Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Where Perception Meets Memory: A Review of Repetition Priming in Visual Search Tasks

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Where Perception Meets Memory: A Review of Repetition Priming in Visual Search Tasks

Article excerpt

What we have recently seen and attended to strongly influences how we subsequently allocate visual attention. A clear example is how repeated presentation of an object's features or location in visual search tasks facilitates subsequent detection or identification of that item, a phenomenon known as priming. Here, we review a large body of results from priming studies that suggest that a short-term implicit memory system guides our attention to recently viewed items. The nature of this memory system and the processing level at which visual priming occurs are still debated. Priming might be due to activity modulations of low-level areas coding simple stimulus characteristics or to higher level episodic memory representations of whole objects or visual scenes. Indeed, recent evidence indicates that only minor changes to the stimuli used in priming studies may alter the processing level at which priming occurs. We also review recent behavioral, neuropsychological, and neurophysiological evidence that indicates that the priming patterns are reflected in activity modulations at multiple sites along the visual pathways. We furthermore suggest that studies of priming in visual search may potentially shed important light on the nature of cortical visual representations. Our conclusion is that priming occurs at many different levels of the perceptual hierarchy, reflecting activity modulations ranging from lower to higher levels, depending on the stimulus, task, and context-in fact, the neural loci that are involved in the analysis of the stimuli for which priming effects are seen.

Imagine yourself at a party with someone that you have a crush on or are even in love with. You seem to be constantly aware of where that person is, and your gaze is repeatedly drawn toward the dashing red shirt or dress that he or she is wearing or to their shining black hair, in such fine contrast to their paler face, despite your best efforts to not look too eager. This person is an example of a stimulus that is the focus of your attention and matters very much to you. Recent research has unveiled how our attention and gaze seem to be automatically drawn toward those features that we have recently attended to and are important to us, such as the red dress or dark hair of our object of desire. Such priming appears to have a very strong effect on what grabs our attention. Recent research on priming in visual search tasks suggests that we possess a primitive memory system drawing our attention to features or objects that we have recently attended to and are important to our goals or to the task that we are performing. We seem to have little or no voluntary control over the workings of this memory system. We review a large body of neurophysiological and neuropsychological evidence with regard to such priming that suggests that activity changes in the neural mechanisms devoted to the analysis of the particular stimuli for which priming effects are seen are the source of the observed priming effects and that these activity modulations occur at a number of different levels of the visual hierarchy.

Basic Characteristics of Priming

Since the pioneering studies of Maljkovic and Nakayama (1994, 1996) and Treisman (1992), a large number of studies have addressed priming effects in visual search. This research has shown that our perception is heavily influenced by what we have seen in the past. As we search for a target of, say, a particular color, detection or discrimination of that target or features of that target (such as its shape, color, or location) becomes easier if we are familiar with it or if we have seen it or acted upon it before. This has been widely investigated by means of controlled lab experiments in which the effects of previously presented displays on performance in the present have been investigated. Such effects, called perceptual priming, indicate that we possess an implicit memory system that strongly influences how we subsequently allocate our visual attention. …

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