Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Reflexive Attention Attenuates Change Blindness (but Only Briefly)

Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Reflexive Attention Attenuates Change Blindness (but Only Briefly)

Article excerpt

Humans are remarkably insensitive to large changes in a visual display if the change occurs simultaneously with a secondary perceptual event. A widely held view is that this change blindness occurs because the secondary perceptual event prevents the change from capturing attention. However, whereas some studies have shown that top-down attentional priming can attenuate change blindness, the evidence regarding the effect of bottom-up attentional capture on change blindness is less clear-cut. Here, we compare the effects of attentional capture on change detection with participants' performance on a well-established attentional paradigm (a Posner-style cuing task). Experiment 1 established the time course of attentional capture in our paradigm. Experiment 2 demonstrated that this attentional capture was associated with facilitated change detection at short (150-msec), but not long (480-msec), latencies. These data show that reflexive attentional shifts facilitate change detection and are consistent with the view that shifts of attention are a necessary precondition for visual awareness.

We are constantly receiving sensory input from our eyes, ears, and skin, yet only a small portion of this sensory information ever arrives in our conscious awareness. The question of what determines access to conscious awareness has been the subject of research interest for more than a century yet remains one of the most controversial issues in psychology. This controversy has, in part, arisen because it is so difficult to disentangle awareness from other cognitive processes, making it very difficult to study in isolation. However, in recent times, a paradigm has been developed that appears to offer a new and effective way of studying visual awareness-principally, by investigating situations in which participants fail to become aware of sudden and obvious changes in the world.

Under normal circumstances changes to our environment are easy to spot (a bird flying from its perch, for example). However, under certain circumstances, even large changes can go unnoticed. Specifically, observers frequently fail to become aware of a change when this change occurs simultaneously with another perceptual event. These perceptual events can include an eye movement (saccade; Bridgeman, Hendry, & Stark, 1975; McConkie & Zola, 1979), eye blinks (O'Regan, Deubel, Clark, & Rensink, 2000), the occlusion of a visual display with a mask (Pashler, 1988; Phillips, 1974; Rensink, O'Regan, & Clark, 1997), or even a sudden onset that attracts attention but does not occlude the location of the change (O'Regan, Rensink, & Clark, 1999). This phenomenon of change blindness has generated considerable interest and has become the focus of much recent research, since it appears to offer researchers the opportunity to investigate the precise conditions required for visual events, such as changes, to enter awareness.

One specific claim that has emerged from the study of change blindness is that in order for a visual stimulus to enter into awareness, it must first be attended (e.g., Simons & Rensink, 2005). In other words, attention is a necessary precondition for visual awareness. This conclusion is based principally on the observation that changes to interesting items are more easily detected than changes to less interesting items (Kelley, Chun, & Chua, 2003; Rensink et al., 1997) and that cuing the location of a change by informing the observer of the location of the change improves change detection (Rensink et al., 1997). This bold conclusion is consistent with the idea that attention acts to select certain sensory information for higher processing while inhibiting the processing of irrelevant sensory information.

However, it is worth exercising some caution before concluding, on the basis of these studies, that attention is required for visual awareness. It is less than ideal to use explicit cues to manipulate attention in order to examine the link between attention and awareness. …

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