Spatial Asymmetries in Viewing and Remembering Scenes: Consequences of an Attentional Bias?

By Dickinson, Christopher A.; Intraub, Helene | Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Spatial Asymmetries in Viewing and Remembering Scenes: Consequences of an Attentional Bias?


Dickinson, Christopher A., Intraub, Helene, Attention, Perception and Psychophysics


Given a single fixation, memory for scenes containing salient objects near both the left and right view boundaries exhibited a rightward bias in boundary extension (Experiment 1). On each trial, a 500-msec picture and 2.5.sec mask were followed by a boundary adjustment task. Observers extended boundaries 5% more on the right than on the left. Might this reflect an asymmetric distribution of attention? In Experiments 2A and 2B, free viewing of pictures revealed that first saccades were more often leftward (62%) than rightward (38%). In Experiment 3, 500-msec pictures were interspersed with 2.5.sec masks. A subsequent object recognition memory test revealed better memory for left-side objects. Scenes were always mirror reversed for half the observers, thus ruling out idiosyncratic scene compositions as the cause of these asymmetries. Results suggest an unexpected leftward bias of attention that selectively enhanced the representations, causing a smaller boundary extension error and better object memory on the views' left sides.

Various asymmetries have been observed in the way in which the left and right sides of space are perceived and represented. In the case of hemispatial neglect, individuals with damage to critical areas of one hemisphere (usually in the right parietal lobe) fail to report or respond to information on the contralateral side of space (e.g., Behrmann & Geng, 2002; Heilman, Bowers, Valenstein, & Watson, 1987; Heilman & Valenstein, 1972; Kinsbourne, 1970; Mesulam, 1981; see, for review, Karnath, Milner, & Vallar, 2002). In normal populations, asymmetrical processing has been observed in a number of cognitive tasks. In line bisection tasks, observers often show a bias to bisect lines to the left of center (referred to as pseudoneglect; Bowers & Heilman, 1980; Jewell & McCourt, 2000). A bias to begin searching on the left side of a display has been reported in conjunction search tasks (Ebersbach et al., 1996; Williams & Reingold, 2001; Zelinsky, 1996). In the case of reading and eye movements, there is a rightward bias in the perceptual reading span for English readers (more letters can be read to the right of fixation than to the left) that reverses for readers of languages with the opposite reading direction, such as Hebrew (Pollatsek, Bolozky, Well, & Rayner, 1981; see Rayner, 1998).

To our knowledge, neither eyetracking nor memory research has revealed any asymmetries in scene representation in normal populations. In the case of the first fixation on a scene, the lack of a bias toward the left or right is not surprising, given that observers tend to fixate the most salient objects or locations in a scene (e.g., the ones that are most visually conspicuous [Itti & Koch, 2000, 2001; Parkhurst, Law, & Niebur, 2002] or semantically informative [Buswell, 1935; Friedman, 1979; Henderson, Brockmole, Castelhano, & Mack, 2007; Loftus & Mackworth, 1978]). Unlike English prose, visual scenes do not have an inherent left-right structure. The same holds true for memory for the visual details of a scene; there is no a priori reason to expect better memory for objects and features on either the left or the right side. This is why we were very interested in an unexpected rightward bias in boundary extension for a briefly presented view of a scene (Intraub, Hoffman, Wetherhold, & Stoehs, 2006).

Boundary extension is a constructive memory error for views of scenes in which views are remembered as being more spatially expansive than they actually were-as if the viewer had seen what would be visible just beyond the view's boundaries (Intraub & Richardson, 1989). It is thought to reflect the fact that in the world, a scene surrounds the viewer but can never be seen all at once. Scene representation is thought to involve not only the visual sensory information observed, but also the spatial context of that view within the larger scene (e.g., Dickinson & Intraub, 2008; Intraub & Dickinson, 2008; see Intraub, 2007). …

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