Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Visual Dominance and Attention: The Colavita Effect Revisited

Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Visual Dominance and Attention: The Colavita Effect Revisited

Article excerpt

Under many conditions, humans display a robust tendency to rely more on visual information than on other forms of sensory information. Colavita (1974) illustrated this visual dominance effect by showing that naive observers typically fail to respond to clearly suprathreshold tones if these are presented simultaneously with a visual target flash. In the present study, we demonstrate that visual dominance influences performance under more complex stimulation conditions and address the role played by attention in mediating this effect. In Experiment 1, we show the Colavita effect in the simple speeded detection of line drawings and naturalistic sounds, whereas in Experiment 2 we demonstrate visual dominance when the task targets (auditory, visual, or bimodal combinations) are embedded among continuous streams of irrelevant distractors. In Experiments 3-5, we address the consequences of varying the probability of occurrence of targets in each sensory modality. In Experiment 6, we further investigate the role played by attention on visual dominance by manipulating perceptual load in either the visual or the auditory modality. Our results demonstrate that selective attention to a particular sensory modality can modulate-although not completely reverse-visual dominance as illustrated by the Colavita effect.

When confronted with stimuli coming from different sensory modalities, humans often rely on the modality that is most precise or accurate for the given task (see, e.g., Ernst & Bülthoff, 2004; Welch & Warren, 1980; but see also Battaglia, Jacobs, & Aslin, 2003). Both everyday experience and the available empirical evidence support the widely held impression that vision is typically the dominant sensory modality for humans in many situations (Posner, Nissen, & Klein, 1976; Rock & Harris, 1967; Rock & Victor, 1964; see also Cooper, 1998; Hohnsbein, Falkenstein, Hoormann, & Blanke, 1991; Klein, 1977; Quinlan, 2000), although it is possible, under certain conditions, to demonstrate sensory dominance by the auditory and/or somatosensory systems (Ernst & Banks, 2002; Ernst, Banks, & Bülthoff, 2000; Lederman & Abbott, 1981; Morein-Zamir, Soto-Faraco, & Kingstone, 2003; Sekuler, Sekuler, & Lau, 1997; Shams, Kamitani, & Shimojo, 2000). Posner et al. (1976) argued that visual dominance might represent a by-product of attentional processes, hypothesizing that humans have a strong tendency to actively (i.e., endogenously) attend to visual events as a means of compensating for the poor alerting properties of the visual system (in comparison with the auditory or tactile system; see also Klein, 1977; Spence, Nicholls, & Driver, 2001; Spence, Shore, & Klein, 2001).

The dominance of the visual modality is not confined to humans. Shapiro, Jacobs, and LoLordo (1980) suggested that many other species may also be visually dominant under normal (i.e., nonaroused) conditions, since a majority of biologically important information is received visually. Indeed, visual dominance effects over audition have now been reported in cows (Uetake & Kudo, 1994), pigeons (Foree & LoLordo, 1973; Kraemer & Roberts, 1985; Randich, Klein, & LoLordo, 1978), and rats (Meltzer & Masaki, 1973) with the use of food acquisition procedures (operant conditioning; see also Partan & Marler, 1999). Interestingly, both animal and human subjects appear to "switch" their attention more toward the auditory modality under conditions of high arousal in order to react more rapidly to potential threats. For example, audition appears to be dominant for controlling avoidance behaviors, such as preventing electric shocks (see, e.g., Foree & LoLordo, 1973; Gilbert, 1969; Shapiro et al., 1980). Thus, in the case of animal research, vision seems to be dominant for certain behaviors, such as appetitive behaviors, whereas audition appears to be more dominant for others, such as avoidance behaviors. …

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