The Perception of Subjective Contours and Neon Color Spreading Figures in Young Infants

By Kavsek, Michael | Perception and Psychophysics, February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Perception of Subjective Contours and Neon Color Spreading Figures in Young Infants


Kavsek, Michael, Perception and Psychophysics


The goal of the present habituation-dishabituation study was to explore sensitivity to subjective contours and neon color spreading patterns in infants. The first experiment was a replication of earlier investigations that showed evidence that even young infants are capable of perceiving subjective contours. Participants 4 months of age were habituated to a subjective Kanizsa square and were tested afterward for their ability to differentiate between the subjective square and a nonsubjective pattern that was constructed by rotating some of the inducing elements. Data analysis indicated a significant preference for the nonsubjective pattern. A control condition ensured that this result was not generated by the difference in figural symmetry or by the local differences between the test displays. In the second experiment, infant perception of a neon color spreading display was analyzed. Again, 4-month-old infants could discriminate between the illusory figure and a nonillusory pattern. Furthermore, infants in a control group did not respond to the difference in symmetry and the local differences between two nonillusory targets. Overall, the results show that young infants respond to illusory figures that are generated by either implicit T-junctions (Experiment 1) or implicit X-junctions (Experiment 2). The findings are interpreted against the background of the neurophysiological model proposed by Grossberg and Mingolla (1985).

The aim of the study was twofold. The first aim was to examine whether the findings of earlier studies, according to which young infants are able to discern subjective contours, could be replicated. More specifically, it was investigated whether infants 4 months of age are capable of detecting a subjective Kanizsa square (Figure 3A). Second, infants' responsiveness to a chromatic subjective contour-that is, to a neon color spreading figure-was tested (Figure 4A).

In the Kanizsa pattern depicted in Figures 1B/3A (Kanizsa, 1976), a subjective square is generated by four dark disks with cutouts (Pacman elements). More specifically, an illusory sharp-square border (illusory contour) is perceived surrounding an area of bright intensification (illusory brightness). In the case of a real square, the corners of which partly overlap each of the four disks, the points of contact between the square and the disks are characterized by T-junctions (see Figure 1A; see, e.g., Albert, 1999; Cavanagh, 1987). The top of the T is assumed to belong to the occluding square, whereas the stem of the T is ascribed to the partially occluded disk. In the Kanizsa figure, however, the T-junctions are replaced by L-junctions (see Figure 1B). Nevertheless, since a (subjective) square lying in front of four circles is perceived, the L-junctions function as implicit T-junctions.

The classical descriptions of neon color spreading figures have been published by Varin (1971) and by van Tuijl (1975). Neon color spreading can be generated by continuing the inducing elements of a subjective figure inside the illusory surface and by allocating these segments a luminance different from that of the luminance of both the background and the inducing elements. The neon color spreading pattern in Figures 2B/4A is derived from the Kanizsa pattern shown in Figures 1B/3A. In Figure 2B, the luminance of the cutouts/segments does not equal the luminance of either the background or the inducing elements. In the display, a dark (subjective) semitransparent filter is seen that covers both the dark background and a part of each of the distinct circles. Figure 2B is an achromatic version of neon color spreading. If the segments are colored, this color leaves the segments and fills the illusory area, thereby forming a colored semitransparent surface.

Several studies have shown that neon color spreading occurs when the luminance of the segments lies between the luminance of the background and that of the inducing elements (Anderson, 1997; Ekroll & Faul, 2002; van Tuijl & de Weert, 1979). …

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