Dr Stephanie Goodhew

Lecturer & ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher
ANU College of Health and Medicine

Areas of expertise

  • Psychology 1701

Research interests

More isn't always better: Understanding visual attention and how it works 

Visual attention is the process of selecting some stimuli from the world around us for processing at the expense of others. Such selection is a critically important process, so that our brain’s limited-capacity processing resources are not overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that could be processed at any given point in time. A prevailing assumption to date has been that attention is universally beneficial – that is, attention facilitates all aspects of visual processing, and the greater the attentional resources applied to processing a stimulus, the more efficient and effective that processing will be. But recent evidence calls into question this assumption. This research program, in collaboration with A/Prof Mark Edwards is about developing more sophisticated models of the mechanisms of visual attention. This theorising is informed by our understanding of early visual processes in the brain, including the properties of magnocellular and parvocellular neurons, their properties, and roles in different aspects of attention. Given the pervasiveness of visual attention in everyday tasks from reading to driving, improving our understanding of the mechanisms of visual attention stands to have a strong impact on a wide range of applied areas.

Why is the sunny side always up? The link between language and attention.

Humans appear to rely on spatial mappings to represent and describe concepts. We refer to someone who is happy as up and describe someone who is condescending as looking down upon others, and we look forward to the future or back in time. Such spatial mappings have the ability to affect our visual attention. For example, after reading the word ‘sky’, people’s attention is oriented upwards, and after reading the word ‘grass’ it is oriented downwards. To date theoretical explanations for these mappings have relied on the idea of ‘perceptual simulation’ – that these terms orient attention because of our typical experiences with the spatial layout of objects in the world around us. Such explanations, however, struggle to account for why abstract words have the same ability to orient our attention – a word such as ‘happy’ orients attention upwards, and a word such as ‘bitter’ orients attention downwards. Work that I have been doing in collaboration with A/Prof Evan Kidd had led to the theory that conceptual cueing arises from language use patterns, that is, happy orients attention upward because 'happy' and 'up' co-occur in language far more often than 'happy' and 'down'. We are currently testing and developing this theory, which highlights an interesting intersection between language and attention. 

Embodied cognition: How do our hands change what we see? 

Visual perception of stimuli is altered when they occur near an observer’s own hands. That is, a physically identical stimulus or object can be perceived differently, or even not at all, depending on its proximity to one’s hands. Such effects have been well established; and there is an emerging consensus that the pattern of results reflects the fact that hand-proximity alters the relative balance of the contribution of the dorsal and ventral cortical pathways to visual perception, and that this can interact with a number of other processes such as visual attention.This research program is of fundamental interest, because it demonstrates the flexibility in the neural mechanisms underlying visual perception. It also has practical applications, such as understanding whether reading efficiency would be improved or impaired by holding a tablet device in one's hands.

Biased attention and anxiety 

An attentional bias – the tendency to selectively attend to threatening information in the environment – lies at the heart of anxiety. Growing evidence indicates that correcting this attentional bias has a therapeutic benefit for people who suffer from anxiety, implying that the attentional bias is not just a correlate, but plays a causal role in the maintenance of anxiety. This project, in collaboration with A/Prof Bruce Christensen, is about drawing on the massive accumulated knowledge from basic research about how attention works in normal cognition in order to inform our understanding and test possibilities about the nature of this bias. With an improved grasp on the nature of the bias, we can develop more targeted interventions for sufferers of anxiety.

The neural mechanisms underlying schizophrenia 

Schizophrenia is a complex disorder characterised by hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thought. This research program, in collaboration with A/Prof Bruce Christensen and A/Prof Mark Edwards, draws on knowledge about how healthy brains process visual and cognitive information in order to better inform our understanding of the mechanisms which dysfunction in patients with schizophrenia.  


Bachelor of Psychological Science (Hons I) with University Medal, University of Queensland (2004-2007)

PhD (with Dean’s Award for Research Higher Degree Excellence), University of Queensland (2008-2011)

Postdoctoral Fellowship (funded by Ontario Government), University of Toronto, Canada (2011-2012)

Lecturer, The Australian National University (2012-current)


Researcher's projects

Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) $371,220.00 (2014-2017)

We live in a constantly changing visual world. Thus a key inferential challenge that the human brain must solve is whether ongoing visual input represents a single object varying over time (for example, one person moving through a scene), or two distinct objects (for example, two different people successively occupying the same location). This project will investigate, for the first time, how the brain optimises this inference by using information about context, whether the flexibility of the inference process reduces with ageing, and the role of the two main visual pathways in this inference. This will enhance our knowledge of this fundamental process in vision, and our ability to promote optimal functioning into later life.


Projects and Grants

Grants information is drawn from ARIES. To add or update Projects or Grants information please contact your College Research Office.

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Updated:  22 March 2019 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers