Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Familiar Shapes Attract Attention in Figure-Ground Displays

Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Familiar Shapes Attract Attention in Figure-Ground Displays

Article excerpt

We report five experiments that explore the effect of figure-ground factors on attention. We hypothesized that figural cues, such as familiar shape, would draw attention to the figural side in an attentional cuing task using bipartite figure-ground displays. The first two experiments used faces in profile as the familiar shape and found a perceptual advantage for targets presented on the meaningful side of the central contour in detection speed (Experiment 1) and discrimination accuracy (Experiment 2). The third experiment demonstrated the figural advantage in response time (RT) with nine other familiar shapes (including a sea horse, a guitar, a fir tree, etc.), but only when targets appeared in close proximity to the contour. A fourth experiment obtained a figurai advantage in a discrimination task with the larger set of familiar shapes. The final experiment ruled out eye movements as a possible confounding factor by replicating the RT advantage for targets on the figural side of face displays when all trials containing eye movements were eliminated. The results are discussed in terms of ecological influences on attention, and are cast within the framework of Yantis and Jonides's (1984) hypothesis that attention is exogenously drawn to the onset of new perceptual objects. We argue that the figural side constitutes an "object," whereas the ground side does not, and that figural cues such as shape familiarity are effective in determining which areas represent objects.

The phenomenon of figure-ground organization in visual perception was first demonstrated and investigated in a classic monograph by Rubin (1915/1958). He began with the observation that simple displays containing two adjacent regions separated by a single luminance edge produce a strong tendency for observers to perceive one region as "figure" and the other as "ground." Exactly what makes up the processes that underlie figure-ground organization remains elusive, however, because there are actually several perceptual components that accompany this phenomenal organization. One is shape: The figure is shaped by the contour, whereas the ground is not. Measurable consequences of this "border ownership" aspect of figure-ground organization include better memory for the shape of the figure than for the shape of the ground (Davis, 1985; Rubin, 1915/1958), and faster and more accurate shape judgments about the figure region than about the ground region (Baylis & Driver, 1995). A second aspect of figure-ground organization involves perceived depth across the edge: The figure appears closer than the ground. Some researchers have taken relative depth at the contour to be the primary, defining component of figure-ground organization, especially in discussions of the physiological basis of figure-ground organization (e.g., Hupé et al., 1998; Lamme, 1995; von der Heydt, Zhou, & Friedman, 2000). A third aspect of figure-ground organization is a weak form of amodal completion: The ground is at least partly completed behind the figure, even though there is no direct sensory evidence of this unseen portion. Whereas the area of the figure ends at the contour, the area of the ground continues behind that contour and appears to be filled in by an extrapolation process.

Yet another aspect of figure-ground organization, perhaps less well understood than the three just mentioned, is the role of attention. Although Rubin (1915/1958) did not mention attention explicitly, he did state that the figure seems to pervade consciousness more than the ground, which is consistent with some sort of attentional involvement. More recently, several textbooks have alluded more directly to a relation between attention and figure-ground organization. For example, Matlin (1983) states that the figure is more dominant and brighter, aspects that are often attributed to attended regions or objects.1 Coren, Ward, and Enns (1999) describe figures as being "richer" than the ground and as being processed in more detail. …

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