Rensink - PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE Research Article TO SEE OR...

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PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE VOL. 8, NO. 5, SEPTEMBER 1997 368 Research Article TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE: The Need for Attention to Perceive Changes in Scenes Ronald A. Rensink 1 , J. Kevin O'Regan 2 , & James J. Clark 3 1 Cambridge Basic Research, Nissan Research & Development, Inc; 2 Laboratoire de Psychologie Experimentale, CNRS, Université René Descartes, Paris, France; and 3 Department of Electrical Engineering, McGill University Abstract When looking at a scene, observers feel that they see its entire structure in great detail and can immediately notice any changes in it. However, when brief blank fields are placed between alternating displays of an original and a modified scene, a striking failure of perception is induced: identification of changes becomes extremely difficult, even when changes are large and made repeatedly. Identification is much faster when a verbal cue is provided, showing that poor visibility is not the cause of this difficulty. Identification is also faster for objects mentioned in brief verbal descriptions of the scene. These results support the idea that observers never form a complete, detailed representation of their surroundings. In addition, results also indicate that attention is required to perceive change, and that in the absence of localized motion signals it is guided on the basis of high-level interest. Although people must look in order to see, looking by itself is not enough. For example, a person who turns his or her eyes toward a bird singing in a tree will often fail to see it right away, "latching onto" it only after some effort. This also holds true for objects in plain view: a driver whose mind wanders during driving can often miss important road signs, even when these are highly visible. In both situations, the information needed for perception is available to the observer. Something, however, prevents the observer from using this information to see the new objects that have entered the field of view. In this article, we argue that the key factor is attention. In particular, we proposed that the visual perception of change in a scene occurs only when focused attention is given to the part being changed. In support of this position, we show that when the low-level cues that draw attention are swamped, large changes in images of real-world scenes become extremely difficult to identify, even though these changes are repeated dozens of times and observers have been told to expect them. Changes are easily identified when a valid verbal cue is given, indicating that stimulus visibility is not reduced. Changes are also easily identified when made to objects mentioned in brief verbal descriptions of the scene. Taken together, these results indicate that—even when sufficient viewing time has been given—an observer does not build up a representation of a scene that allows him or her to perceive change automatically. Rather, perception of change is mediated through a narrow attentional bottleneck, with attention attracted to various parts of a scene based on high-level "interest".
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