Our visual attention is drawn to parts of a scene that have meaning, rather than to those that are salient or “stick out,” according to new research from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. The findings, published Sept. 25 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, overturn the widely-held model of visual attention.
“A lot of people will have to rethink things,” said Professor John Henderson, who led the research. “The saliency hypothesis really is the dominant view.”
Our eyes we perceive a wide field of view in front of us, but we only focus our attention on a small part of this field. How do we decide where to direct our attention, without thinking about it?
The dominant theory in attention studies is “visual salience,” Henderson said. Salience means things that “stick out” from the background, like colorful berries on a background of leaves or a brightly lit object in a room.
Saliency is relatively easy to measure. You can map the amount of saliency in different areas of a picture by measuring relative contrast or brightness, for example.
Henderson called this the “magpie theory” our attention is drawn to bright and shiny objects.
“It becomes obvious, though, that it can’t be right,” he said, otherwise we would constantly be distracted.
Henderson and Hayes don’t yet have firm data on what makes part of a scene meaningful, although they have some ideas. For example, a cluttered table or shelf attracted more attention than a highly salient splash of sunlight on a wall. With further work, they hope to develop a “taxonomy of meaning,” Henderson said. …
The sound of splintered lecterns getting carted away is becoming a regular background noise these days…
The taxonomy of meaning will surely prove a bigger challenge. Meaning is typically individual, in a way that visual processing isn’t. They’ll need to find objects that just about everyone has the same reaction to. Should be interesting.
See also: Human self-awareness without cerebral cortex