Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

New Objects Do Not Capture Attention without a Sensory Transient

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

New Objects Do Not Capture Attention without a Sensory Transient

Article excerpt

Attention capture occurs when a stimulus event involuntarily recruits attention. The abrupt appearance of a new object is perhaps the most well-studied attention-capturing event, yet there is debate over the root cause of this capture. Does a new object capture attention because it involves the creation of a new object representation or because its appearance creates a characteristic luminance transient? The present study sought to resolve this question by introducing a new object into a search display, either with or without a unique luminance transient. Contrary to the results of a recent study (Davoli, Suszko, & Abrams, 2007), when the new object's transient was masked by a brief interstimulus interval introduced between the placeholder and search arrays, a new object did not capture attention. Moreover, when a new object's transient was masked, participants could not locate a new object efficiently even when that was their explicit goal. Together, these data suggest that luminance transient signals are necessary for attention capture by new objects.

Where people attend determines, to a large extent, what they perceive, remember, and act upon (for reviews, see Luck & Vecera, 2002; Pashler, 1998). Understanding human behavior therefore requires understanding the factors that control where attention is directed in a scene. In most cases, top-down control is exerted over the allocation of attention, so that objects relevant to the current task can be selected (Hayhoe, 2000; Hollingworth, 2009; Land, Mennie, & Rusted, 1999; Torralba, Oliva, Castelhano, & Henderson, 2006). However, salient stimuli can recruit attention independently of, or even in opposition to, an observer's goals (e.g., Franconeri, Simons, & Junge, 2004; Yantis & Jonides, 1984, 1990). Such attention capture plays an important role in ensuring that unexpected and behaviorally relevant visual events are processed efficiently.

Two competing hypotheses have been proposed to explain how attention is captured by salient visual events. Under the transient hypothesis (e.g., Franconeri, Hollingworth, & Simons, 2005; Yantis & Jonides, 1984), attention is drawn by the abrupt sensory transients created when an object undergoes a salient change. For example, if an object moves into view, the motion transient generated by that object will capture attention (Abrams & Christ, 2005; Franconeri & Simons, 2003). Under the new-object hypothesis (Yantis, 2000; Yantis & Hillstrom, 1994), the only event that is proposed to capture attention reliably is the appearance of a new object in the visual field. Critically, capture under this view does not depend on the sensory transient created by the object's appearance.

In addition to these two alternatives, certain salient static features, such as a unique color among homogeneous distractors (Theeuwes, 1992, 2004) or an object that matches the current content of visual working memory (Hollingworth & Luck, 2009; Olivers, Meijer, & Theeuwes, 2006; Soto, Heinke, Humphreys, & Blanco, 2005), can recruit attention in a seemingly automatic fashion, but whether or not these examples represent truly automatic, stimulus-driven attention capture remains a topic of considerable debate (Downing & Dodds, 2004; Folk, Remington, & Johnston, 1992; Leber & Egeth, 2006; Woodman & Luck, 2007).

Current evidence generally favors the hypothesis that transient events play a central role in attention capture and that new objects do not reliably capture attention without a sensory transient (Franconeri et al., 2005). Salient changes to previously visible (i.e., old) objects, including object motion, looming, luminance change, and contrast polarity change (Abrams & Christ, 2005; Enns, Austen, Di Lollo, Rauschenberger, & Yantis, 2001; Franconeri & Simons, 2003; Thomas & Luck, 2000), reliably capture attention. Thus, attention capture is not limited to the appearance of a new object. …

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