Nanjappan Jothiraj is an Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

You’re sitting on the couch, completely focused on what’s on TV. Then your mind wanders to what you’re going to make for dinner. Next, you snap back to focus on your TV show. A few minutes later, you start making a mental to-do list for work tomorrow.

This is called “attentional switching,” and Dr. Sairamya Nanjappan Jothiraj, PhD, is investigating the markers in the brain that indicate when someone is switching from focusing on the external world (the TV) to their internal world (the to-do list). Nanjappan Jothiraj is an Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts, working with Dr. Julia Kam, PhD.

“This is one of the processes that a healthy mind regularly engages in during our day-to-day life,” says Nanjappan Jothiraj. “Understanding how the brain supports this function and being able to predict when it happens has implications in education and the clinical context.”

Focusing on our internal world occupies a surprising 30 to 50 per cent of our waking life, and is often uninvited and spontaneous. Having a ‘wandering mind’ during passive activities like watching TV isn’t a cause for concern — but doing so when needing to focus on something important, like a lecture or a meeting, can be frustrating. Drifting into your internal world when driving, cycling, or caring for a child can have dangerous consequences.

“Our capacity to regulate between these external and internal attention states is essential for optimal performance,” says Nanjappan Jothiraj. “One of my long-term goals is to be able to predict this transition in real time, which means we can potentially tell when a person is transitioning between an external task to internal thoughts.”

To do so, Nanjappan Jothiraj will examine the brain signals of neurosurgical patients, which she is tracking using electrodes that have been previously implanted inside the patients’ brains for clinical purposes. During the recording of their brain signals, patients will be asked to first pay attention to the external environment and then switch to their thoughts, and then vice versa.

Nanjappan Jothiraj will analyze the recorded brain signal data to identify markers that indicate the external-to-internal transition. Using this information, she will create algorithms that can automatically detect attentional switching in real time.

People with psychological or neurological disorders or neurodevelopmental disabilities may have a limited capacity for attentional shifting, which can exacerbate symptoms of a person’s disorder or disability.

“People experiencing depression may have problems regulating this transition,” she says. “They may be mostly concentrating on their inner thoughts despite important events happening in the external environment.

"This project brings us closer to possibility of programs that can detect — and eventually regulate — attention switching in real-life situations, in real time.”

19 new postdocs join UCalgary via the Eyes High Postdoctoral Match-Funding Program

Nanjappan Jothiraj is one of 19 new Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholars joining UCalgary following the spring 2022 round of the program. The Eyes High Postdoctoral Match-Funding Program brings top-tier postdocs who will be new to UCalgary at the start of their appointment.

As highly competitive candidates for external awards, these researchers contribute to advancing UCalgary’s strategic research and innovation plan.

“We are thrilled that Dr. Nanjappan Jothiraj has joined UCalgary as an Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholar,” says Dr. Penny Pexman, associate vice-president (research).

“Sairamya’s project exemplifies the promising, innovative research our 19 new scholars are pursuing. We look forward to all they will accomplish.”

The fall 2022 intake for the Eyes High Postdoctoral Match-funding Program is open until Nov. 4, 2022. More information is available on the Postdoc website.

The spring 2022 cohort of Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholars are:

  • Dr. Mahed Choudhury, PhD, Faculty of Social Work (supervisor: Dr. Julie Drolet, PhD)
  • Dr. Mahdi Dolati, PhD, Faculty of Science (Dr. Majid Ghaderi, PhD)
  • Dr. Rafael dos Santos, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine (Dr. Nathan Peters, PhD)
  • Dr. Fredrick Dun-Dery, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine (Dr. Stephen Freedman, MD)
  • Dr. Aram Fathian Baneh, PhD, Faculty of Science (Dr. Dan Shugar, PhD)
  • Dr. Kenzie Friesen, PhD, Faculty of Kinesiology (Dr. Carolyn Emery, PhD, and Dr. Reed Ferber, PhD)
  • Dr. Arthi Gopalakrishnan, PhD, Faculty of Science (Dr. Benjamin Tutulo, PhD)
  • Dr. Sara Hassanpour Tamrin, PhD, Schulich School of Engineering (Dr. Zahra Abbasi, PhD)
  • Dr. Guangle Jia, PhD, Faculty of Science (Dr. Henry Leung, PhD)
  • Dr. Chris Kang, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine (Dr. Nils Forkert, PhD)
  • Dr. Sangeeta Kumaravel, PhD, Faculty of Science (Dr. Md Golam Kibria, PhD)
  • Dr. Jin-A Lee, PhD, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (Dr. Li-Fang (Jack) Chu, PhD)
  • Dr. Qiuyan Li, PhD, Schulich School of Engineering (Dr. Hosssein Hejazi, PhD)
  • Dr. Sairamya Nanjappan Jothiraj, Faculty of Arts (Dr. Julia Kam, PhD)
  • Dr. Mathieu Paille, PhD, Faculty of Arts, (Dr. Elizabeth Ritter, PhD and Dr. Dimitrios Skordos, PhD)
  • Dr. Carly Pellow, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine (Dr. Bruce Pike, MD)
  • Dr. Vishnu Surendran, PhD, Faculty of Science (Dr. Venkataraman Thangadurai, PhD)
  • Dr. Majid Taghavi Dehaghani, PhD, Faculty of Science (Dr. Shabir Barzanjeh, PhD)
  • Dr. Somil Yadav, PhD, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (Dr. Caroline Hachem-Vermette, PhD